Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1367 Mon, 23 Oct 2017 18:50:28 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Leading the Way on Ending Punitive Segregation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6566:leading-the-way-on-ending-punitive-segregation http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6566:leading-the-way-on-ending-punitive-segregation Ponte Rikers de Blasio

Commissioner Ponte, the author, & Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Today, the New York City Department of Correction formally ended the practice of punitive segregation for young adults ages 19 through 21 years old, resulting in the complete elimination of punitive segregation, which some call solitary confinement, for inmates ages 16 through 21 in our custody. This is an unprecedented milestone in New York State correctional history and, even more important, across the nation. To date, no other city or state has accomplished comparable punitive-segregation reforms for the 19-21 year-old age group.

As Commissioner of the NYC Department of Correction, I understand this has not been easy, and something that has required us to methodically implement, test, and refine options that ensure the safety of our staff and inmates. However, I am extremely proud of what our uniform and non-uniform staff have accomplished by reforming our punitive-segregation practices and policies.

When I became Commissioner in April 2014, there were almost 600 people in punitive segregation and a backlog of over 1,700 people. And violence in our jails was on the rise. On October 6, we had 124 inmates in all forms of punitive housing -- a reduction of nearly 80% over two years. We accomplished this by creating non-punitive, incentive-based alternatives to safely manage inmate behavior.

And we have done all this while still reducing violence in our jails.

We started our reforms even before the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District, Preet Bharara, issued a report in August 2014 that concluded that “DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure” and before we negotiated the agreement in the federal lawsuit Nunez v. City of New York, which was approved by a judge in October 2015.

Through a raft of initiatives, we fundamentally transformed the use of punitive segregation for all age groups.

When we ended punitive segregation for adolescent inmates aged 16-17 in December 2014, and later, for 18-year-old inmates in June 2016, we created therapeutic alternatives to help them manage their behavior.

For the adolescents, these comprise Second Chance Housing and Transitional Restorative Units (TRU), which feature higher staffing levels – one officer to five inmates in Second Chance and one to two or even one to one in TRU. The officers in these units receive training on youth brain development, crisis prevention and management, and trauma-informed care practices for adolescents.

Inmates in these programs are afforded enhanced programming and counseling to better their life skills and job prospects and a behaviorally based incentive system enables them to earn privileges and commissary points.

For young adults aged 18-21, we have also created Second Chance and TRU units, but we have added two levels of management.

“Secure Housing” is designed to safely house young adults who are engaging in serious violence and assaultive behavior -- closely supervising them while providing individualized therapeutic programming for their behavioral needs.

For persistently violent young adult offenders, such as those who have seriously assaulted staff or stabbed or slashed other inmates, we have created special young adult units of Enhanced Supervision Housing, where inmates spend seven structured hours daily out of cell. Similar to adolescents, they are provided a behaviorally based incentive system that enables them to earn more privileges and eventually move back into the general population.

Using punitive segregation less means using it as a more targeted and meaningful tool.
Through rule-making with our partners at the Board of Correction, our oversight body, we have made punitive segregation more effective and fair.

Inmates no longer serve any time that was accrued during a previous incarceration. A tiered system ensures that only serious, violent infractions earn full punitive-segregation time.
With few exceptions, we have capped the maximum sentence to 30 days and have limited the number of days one can spend in segregation to 60 days in any single six-month period.

It’s a significant accomplishment to have done this while continuing to push a downward trend in violence throughout the Department through comprehensive reform.

In the first eight months of the year, from January to August, the most serious assaults on staff have dropped 40% compared to the same period last year. Overall assaults on staff dropped 17% in that period. Even one assault on our staff is one too many, so we have a lot of work to do, but the trend is moving in the right direction.

These reforms also increase inmate safety. Uses of force by officers on inmates that result in serious injury dropped by 40% in the first eight months of the year, largely because of our de-escalation training.

The bottom line is that, contrary to the assertions of some, you don’t need overwhelming numbers of inmates in punitive segregation to make jails safer. Heavy use of segregation does not prevent violence or deter it, particularly in the younger age groups. In fact, it may make matters worse. The latest research on brain development shows that punitive segregation is inappropriate for individuals aged 21 and under.

In New York, we are proud to have made history by ending punitive segregation for our youngest offenders and curtailing its overuse for all others – all while providing safer alternatives that support both staff and inmates.

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Joseph Ponte is New York City Correction Commissioner. On Twitter @CorrectionNYC.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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Leading the Way on Ending Punitive Segregation Tue, 11 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Proposed Rikers Visitation Rules Stir Debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5882:proposed-rikers-visitation-rules-stir-debate http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5882:proposed-rikers-visitation-rules-stir-debate Johnny Perez of the Jails Action Coalition

Johnny Perez of the Jails Action Coalition (photos: Meg O'Connor) 


On Tuesday, City Council members, faith leaders, and activists spoke out against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed restrictions for visitors to Rikers Island jails. At a rally on the steps of City Hall organized by the Jails Action Coalition, speakers called de Blasio’s plan to limit visitors and physical contact by those who do visit inmates counterproductive and wrong.

