A Voice for the Incarcerated

Alyssa Waaramaa '20 (L) and Erika Murdoch '19
Alyssa Waaramaa '20 (L) and Erika Murdoch '19

Even after New York City mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a 10-year plan in June to close the city’s main jail complex on Rikers Island, criminal justice advocates—including NYU Law students—continue to work to bring attention to the conditions of solitary confinement at the facility.

NYU Law students are contributing to this effort through the Solitary Confinement Project, in which students work with the Urban Justice Center, a legal advocacy organization, to connect and conduct interviews with those who have experienced solitary confinement at Rikers. The documentation the students produce is used by the Urban Justice Center and the New York City Jails Action Coalition in advocacy work.

“Often, the information about what’s happening in city jails comes from the Department of Corrections or the Correction Officers Union. By being able to talk to people who are inside, we are able to get firsthand information and monitor conditions,” says Jennifer Parish ’96, one of two attorneys at the Urban Justice Center who work closely with the Solitary Confinement Project.

When possible, students also present inmates’ testimony to the Board of Correction. Shaina Watrous ’19 did this in her 1L year, reading a first-person statement on behalf of an individual who had suffered extreme abuse at the hands of corrections officers. In addition, the work of a student with the Solitary Confinement Project was featured in Voices from the Box, a book of narratives about the solitary confinement experience that Parish’s organization helped publish in 2014.

Alyssa Waaramaa ’20 is one of 24 NYU Law students who joined the Solitary Confinement Project and will be conducting interviews this year. The students have spent much of the fall applying for and waiting to receive attorney passes, which will enable them to enter the jail and do the work of the project. “I’m interested in doing long-term litigation on behalf of inmates and prisoners for their civil rights,” said Waaramaa.

About 75 percent of people held at Rikers are there awaiting trial, and many are there because they cannot afford to pay bail, says Parish. In January 2015, New York City’s Board of Correction adopted new regulations for the use of solitary confinement. Under current rules, individuals can be held there for up to 60 days in a year and must be released from solitary for seven days after 30 straight days in confinement—although there are exceptions. Individuals can be punished with solitary confinement for violating various rules, for instance, by assaulting or threatening inmates or staff, possessing contraband weapons, disobeying orders, or smuggling tobacco or alcohol.

Last year Erika Murdoch ’19 interviewed an individual who, before the new regulations were enacted, had spent two years in solitary confinement in New York City jails. The person had a long history of mental health issues and previously had been hospitalized in Bellevue for a year, according to Murdoch. When he spoke with the law student in April 2017, he had already met the new maximum cap of two months of the year in solitary confinement.

Murdoch says the individual was aggravated by the loud and boisterous environment in the jail and would get into fights, which often resulted in confinement. He said he wanted to share his experience so people could understand what drove him to say things like, “I go so crazy in the box. I just lose my mind. I’m hitting my head on the wall,” according to Murdoch.

Murdoch first learned about the Solitary Confinement Project while visiting NYU Law as a prospective student, and was inspired by what students were able to do as part of the effort. “I came to law school wanting to use law as a tool for fighting huge inequality gaps,” said Murdoch. She now serves as director of the project.

Posted on November 14, 2017