Criminal Justice

Solitary confinement is Eric Adams’ first fight with the City Council

But it isn’t even clear what the mayor-elect is fighting for.

Mayor-elect Eric Adams congratulating Louis Molina as his pick for Department of Correction Commissioner

Mayor-elect Eric Adams congratulating Louis Molina as his pick for Department of Correction Commissioner lev radin/Shutterstock

New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams is trying to have it both ways: supporting the use of solitary confinement in city jails without using the term and accepting the current mayoral administration’s reforms for separating inmates who commit acts of violence – while suggesting that he will do so differently. 

In the midst of confusion over the incoming mayor’s position on solitary confinement, Adams lashed out at the majority of the incoming City Council for daring to challenge him on public safety matters, setting up a political battle with the legislature before even taking office. 

Twenty-nine of the 51 incoming City Council members signed an open letter this week calling on Adams to “reverse the pro-solitary position he announced on Thursday, December 16th.” 

At a press conference announcing the appointment of Louis Molina as the new correction commissioner, Adams said that if New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is emptying violent inmates out of punitive segregation, he’s going to put them back in on his first day. “January 1, they are going back into segregation,” Adams said

On Tuesday, Adams pushed back on the Council members’ letter because they dared to call solitary confinement “solitary confinement.”

“For people to continue to say ‘Eric supports solitary confinement’ – that is just a lie,” Adams said at an unrelated press conference. “I support punitive segregation. I am not going to be in a city where dangerous people assault innocent people, go to jail, and assault more people … If you are violent, you must be removed from (general) population so that you don’t inflict violence on other people.”

This is as much a debate about language as it is about policy. Punitive segregation is just a term of art for solitary confinement used by the New York City Department of Correction – and whatever you call it, its use is now banned. Title 40, Chapter 6, Subchapter D (a) of the Rules of the City of New York, which prohibits “the use of all forms of punitive segregation” starting Nov. 1, 2021, says as much, noting that “punitive segregation, also known as PSEG or solitary confinement, imposes significant risks of psychological and physical harm on people in custody.” 

What does Adams want to do?

De Blasio enacted an emergency executive order in November to keep punitive segregation in place – despite the New York City Board of Corrections’ decision to ban the practice in June – given the recent increase of violence on Rikers Island. However, the Daily News reported last week that the mayor was finally moving inmates out of solitary confinement

Even though the DOC was reportedly enacting a policy that was passed by the Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, Adams last week suggested he’d reverse it, saying inmates should “enjoy that one-day reprieve because January 1st they are going back into segregation if they committed a violent act.”

Adams has not yet been clear on what he wants to see in city jails and how his plans would differ from what de Blasio’s government is enacting now. 

“I’m in support of punitive segregation. That’s exactly what the current mayor is building out right now,” Adams said Tuesday. “He’s taking people out of these small jail cells – which is inhumane! This is what I fought for! And he’s putting them in areas that is larger. Giving them the services they need.”

Both Adams and de Blasio seem to think that you can have a system of punitive segregation – separating inmates as a form of punishment – that does not qualify as solitary confinement. The difference is that Adams is embracing the term punitive segregation, while de Blasio’s administration has eliminated it. 

With solitary confinement now banned in the city, the de Blasio administration has introduced a new approach to separate violent detainees, dubbed the Risk Management Accountability System, or RMAS. The big change is that inmates are supposed to be given at least ten hours outside of their holding cell a day, socializing with at least one other person. If enacted properly, RMAS would not fit the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules for the minimum treatment of prisoners’ definition of solitary confinement: “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.”

Advocates for the incarcerated say de Blasio’s plan is just window dressing, since most inmates’ time “outside the cell” would be in a small, outdoor, caged extension of the cell. More than 60 state legislators, including many political allies of Adams, such as state Sens. Jamaal Bailey and Andrew Gounardes, sent an open letter in August calling RMAS “solitary confinement by another name,” and calling on the City Council to pass new legislation in better compliance with the state’s new law that bans jails from keeping inmates in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days straight. Asked for comment, the DOC referred City & State to the mayor’s office, and the mayor’s office did not respond. 

