January 18, 2022

Exclusive: Advocacy groups say ‘It’s up to Speaker Johnson now’ to end solitary confinement

After years of tireless advocacy and many deaths in the prison system, human rights group #HALTsolitary say they see a light at the end of the tunnel with the possible abolishment of solitary confinement in New York, but they also say the choice is left up to one man.
On Dec. 3, the 34th official cosponsor signed on to support legislation (No 2173) to end solitary confinement in New York City jails, meaning that the bill now has veto-proof support. Those who have been fighting to end solitary confinement feel this a big win and could lead the way to a momentous shift in the prison system. However, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson must call a vote, something the group is putting pressure on him to do immediately.
Melania Brown, a long-time activist who has been pushing for this measure to take place since her sister perished in Rikers Island in 2019 while being kept in solitary confinement. Brown is emotional that the victory could be close at hand and is imploring speaker Johnson to set up the proceedings.
“Let’s get this done. It’s time to end the torture that has taken so many lives, including my beautiful baby sister Layleen Polanco. Solitary confinement is inhumane, Let’s finish what the mayor couldn’t. Now that we officially have widespread supermajority support, Council Speaker Corey Johnson needs to call a vote and he needs to call it now. Solitary confinement continues to torture and kill people. End it now,” Brown told amNewYork Metro.

Melania Brown showcased a tattoo of her sister, Layleen Polanco who died in solitary confinement. Photo by Dean Moses

The issue of solitary confinement has a long history that spirals into alleged pseudo bans and reinstatements. For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio swore to end solitary confinement, even invoking Brown’s sister, Layleen Polanco’s name to bolster his cause and vowing to end this inhuman form of punishment; however, with the implementation of the Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS), advocates continue to state that it’s the same practice, but under another name.
A spokesperson from the mayor’s office affirmed that de Blasio’s goal has always been to end solitary confinement. Although in November, the mayor put forth an executive order that allowed for the continued use of solitary confinement due to staff shortages.
“At the beginning of this administration, there were about 600 detainees in punitive segregation. Today, there are 68. This revised timeline, made necessary by staffing shortages, does not change our fundamental mission: ending this practice by the end of this year and forging a safer, more humane justice system,” said Mitch Schwartz, a representative for the mayor’s office.
Advocacy groups have long criticized the mayor for his lack of transparency and follow-through on his promises.  With deaths continuing to rise in jails like Rikers Island, Anisah Sabur of #HALTsolitary says this bill not only has the power to change lives, but it also has the capacity to save them.
“This bill will save lives. As we exit 2021 with 14 deaths in city jails, this legislation will end the horrific torture of our fellow New Yorkers. We are making an urgent call for Speaker Johnson to bring the bill to the floor for a vote. People we love have paid with their lives for this momentum and elected leaders need to act fast,” Sabur said.
#HALTsolitary told amNewYork Metro that they are currently engaging in a “sit-in” inside the hallway of the Speaker’s district office at 224 West 30th Street to demand the elected take action. The group claims they have been asked to leave the premise but say they intend to remain until Johnson agrees to a vote.
amNewYorkMetro reached out to Speaker Johnson’s office and is awaiting a response.

#HaltSolitary members engage in a sit-in at Speaker Corey Johnson’s office. Photo courtesy of #HaltSolitary
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