The proposed visitation limits were first announced when de Blasio visited Rikers Island in March, and are part of a 14-point plan to reduce violence among inmates and among inmates and guards.

 “We have to keep weapons, drugs, and other contraband off this island,” de Blasio said at Rikers on March 12. “The only weapons that should be used on this island should be used by people wearing uniforms, not by inmates who got weapons, who got drugs, who got contraband illegally and inappropriately.”

The proposed rules seek to limit the physical contact inmates may have with visitors, broaden the criteria for restricting visitors by allowing the Department of Correction to consider factors like criminal record, and establish a visitor registry. 

Yet, critics say the limitations would deter visitors, needlessly make an already arduous visitation process more difficult, and disproportionately affect black and Latino families, as well as poor people unable to afford bail.

 “I want to remind everybody that the overwhelming majority of people who are on Rikers have not yet been convicted of the crime for which they are being held,” City Council Member Daniel Dromm, of Queens, said at the Tuesday press conference. The jail complex has an average daily population of about 11,400 – roughly 85% of whom are pretrial detainees.

Others, like Tanya Krupat, Program Director for the NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, say that what is “most concerning is the way they’re talking about looking into the backgrounds of visitors and making an assessment about whether that person is deemed a threat, including a threat to the ‘good order of the facility,’ which is very vague.”

Krupat added, “the potential for arbitrary subjective implementation of these is what’s really worrisome. Where are the checks and balances? They have over 1,000 visitors coming in every day, and over 3,000 children visiting each month, so who is making these decisions?“ 

De Blasio and his corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, have been credited by prison reform activists for other changes they’re making at Rikers, including around treatment of mentally ill and younger prisoners. The proposed visitation limits fall into a different category - and the city’s Board of Correction will hold a public hearing in the near future before voting on the plan.

Advocates for the incarcerated and their families fear that the proposed changes will harm the mental well-being of those imprisoned on Rikers Island by denying inmates the much-needed sense of support and connection that visits from loved ones bring. “I believe the proposed plan to restrict visitation has the capacity to deteriorate the already-fragile family unit of people of color, contributing to depression, isolation, loneliness, and increased recidivism,” Reverend Que English, Chair of the NYC Clergy Roundtable said.

Asked about this criticism, a spokesperson for the mayor, Monica Klein, wrote Gotham Gazette to say, “Commissioner Ponte understands how important family relationships are in the rehabilitation and re-entry of inmates, and DOC’s proposed visitation policy will allow the Department to foster the kind of positive visitation environment that help inmates’ well-being while maintaining the safety and security of the facilities.”

Some see the stricter visitation rules as a give by de Blasio in order to obtain support for other reforms he’s making and seeking at Rikers, such as his work to reduce solitary confinement and separate younger offenders and detainees.

The proposed rules would restrict the amount of physical contact between inmates and their visitors to a “brief embrace and kiss between the inmate and visitor at both the beginning and the end of the visitation period.” There is currently no limitation on physical contact like hugs and hand-holding during visits. 

Speaking about the importance of physical contact with a loved one, Anisah Sabur, who was incarcerated on Rikers for eight months in 2008, said, “being in a place surrounded by people that you don’t know, to see somebody that you know, be it your loved one, your mother, your brother, that hug and that holding of the hand is very important for somebody on the inside who doesn’t know when they’ll get that again. That love and affection is truly needed for somebody to keep their sanity.”

Significantly, critics of the proposed policy changes have pointed out that a majority of the contraband at Rikers is not smuggled in by visitors. During a May 12 Board of Correction meeting, board member Dr. Robert Cohen noted that the BOC’s recent report using data from the Department of Correction showed that 80% of weapons recovered on Rikers are constructed on site, meaning they were not brought in by visitors or staff.

Additionally, as Dromm (pictured below) mentioned during the rally Tuesday, a 2014 investigation conducted by Mark Peters, Commissioner of the Department of Investigation, “found that the majority of drugs that were getting into Rikers Island were being brought in by corrections officers themselves.”

CM Daniel Dromm

City & State NY reported that the city has said “371 [visitors] were arrested in fiscal year 2015,” meaning that with over 1,000 people visiting Rikers every day, a small fraction of those visitors are contributing to the flow of contraband into the jail complex.

“You’re changing policy [in response to] less than 1% of the visitors who come in,” Krupat said at the press conference yesterday. “That’s not how policy is made.”

However, the de Blasio administration says it is responding to an increase in those arrests - the 371 was up 307 in the prior fiscal year, and drugs recovered during visits were also up.

