A solitary cell on Rikers Island.
Photo: AP

In 2015, New York City banned solitary confinement for incarcerated people under the age of 22. This decision came in the wake of the the highly publicized Kalief Browder case. Browder was imprisoned on Rikers Island in solitary confinement for three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack before committing suicide when prosecutors dropped their case against him.

According to a report from the New York Times, New York City jails have found a way to keep putting young people in solitary despite the new law. Since 2015, when the city adopted the ban on solitary, the transfer of young inmates to jails upstate has increased dramatically. Those facilities don’t have to follow regulations set by the city.

This year alone, ten inmates under 22 have been transferred to jails upstate. Eight of them are currently in solitary. The city usually transfers inmates if they believe they are vulnerable to violence or in danger of becoming violent themselves. But several defense lawyers say that it’s merely a way to exploit a loophole allowing harsh treatment of young detainees to continue.

The young people who were transferred have accused the state of using their transfers to enable abuse by correctional officers. According to the Times:

All the inmates sent to Albany said through their attorneys or in interviews that they have been beaten by guards and put into solitary confinement for months.

Steven Espinal, 19, who prosecutors say led an attack in February that left a Rikers guard’s spine fractured, said guards stomped and kicked him so badly when he arrived that he lost hearing in his left ear and passed blood in his urine. He was hospitalized, then sentenced to 600 days in solitary confinement for violating jail rules, his lawyer said.

While they beat him, Mr. Espinal said in an interview, the guards kept saying, “This ain’t New York City. We do what we want.”

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Even without enduring physical abuse, isolation in solitary confinement is terrible for the brain—a UN report in 2011 said it was equivalent to physical torture and should be almost universally banned. Solitary confinement is known to cause lasting psychological damage. This is particularly concerning for young people, whose brains do not finish developing until their mid-twenties.

Moving inmates upstate can also interrupt their trials.

Albany is a two-and-a-half hour drive from New York City, and lawyers complain that inmates sent to the jail have missed court dates because they are transported late or not at all, prolonging their cases and pressuring them to accept plea deals.

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Correctional officers and officials are resentful that they now must send problematic young inmates upstate rather than keep them in solitary on Rikers. The New York City Corrections Department must pay the facilities where the inmates are sent, at a cost of $175 per inmate per night. They told the Times that they paid more than $560,000 to jails in other counties to house inmates from the city between 2013 and 2017.

However officials feel about it, the practice of shipping young people upstate and into solitary is a violation of New York City’s law, which requires inmates to be transferred to the closest appropriate facility, and one where they can be close to lawyers and families.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has made some attempts to reign in the use of solitary confinement. Efforts to pass laws limiting solitary in New York at a state level have failed thanks to the Republican-controlled Senate.

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The United States has about as many people in solitary confinement at any time as there are people in the entire UK prison system. In 2011, the average time spent in solitary confinement in California was 6.8 years. Nowhere in the world compares to this level of brutality when it comes to incarcerating people. It’s long past time that we stop torturing young people, and all people, in our country’s jails and prisons.