Still, detainees are not afforded legal representation before being placed there, like they would have been if the new system had been implemented. As of last week, 91 people were held in Enhanced Supervision Housing, according to the Department of Correction.
In a statement in response to questions for this story, Molina said: “We are committed to operating Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) and other less restrictive housing options to safely house individuals who have committed violent acts in compliance with HALT Act requirements. By using sound correctional practices and strategies we are transforming our facilities into a safe and humane jail system.”
Correction officers are deeply skeptical of any system that doesn’t involve isolating people prone to violence. They say it keeps both themselves and incarcerated people safe.
Still, prolonged isolation is dangerous in and of itself. One study showed that those who spent time in punitive segregation at Rikers were nearly seven times more likely to harm themselves.
Advocates for incarcerated people also say that it doesn’t just take poor behavior to find oneself locked in a cell for endless hours. Security lock-ins, or lockdowns, can be triggered in any unit by emergency or security situations, and those who spend time in the jails say lockdowns can become a de facto form of solitary confinement.
“On lockdown people don’t have access to showers, they are being forced to take bird baths, which is a method of bathing using toilet water,” alleged Natasha Mangham of the Bronx Defenders, which represents Rikers detainees, at the correction board meeting . “There is no out of cell time. Even the provision of food has been scarce and inconsistent.”
Lockdowns only last as long as it takes to investigate the incident that precipitated the emergency, according to the Department of Correction, and during such emergencies detainees are still taken to medical appointments and court appearances.
Most people at Rikers have not been convicted of crimes. They are still awaiting their day in court. The island is made up of dilapidated facilities scheduled to be closed by 2027 and replaced with borough-based jails. In the meantime, the violence at Rikers continues to rise. That inevitably means more detainees will be punished.
At a rally at City Hall earlier this month to call for approval of a city council bill banning solitary, Candie Johnson spoke of how she spent more than 1,000 days in solitary at Rikers seven years ago. “When people ask me to describe solitary the only word I can use is torture,” she said.
She was deprived of not just human contact, but basic necessities like sanitary napkins. “One time I took my jumper, I ripped it up, I put it in my vagina area so I could catch the blood,” she said. “And they gave me more days in solitary for destroying [Department of Correction] property, which was the jumper.”