In July, David* was told he was being moved to a new unit. He was taken from a general-population unit on Rikers to one of the recently opened Enhanced Supervision Housing units (ESHU) at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center. The unit was a stark difference from general population: In ESHU you get seven hours out-of-cell time a day; in general population, you’re entitled to 14 hours minimum out-of-cell time, as mandated by the Board of Correction’s standards.
David has been in various different housing units on Rikers, including the unit that’s often referred to as solitary confinement: punitive segregation. Yet he considers the Enhanced Supervision Housing unit the worst of them all. “Right now, we’re locked down because one or two guys were wearing tank tops,” David told me. “For nothing verbal, no fights, but because we’re wearing tank tops…. We’re barely ever [given out-of-cell time]. They’ll lock us in [isolation] for something like wearing tank tops [or] for speaking up for yourself.” David says that between October 7 and October 28 (22 days), he’s only been given out-of-cell time 11 times. “It’s like I never got out of the Box.”
Michael*, who was held in ESH for four months, said the unit was often locked down “for any little reason. [If] an inmate won’t lock in on the bottom floor, the top floor remains locked in for longer than they’re supposed to.” He told The Nation he was often locked in all day. Regardless of rule breaking, because the department alternates the time slot that each tier comes out each day, every other day inmates housed in an ESH unit are held in solitary confinement, isolated in their cells for 22–24 hours.
David says guards attack them with MK-9, similar to the spray that the NYPD often uses on protesters, for minor transgressions. According to the BOC report that looked at ESH during its first two months, guards used “Use-of-Force-C” tactics (which include pepper spray) more often in ESH units than in Bing Lite, a punitive segregation unit, or in maximum-security general-population units. David told The Nation the spray had been used in his unit about 12 times so far in the past month and is often sprayed when a detainee does “anything [the guards] don’t want him to do.”
“They’ll spray you for refusing to go to court, for not locking in. I got sprayed once for walking to the pantry to get food,” David told The Nation.
“Commissioner Ponte is aggressively combating violence in our jails, as demonstrated by clear reductions in violence in the areas where his targeted reforms have taken hold and a decline in the most severe uses of force,” a spokesperson for the DOC told The Nation.
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Through a strange twist of New York City politics, Enhanced Supervised Housing has been promoted as part of the reform package designed to counter the use of solitary confinement at Rikers. According to Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, ESH is different from punitive segregation because it’s rehabilitative and not punitive. He has promoted the units, which have a total capacity of 250, as a positive prison reform, as has Mayor Bill de Blasio. In January, the eight-person Board of Correction approved the unit within a package of solitary reforms that the board had been working on since at least October 2013. The sweeping solitary reforms restricted the use of punitive segregation to 30 days with a mandatory seven-day break outside of segregation. The solitary reforms also included banning 16- and 17-year-olds from punitive segregation, as well as people deemed mentally ill by the Department of Health. The solitary reforms were the result of a year-long process where the board met with stakeholders like the Department of Health, the Department of Correction, the union, and advocates such as the Legal Aid Society, the Vera institute, and the Jails Action Coalition.