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Solitary Policy at Rikers Whipped Into Shape

MANHATTAN (CN) - Some light will shine inside Rikers Island's darkest holes on Saturday.

That's when the New York City Department of Corrections' new rules take effect, imposing time limits on solitary confinement and jettisoning the prison's "owed-time" policy.

Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte estimated at a press conference in December that the reforms will eliminate pending solitary confinement terms of thousands of Rikers inmates, and he banned the placement of 16- and 17-year-olds in isolation earlier this year.

These developments followed extensive federal litigation over alleged civil rights abuses inside Rikers Island jails and prisons.

Last year, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara slammed what he called a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere facing teenagers inside the juvenile lockups, where his investigation found beatings occurred with "alarming frequency."

Four months after releasing the results that probe, on Dec. 18, 2014, Bharara's office joined a 4-year-old civil lawsuit, Nunez v. City of New York, challenging the jailhouse's use of solitary confinement.

The day after this development, the Corrections Department held a public hearing to address a wide range of policies regarding so-called "punitive segregation."

One of these included the rule forcing inmates released from solitary before the end of their terms to make up for their "owed time" later in their sentence.

Known as "bings" at Rikers, this policy also came under fire nearly four months ago in Manhattan through the federal class action, Bryant v. City of New York.

Lead plaintiff Ahlijah Bryant was 20 years old when his lawyers at the Legal Aid Society and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP filed the Oct. 30, 2014, complaint on behalf of the prison's pretrial detainees.

When released on parole from Midstate Correctional Facility in April 2013 for an attempted-robbery conviction, Bryant had not yet completed his solitary confinement term, and he had to make up the difference at Rikers after his first-degree robbery arrest last year, records show.

Such a punishment is inconsistent with the presumption of innocence, his lawyers say.

Calling solitary confinement a "dangerous practice," their complaint notes that a Corrections Department-commissioned report labeled it "one of the most severe forms of punishment that can be inflicted on human beings short of killing them."

The Yale and New York University-affiliated psychiatrists who wrote the report found that 41 percent of solitary inmates at Rikers are mentally ill, isolation stints stretched up to 3,000 days, and that the "torture" of isolation could cause or aggravate "psychosis."

The Corrections Department's board unanimously voted on Jan. 13 this year to overhaul their solitary practices.

Two weeks before these rules were memorialized, the prisons banned solitary for inmates younger than 18. The department plans to raise a minimum age of 21 next year, if they obtained enough resources and staffing to implement the change, according to the 15-page notice of the rules.

The mentally ill and the seriously physically disabled also will be excluded starting this weekend, the rules state.

Inmates in solitary for nonviolent-jailhouse infractions will spend at least seven out-of-cell hours a day, instead of one, and maximum terms cap at 30 days, the notice says.

The new rules also beef up due-process protections for hearing leading to solitary terms, train corrections officers working those shifts, and mandate bimonthly reports monitoring the prisons' compliance with the changes.

Commissioner Ponte said on Dec. 17 that the owed-time shelving alone would eliminate 1,000 names from the solitary backlog.

"We are going to take all that historic time and wipe that off the books," he said. "So all those things - guys that have gotten out, coming back - they're not going to owe time anymore."

The New York City Law Department told the judge hearing the Bryant case that the shelving of the owed-time policy could lead to a settlement in that case.

A Jan. 20 letter states that the parties need time to pour through "relevant medical records" of the 10 named plaintiffs for their discussions.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein adjourned proceedings until March 26.

The Legal Aid Society's Barbara Hamilton, the lead attorney on that case, called the new measures a "good step towards reform and progress."

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