Mayor de Blasio at Rikers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
June is Torture Awareness Month and it is also the month we both lost our siblings — Kalief Browder and Layleen Polanco — because of the torture of solitary confinement. No other family should ever have to go through the pain and torment our baby brother and baby sister suffered and we continue to suffer. Political leaders from New York City to Washington, D.C. have repeatedly invoked Kalief’s and Layleen’s names to promise to end solitary confinement. Now is the time they must live up to their promises.
Kalief was a 16-year-old child when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack. He was held on Rikers Island for three years pre-trial before all charges were dismissed. Kalief was locked in solitary confinement for two of those years. As the world came to learn, the torture he experienced in solitary and jail was too much and he died by suicide after his release on June 6, 2015.
Layleen also should never have been incarcerated, let alone in solitary confinement. Against medical professional recommendations, Layleen was locked in solitary because of who she was as a transgender woman. She was in a unit that was supposed to be an alternative to solitary, but she was locked in a cell most of the day in what was simply solitary by another name. She only lasted in this unit nine days before she died on June 7, 2019, and on the day she died she had been locked in her cell for only two to three hours.
As a result of the massive public outcry over their deaths, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio invoked both Kalief’s and Layleen’s names and promised a year ago to “end solitary confinement altogether” in New York City. Despite this promise, the actual rules recently adopted by the city’s jails oversight body, the Board of Correction, are smoke and mirrors and will continue solitary and just call it by another name.
While falsely touted as an end to solitary confinement, under these rules people will be locked alone in a cage 23 or more hours a day. There is no other name for this horrific treatment than solitary confinement, and the negative impacts will be the same, including immense suffering, devastating physical and mental harm, social deterioration, self-mutilation, and death. Not only will this system fail to fulfill the mayor’s promise to fully end solitary, it will be in direct violation of state law, following the recent enactment of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.
Because the mayor failed to live up to his promise, the New York City Council must act now to finally and fully end solitary confinement in New York City jails. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has called for fully ending solitary confinement and ensuring that all people in city jails have access to at least 14 hours out-of-cell per day, including at least seven hours of out-of-cell congregate programming and activities with other people. The City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee Chair Keith Powers and numerous City Council members have also urged a complete end to solitary, as have other leading New York City political leaders, including Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and Comptroller Scott Stringer. We can wait no longer — it is long past time for the City Council to enact legislation banning solitary confinement once and for all.
But this torturous practice must also be banned in states and localities across the country, as well as in federal custody. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both promised to end solitary confinement during their presidential campaigns, as did other leading Democratic presidential candidates, including Senators Warren and Sanders. A federal Anti-Solitary Taskforce recently released a blueprint for how the President and Congress can fulfill these campaign promises and end solitary confinement in all federal prisons and detention centers while also incentivizing states and localities to do the same. The President and Congress must act now to enact the recommendations of this Blueprint immediately.
We are already marking six years since Kalief died and two years since Layleen died. From New York City to the federal government, for all of those political leaders who have ever invoked Kalief’s or Layleen’s name or called for an end to solitary confinement, you must finally act now to stop this torturous and deadly practice.
Melania Brown is an activist and the sister of the late Layleen Polanco. Akeem Browder is the founder of the Kalief Browder Foundation and brother of the late Kalief Browder. On Twitter @melaniabrown11 & @AkeemBrowderNYC.