Solitary confinement replacement plan at Rikers Island on hold

Officials said the Department of Correction isn't ready to implement its plan in a manner that is safe for staff and detainees

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — A city plan to replace solitary confinement at Rikers Island with a more humane program was put on hold Friday over fears the Correction Department isn’t ready to implement its plan in a manner that is safe for staff and detainees.

The federal monitoring team in a lawsuit over violence in city jails said in court papers Thursday that it’s not ready to approve the Risk Management Accountability System, known by the initials RMAS.

The correction unions have opposed RMAS, suggesting it would increase danger to staff.
The correction unions have opposed RMAS, suggesting it would increase danger to staff. (Photo/Ed Jones of New York Daily News via MCT)

“The department is not ready to adequately implement RMAS, which is a complicated, staff-intensive program model,” the monitoring team wrote.

“The RMAS design appears to be unlikely to deliver on the core tenets of an effective model of restricted housing—to hold people accountable for violent misconduct in a safe and effective manner.”

The RMAS model — which would allow more programs and out-of-cell time for detainees separated from the general population because of violence or other infractions — was approved by the city Board of Correction in June 2021 when it voted to end solitary confinement.

But hours before Friday’s deadline, the Correction Department placed RMAS “on hold per the directions of the federal monitor,” correction officials said.

“We will continue working closely with the monitor to address the issues raised in this status report and to execute our action plan,” Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said in a statement.

“We remain committed to a restrictive housing model that creates the most humane conditions possible while maintaining safety and holding those who commit violence in our jails accountable.”

The monitor recommended phasing in the RMAS program. “Attempting to implement the entire RMAS program — which will encompass many separate housing units — on a single day is not a viable strategy,” the monitor report said.

“For the past six years, the Monitoring Team has observed a pattern of hasty, ill-planned implementation of these types of critical programs. Inevitably the program fails because the time needed to develop a strong foundation was short circuited.”

[RELATED: No federal takeover of Rikers Island as judge accepts NYC plan]

It was a sharp turnabout from just two weeks ago, when Molina pledged at a June 14 Board of Correction meeting that RMAS would be ready to go, and would make sure detainees in the new program would spend more time outside their cells.

“We’re going to be ready and we’re going to be putting checks and balances in place to make sure that out of cell time opportunity is accountable,” Molina said.

Earlier in the hearing, Molina hedged, saying ”It’s our goal to operationalize by our commitment of July 1 and we’re spearheading towards doing that.”

BOC Board Member Bobby Cohen noted Molina had told board members he was going to delay RMAS and called the situation “confusing.”

Melania Brown, the sister of Layleen Polanco, who died in solitary in 2019 after not receiving medical care during an epileptic seizure, blasted the city’s “broken promise.”

“Solitary should have stopped when my sister passed away. And long before my sister, it should have been stopped. Layleen would have been alive today if the city had ended solitary,” Brown said.

Brown called on the City Council to pass a bill introduced by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams to make a ban on solitary into city law. The bill would legally bar DOC from putting anyone in a cell for long than eight hours in a 24-hour period.

[RELATED: City pledges crackdown on Rikers Island in bid to avert jails' federal takeover]

The correction unions have opposed RMAS, suggesting it would increase danger to staff. Hundreds of correction officers have been disciplined for alleged violations of absenteeism rules — but the unions say more officers are needed to properly run the jails.

The City Council refused to fund Mayor Adams’ request for 578 additional correction officers in the current city budget. Council members argued that the Correction Department has enough staff already, and needs to get them to go to work.

Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Benny Boscio called the Council’s decision “reckless and irresponsible.”

“They can’t replace punitive segregation safely and effectively without giving us the resources to do it. And we are already seeing the consequences of that decision,” Boscio said.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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