More than a half-century after he was locked in solitary confinement on Rikers Island, Victor Pate still avoids elevators.
“The enclosure, that small space when the doors close: It’s so reminiscent of going into that cell and the door closing on me,” Mr. Pate, 71, said at a City Hall rally supporting a bill that would ban solitary confinement in most cases in New York. “I’ve not gotten beyond that.”
To opponents of solitary confinement like Mr. Pate, who did time on a gun and car theft charges, prolonged isolation clearly qualifies as torture, causing long-lasting psychological damage and impeding rehabilitation. They call the bill, which the City Council is expected to pass on Wednesday, long overdue for the jail system, most notably Rikers Island, which is at risk of a federal takeover after years of dysfunction.
But Mayor Eric Adams and the union representing correction officers deny even the assertion that city jails use solitary confinement for discipline. Rather, they say what they call “restrictive housing” is used to isolate dangerous people and protect jail workers and other detainees.
Citing what they say are more than 6,500 assaults against correction officers over the past three years, they fiercely oppose the bill, arguing that the use of solitary confinement has decreased in recent years and so have “key indicators related to violence.”
“Instead of promoting a humane environment within our jails, the council’s bill would foster an environment of fear and instability,” said Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “It would make it harder to protect people in custody, and the predominantly Black and brown workers charged with their safety, from violent individuals.”
But critics insist that jails do indeed use solitary as discipline, holding detainees, many of whom have not been tried or convicted, apart from others in a cell for most of the day to punish them.
They say it is inhumane, arbitrary and counterproductive, and cite voluminous research detailing its brutal physical and psychological toll.
Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and expert on solitary confinement, called the council vote a historic opportunity.
“New York City continues to inflict the torture of solitary confinement in many different forms by many different names,” he said. “But the essential practice and the resulting harm is the same: the social isolation and lack of meaningful human contact and engagement leads to mental and physical health deterioration, including psychosis, depression, heart disease, and death.”
The United Nations considers solitary confinement a form of torture when extended beyond 15 consecutive days.
Juan E. Méndez, the former United Nations special rapporteur on torture, called the bill “a critical step for New York City to take in the direction of ending solitary confinement and respecting international law and human rights norms.”
The council’s push comes as federal officials have sought to strip control over Rikers Island from the Adams administration in response to persistent violence and chaos there.
Mr. Adams, who has resisted relinquishing control, recently named a new jails chief to work with the federal monitor overseeing the system to avoid a takeover and to make the jails more humane.
Rikers Island is a jail, not a prison, and detainees there are largely awaiting trial and have not been convicted.
Correction officers there have wide discretion to throw people into “the box,” as special housing units are known, where they spend 23 hours a day in a tiny space cut off from most human contact.
The City Council bill would ban the practice beyond a four-hour “de-escalation” period during an emergency. Correction officers would be required to check on detainees every 15 minutes during that period and refer health concerns to medical staff.
Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said the Council was “hellbent on protecting our most violent population instead of protecting us.” He said the bill jeopardized lives by “putting politics ahead of safety.”
City officials who oppose the bill said that many of the current complaints date back years, and that changes had been made to improve restrictive housing, including allowing most detainees being held there to spend more hours out of the cells.
In 2021, state lawmakers limited solitary confinement to no more than 15 consecutive days. Six years earlier, the practice was banned for all detainees 21 and younger in New York City after the death of Kalief Browder, who was held at Rikers for three years, including about two years in solitary confinement, after being accused of stealing a backpack as a teenager.
Solitary confinement, also referred to as punitive segregation, has long been a stubborn constant of jail life.
Darren Mack, 48, said that he was first put in solitary on Rikers Island at age 17 while awaiting trial on an armed robbery charge. A detainee in a neighboring cell encrusted his window with feces, he said in an interview, and another tried to hang himself before correction officers cut him down and then beat him “for making them do paperwork” to write up the incident.
Candie Hailey, 40, said she spent roughly three years in solitary on Rikers, beginning in 2012. She tried to harm herself repeatedly, cutting her arms and wrists with anything sharp, like pens, forks or shards from a plastic cup.
“You feel like an animal. It’s hell on earth,” she said. “You think about ways to commit suicide 24-7.”
Johnny Perez was first jailed on Rikers Island in 1996, after being arrested on a gun charge at 16 in the Bronx. He was quickly sent to solitary confinement after arguing with another detainee and spent months there.
Mr. Perez, who now works for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said solitary had the feel of a psychiatric ward. Detainees yelled relentlessly, kicked the walls and banged on cell doors day and night, making sleep nearly impossible, he said.
Mr. Pate, now co-director of the #HALT Solitary Confinement campaign, spent several weeks in solitary at Rikers for talking back to a correction officer. He was serving two years for carrying an unlicensed gun and stealing a car. He had more “box time” in state prison.
“It breaks your spirit,” he said. “You start to talk to yourself, you count the bricks on the wall, you talk to imaginary friends, you write in an imaginary journal.”
“I’m free for 25 years now, but the collateral damage of what happened has left me mentally scarred,” he added.