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Solitary Confinement Numbers At Rikers Buck Nat'l Trend

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The number of inmates in solitary confinement on Rikers Island has jumped over the last three years. After the recent death of one inmate, advocates are calling for the practice to end. NY1's Courtney Gross filed the following report.

Ramon Echevarria doesn't know what happened to his son Jason, who had been charged with burglary last year and placed in solitary confinement on Rikers Island -- inside a unit for those with mental illness. He was put there because he had a weapon.

His father says he was found dead in his cell last month.

"He never made it out," Echevarria said. "They are telling me he drank poison. If you're locked up 23 hours a day in a box and you are out one hour a day to take a shower, how do you get your hands on poison?"

City officials say the incident is under investigation. But it has renewed a call from these advocates for a closer look at how the city isolates inmates who violate the jail's rules.

"Some have gone as far to call it torture. Other people have found that it causes emotional distress for some people. And certainly people with mental illness, it exacerbates their disability," said Jennifer Parish of the Urban Justice Center.

Since 2010, the number of beds for solitary confinement has grown by nearly 40 percent on Rikers. Correction officials say it's because there was a backlog of infractions, upping the number of beds would allow them to immediately address those that violate the rules.

Advocates, though, say it bucks a national trend to reduce the number of inmates in confinement.

Inmates in solitary are let out of their cells for an hour a day. They can exercise or attend religious services. On average, in 2011, they stayed 49 days. To get in, one might pick a fight or disobey an officer's order.

Correction officials say this segregation is a necessity and that it's about public safety, public safety of the inmates as well as officers.

The officers' union is supportive of the increase.

"We're going to be supportive because we don't want these individuals hurting other inmates. When inmates have a great day, correction officers have a great day," said Correction Officers' Benevolent Association president Norman Seabrook.

Meantime, Echevarria wonders whether inmates in solitary confinement could hurt themselves.

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