New Yorkers charged with child support non-payment subjected to 23-hour lockup at Rikers Island

In November, a group of approximately 10 men who were detained at Rikers Island for civil charges, such as failing to pay child support, were confined to isolated cells for 23 hours a day for almost a month. This information was revealed by lawyers and documents obtained by Gothamist.

The reasons behind the men being held in such conditions are not clear. Generally, these conditions are reserved for individuals who have assaulted others while in jail. According to spokesperson Frank Dwyer, the units where the men were held are typically used to secure detainees who are at risk of harm in the general population, also known as protective custody. The cells in these units have “day rooms” attached, equipped with TVs and phones that detainees can use during their out-of-cell time.

Lawyers and advocates argue that despite the city officials’ claim that they have not used solitary confinement in several years, the isolated units are essentially the same. The City Council is poised to outlaw this practice as early as this week. Those who have worked in the unit and attorneys who have filed lawsuits on behalf of detainees describe the cells as small, dark, and isolated. Although the attached cages may have phones and televisions, access to these amenities is only possible when the cells are unlocked, as confirmed by lawyers and documents.

The City Council plans to pass a bill on Wednesday that will prohibit the use of solitary confinement for all individuals, including those who have committed violent offenses. This move is in response to ongoing concerns about the level of violence and fatalities in the city’s jails, which has prompted lawyers and federal officials to seek control over Rikers Island.

According to Alexander Reinert, a law professor at the Cardozo School of Law, the conditions in which the men were held are completely unacceptable, regardless of the circumstances. He also emphasized that these conditions are particularly inappropriate for individuals who are being held civilly.


Reinert, a lawyer who represented plaintiffs detained in the unit where the men were held, known as the North Infirmary Command, from 2018 to 2022, successfully secured a $53 million settlement for his clients. In their legal papers, the plaintiffs alleged that they had been unlawfully confined in solitary confinement cells for 23 hours a day, deprived of recreation and natural light.

Reinert criticized jail officials for confining individuals accused of civil violations for 23 hours a day prior to the solitary confinement bill vote, stating that it demonstrated a lack of understanding and connection with the reality faced by these individuals.

According to Reinert, the Department of Correction’s actions are a clear indication of how out of touch they are with regards to the appropriate treatment of individuals held in their facilities. This is particularly concerning as it coincides with the City Council’s consideration of a ban on solitary confinement within New York City jails.

According to attorney Veronica Vela from the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project, several detainees in the isolation units have reached out multiple times in November to express their concerns about the “very restrictive conditions” they are being held in. These detainees, who are facing civil claims such as failure to pay child support, are confined to their cells for 23 hours a day on the second floor of the North Infirmary Command building. They have limited movement and are only granted one hour of recreation per day.

The city described the units as a “humane alternative” to solitary confinement when they were first introduced. However, during a surprise visit to the North Infirmary Command in 2021, lawmakers criticized the cells, calling them “solitary by another name.” The Queens Daily Eagle reported on this visit. Photos revealed mesh metal cages connected to regular jail cells, arranged in a narrow hallway. Inside the cages, there were televisions and phones that inmates could use during “out-of-cell time” when the bars separating the cells and cages were unlocked.

According to the United Nations, solitary confinement is officially defined as the imprisonment of individuals for at least 22 hours a day without any significant human interaction. It is considered a form of torture when it exceeds 15 consecutive days.

Vela reported the complaints to the Board of Correction and Department of Correction in mid-November. A week later, he followed up on the matter. The board launched an investigation into the practice, resulting in the men being relocated from the North Infirmary Command to a general population jail on Rikers Island on December 1st.

According to Dwyer, detainees not only have day rooms equipped with phones and televisions, but they also have the means to communicate with each other even from their individual cells. Additionally, they are guaranteed an hour of recreation time and have the chance to participate in various programs and attend medical appointments. Moreover, they have access to a law library for their legal needs.

According to Dwyer, the department no longer utilizes solitary confinement and has not employed this practice for a number of years.

According to John Proctor, the founder of Re/Creation, a nonprofit organization that provides writing workshops to incarcerated individuals, celebrities, politicians, and city officials who are facing charges are often placed in the units under protective custody. This allows them to experience less restrictive conditions. However, Proctor also mentioned that the department also utilizes these units for “punitive segregation”. In other words, it is used to house individuals who have either been involved in assaults or have been victims of assault while in jail.

The men claimed they were held in North Infirmary Command Unit 2A, a unit known for isolating violent offenders. Proctor, who conducted writing workshops at the unit between 2019 and 2022, described 2A as the most challenging environment he experienced at Rikers. Despite the cells being adjacent to each other, communication between them required yelling.

Advocates, lawyers, elected officials, detainees, and board members assert that although the term “solitary confinement” is no longer used by the department, it is still being employed on Rikers Island. Specifically, it is reported to be utilized in locations such as the North Infirmary Command units, albeit under different names.

“Punitive segregation, enhanced restraint, these are just bureaucratic euphemisms that essentially refer to the same thing: solitary confinement,” Proctor explained.

According to attorney Eric Hecker from Cuti Hecker Wang, who represented the plaintiffs in a previous settlement regarding solitary confinement, it is cruel to place individuals in cramped and dehumanizing cages for at least 23 hours a day, particularly if they have not been deemed a serious security risk. Reacting to reports of men facing child support charges being held in these units, Hecker emphasizes that such treatment is inhumane regardless of the circumstances.

According to the official, they are currently conducting an investigation into the city’s alleged continued use of the North Infirmary Command cages for illegal restrictive confinement.

Under state law, individuals who do not fulfill their child support obligations can face a maximum jail sentence of six months. However, it is important to note that this is only implemented in rare and extreme circumstances.

According to Carla A. Barone, a partner at Cohen Forman Barone, a judge can only hold a parent in contempt of court if they have thoroughly examined all the evidence and conducted a hearing to establish that the parent deliberately chose not to make the payment. It is not sufficient for the parent to simply be unable to make the payment. Barone emphasizes that imprisonment is typically seen as a last resort in such cases.

In 2021, state lawmakers passed a law mandating seven hours of daily out-of-cell time and placing a limit of 15 consecutive days on the use of solitary confinement.

In 2015, the practice of solitary confinement for inmates aged 21 and younger was banned in New York City. This decision came after the tragic death of Kalief Browder, who spent his late teenage years on Rikers Island and endured over 800 days in solitary confinement for a minor robbery charge, which was later dismissed. Tragically, Browder took his own life.

The solitary confinement bill proposed on Wednesday aims to ensure that detainees held in restrictive housing, such as the North Infirmary Command units, are granted a minimum of 14 hours outside of their cells every day.

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