Elmhurst — Over the last two years, the Department of Correction has nearly doubled the number of "punitive segregation" cells—the Department's term for solitary confinement—at the jail facilities at Rikers Island. The 44 percent jump, DOC Commissioner Dora Schriro testified at a City Council budget hearing this month, constitutes "the most significant increase in the department's history," one that prisoners rights groups say gives New York City one of the highest solitary confinement rates in the nation.

At press time, 914 inmates were being held in segregation at Rikers, meaning they are typically confined to their cells for 23 hours a day. Jail officials say this is a necessary tool to curtail an uptick in violence, maintain safety and order and deal with inmates who commit serious rule violations.

But prisoner advocacy groups say the increase is alarming at a time when the inmate population in the city's jails is at a low, and in light of a growing body of research that says solitary confinement does little to curb bad behavior, and could actually make some inmates act more violently.

Correctional systems across the country have been reducing their use of segregated units, and this fall, a United Nations expert called an all countries to ban the practice except under the most extreme circumstances, likening the mental health effects of prolonged solitary confinement to torture.

"We're at a terrible point where management is really overly punitive, and not able to grasp that it's wrong, that it's not working," says Sarah Kerr, of the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners Rights Project. "The idea that other places are realizing the error and trying to reform, and New York is doing the opposite, is really a problem."

"It's interesting that DOC is doing this when the jail population is falling," says Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center. Indeed, from 2001 to 2010, admissions to city jails fell by 20 percent and their average daily population dropped by 10 percent. "I find it incredible that there's actually a need for this, and that there aren't management strategies they could use to address the problem."

Split lips, broken bones

Violence has long been the most-cited rationale for solitary confinement, and the DOC is under considerable pressure to make sure its facilities are safe.

"Our core objective is to protect both the inmate population and the workforce from harm," Commissioner Schriro says.

For the last several years, union officials who represent jail workers have complained of an uptick in violence against their members. In 2010, there were 84 incidents of inmate assaults on staff resulting in serious injury, according to DOC statistics, up from 63 in 2009 and 53 in 2008.

"Correction officers bear the brunt of it by being assaulted on a daily basis," says Norman Seabrook, president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA). "Every day, every other day, three or four times a day, I'm getting a text message or an e-mail from the Department of Correction notifying me of how many of my correction officers have been assaulted—split lips, sutures, broken bones. This goes on and on and on and this has to stop."

Seabrook blames the increase, in part, on insufficient staff numbers, saying the DOC is not hiring enough correction officers to replace those who retire, get promoted or leave for other reasons.
At the budget hearing last month, Commissioner Schriro said that while the department is hiring several hundred new posts, there is still a shortfall in the department's budget for authorized uniformed staff.

But union officials have also pointed to a shortage of punitive segregation units—known as "Bing" beds—for putting officers at risk. Last fall, the DOC was blasted after media outlets reported on a backlog of inmates who had been sentenced to solitary confinement but who were being held with the rest of the general population because there weren't enough segregated beds. In one incident in November, the Daily News reported that two men involved in a violent slashing in a recreation room were supposed to have been in solitary for previous infractions.

This backlog is the main reason prison officials give for the recent expansion of segregated housing units. In 2009, DOC spokeswoman Sharman Stein said, there were over 1,200 inmates waiting to be placed in solitary. Since then, the department has added 325 units, bringing the total capacity to 1,035 solitary beds, or seven percent of the average daily jail population (a number the DOC says is comparable to other correctional systems, but which advocacy groups argue is much higher than the average—the Legal Aid Society says that the nationwide solitary rate is between two and four percent.)

Today, Stein says, only a "handful" of inmates owe Bing time.

"Resolving this backlog was important to address – all too often, inmates who had remained in general population pending imposition of the punishment for assaulting another inmate or staff, harmed another person," Stein wrote in an e-mail.

Running the New York City jail system, the second largest in the country, is not a simple task. The population at Rikers is an ever-changing one. There are over 87,000 admissions and more than 88,000 releases a year, according to the DOC. Unlike the state prisons, a majority of the population at Rikers is made up of detainees awaiting trial. Some are felons awaiting transfer to a prison facility upstate. Others are those serving short-term misdemeanor sentences, generally less than a year.

Schriro says that while the number of inmates being held in the city's jails is at a low, Rikers has seen an increase in the types of inmates who are prone to bad behavior and who are responsible for the majority of jail incidents: "high-custody" inmates, deemed by jail officials as more inclined to institutional violence, including inmates with gang affiliations, adolescents and the mentally ill.

"The inmate census is lower now than before, but the inmates who are in jail are far more difficult to manage and far more damaged than the inmate population previously," Schriro says.

"The very good news is the vast majority of inmates in our custody are violation-free. They're here to work through their case and then be gone," the Commissioner says. "But there are several populations in particular that have the greatest likelihood of breaking the rules, breaking the law, assaulting a member of the workforce or causing serious injury. There's this group that's pretty dedicated to those endeavors."