Adams acknowledged that any changes to punitive segregation would be hemmed in by city and state laws. “Putting people in solitary confinement in small jail cells, that’s wrong. That’s what the law banned! We can’t do that anymore. I don’t have a decision on that. The board said you can’t do that anymore. So we’re going to abide by the law,” Adams said. But he was short on specifics on what he would change. “We’re going to build out new spaces where people are going to get the services they need to stop being violent,” he said Tuesday. In an email, Adams’ transition spokesperson Evan Thies would not say much more, just “There will be a comprehensive policy ready for when the mayor-elect takes office.” Adams wants to see RMAS as its being enacted on Rikers “and receive a full briefing on the plan,” but when it comes to punitive segregation, “the keys are separation of violent inmates plus more humane conditions and increased services to actually address the underlying issues and improve safety at Rikers.”

The devil is in the details, but Adams doesn’t sound like someone who wants to return to the old ways of punitive segregation: 23 hours a day alone in “the box.”

And de Blasio doesn’t seem to think there’s much daylight between him and Adams. The two have talked about this, de Blasio told MSNBC Wednesday, and “I think we are on the same track that there is that third way” – other than inhumane treatment or no punishment for bad behavior. 

Of course, that didn’t stop Adams from hamming it up in front of correction officers last week, saying what they wanted to hear: he would reverse the de Blasio era policies and isolate violent inmates. But that same aside shocked a majority of the incoming Council and inspired the open letter calling for him to denounce solitary confinement.

Council members push back

Organized by newly-elected Council Member Tiffany Cabán, the members signing onto the letter asking Adams to “reverse the pro-solitary position” didn’t seem eager to wait for specifics or clarification from Adams – they wanted to put a clear stake in the ground opposing solitary confinement, which is banned under the rules of New York City. 

On Tuesday, Adams seemed offended by the incredibly common political medium of the open letter, saying they should have called him first. Then the mayor-elect seemed to say that he was beyond reproach. “The one thing that’s different from everyone that signed the letter and Eric Adams? I wore a bulletproof vest for 22 years and protected the people of this city,” he said. “And when you do that, then you have the right to question me on safety and public safety matters. I think I know a little something about this.”

It was a rhetorical flourish that New Yorkers interested in good governance better hope is more poetry than policy, given that the City Council has oversight powers over the mayor and police department. But Adams went even further, saying he would ignore the City Council, or at least a portion of it. 

“There’s a body of people that are coming into the City Council. They have no desire in moving our city forward. Their desire is to be disruptive,” he said. “What I am going to do: I am going to ignore them. I am going to stay committed, undistracted, and I’m going to grind. If they like it or not, I’m the mayor.”

Taken at face value, it’s a shocking reprimand of the council as a whole. But read between the lines, and it seems more likely that Adams’ anger was directed at the democratic socialist Cabán and her most progressive allies. Adams has made no secret of his disdain for the Democratic Socialists of America and as recently as last week, his allies were trying to use Cabán’s behind-the-scenes, lukewarm support for speaker candidate Adrienne Adams as a way to hurt her campaign and boost the mayor-elect’s pick, Francisco Moya. 

Cabán and the mayor-elect have never spoken, her communications director Jesse Meyerson told City & State, adding that “we see no difference between so-called punitive segregation and solitary confinement.”

Criticism of solitary confinement is not a fringe position, held only by leftists. More than half of incoming members signed onto Cabán’s letter. A bill before the current City Council that would ban solitary confinement, going beyond the BOC’s current rules, currently has 35 co-sponsors, including the presumptive next speaker, Adrienne Adams.

The mayor-elect’s latest comments have put Adams in a tough position. While she co-sponsors the bill to end solitary, she also counts the correction officers union as a close ally. Adams declined to sign onto Cabán’s letter, and did not directly defend her colleagues after the mayor-elect’s dismissive comments. But in a statement Tuesday, she slammed “the current solitary confinement system on Rikers” as “inhumane,” and asked the mayor to partner with the council. “I urge the Mayor-Elect to work with the Council to find a more humane system that keeps people safe while also getting those who need attention the care they deserve,” she wrote. “Solitary is a counter action to rehabilitation.”

Things seem to be heading toward a public battle at the beginning of the new year, but there are many questions that remain unanswered. The mayor has yet to present a clear vision for punitive segregation, and the new mayor and the new speaker will both have to find their footing as they learn how to negotiate their new positions. 

And while the players are new, the topic is still the same as ever. Even though two-thirds of the council support the bill to end solitary confinement, it was never brought up for a vote this session, primarily due to opposition from the de Blasio administration, according to a source with knowledge of the negotiations. With a new session starting in 2022, the bill would have to be reintroduced, and then negotiations can begin again.