 In March, when Mayor de Blasio and DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte announced the 14-point initiative to reduce violence at Rikers, de Blasio said, “we know that the reality is that so many inmates acquire weapons and acquire drugs through visitors. In fact, we know that many criminal gangs use the visitation process to pass weapons and pass drugs to their fellow gang members here in these facilities. They also pass messages. You’ve seen it in the movies – it happens in real life.”

“So, to address this problem at the root, we need a much stronger, much stricter visitor policy,” the mayor continued, “which will limit physical contact between visitors and inmates and will, in fact, restrict the right of certain individuals to visit, in the first place, if they do not pass a security screen.”

 The mayor said that the proposed changes would bring Department of Correction policy closer in line with that of other large jail systems around the country that place limits on physical contact between inmates and visitors and restrict visitors based on security concerns.

Yet critics view the proposed limitations as a step backwards for de Blasio’s self-professed progressive administration, which was praised by advocates for the incarcerated earlier this year after city officials agreed to make sweeping reforms aimed at increasing safety for inmates of the violence-stricken jail complex.

“The mayor ran on not having a tale of two cities, and this is kind of a tale of two cities issue,” said Krupat. “Most people are pre-trial, they just can’t afford their bail. If you’re poor, you’re on Rikers and now maybe your family can’t come and see you, but if you have means, you’re out in the community at home eating dinner with your family. It’s kind of shocking from a progressive administration to go after visitors as part of an agenda to reduce violence at Rikers.”

The Board of Correction must approve the policy before the proposed changes to visitation rules can go into effect. The BOC announced Tuesday that it will hold a public hearing on the proposed rules, though the date has not yet been set.

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@MegOConnor13
@GothamGazette

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Proposed Rikers Visitation Rules Stir Debate Wed, 09 Sep 2015 16:55:54 +0000
Reforming Solitary Confinement At The City's Biggest Psych Ward — Rikers Island http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=4727:reforming-solitary-confinement-at-the-citys-biggest-psych-ward-nrikers-island http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=4727:reforming-solitary-confinement-at-the-citys-biggest-psych-ward-nrikers-island Ismael-Nazario-Solitary-Confinement

NEW YORK — After about three days of being isolated in “the Box” away from his fellow detainees at Rikers Island, Ismael Nazario was beginning to break.

"That's when it started to take it's toll,” he said, conjuring memories of his time in punitive segregation — solitary confinement — in one of the nation’s biggest jail complexes. “I was just like, 'Yo, I cannot be here like this.’”

In his compact cell, furnished with a toilet and cot, Nazario had little space to move, he recalled in a recent interview. "I just talked to myself, answering myself, pacing back and forth.”

Nazario was 16 years old and awaiting trial for robbery the first time he was sent to the Box, he said. According to Nazario, he had been caught with a pouch of tobacco, considered contraband, and was accused of pushing an officer as he tried to dispose of it in the toilet. But the contraband alone would have been enough: both violent and non-violent infractions can land an inmate in punitive segregation. Once there, detainees spend 23 hours per day in their cells.

Now a 25-year-old case manager for at-risk youth at the Center for Community Alternatives in Brooklyn, Nazario said his multiple stays in the Box stayed with him long after he left.

“You have this deep rooted anger and frustration from being in the Box, so the first thing somebody says wrong to you or does wrong, looks at you wrong, you're gonna pop off,” he said. Several studies have found that being confined to a cell for 22 or more hours per day with limited human contact can leave inmates socially and emotionally unstable.

After years of criticism from advocates, the city’s practice of isolating detainees through punitive segregation has come under scrutiny from lawmakers and city officials. In recent months, the City Council passed legislation to bring greater transparency to the practice. But perhaps the greatest change will come in the months ahead.

Motivated by a recent report on solitary confinement at Rikers, the Board of Correction, which oversees the Department of Correction, is seeking to limit the city’s use of the punishment through a slow-moving rulemaking process that could take up to a year. "We're concerned about everybody in solitary confinement, and particularly those with serious mental illness and adolescents," said Dr. Robert Cohen, chair of the Board's committee on punitive segregation.

However, the city’s Department of Correction and the mayor's office have rejected the sweeping critique of solitary confinement contained in the report that informed the Board's decision, as well as the report’s recommendation that isolation only be used as punishment in the most extreme cases.

In an email, the Department defended punitive segregation as just one part of "a comprehensive continuum of care and control" developed to "ensure everyone’s safety." Department of Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro declined to comment further.

The Department has been working towards its own program for reform, however. One major change is already underway: eliminating solitary confinement for people with serious mental illness.

The Push for Reform

In mid-September, members of the Jails Action Coalition rallied outside of a meeting of the Board of Correction at the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan.

As they awaited a decision from the Board on whether it would attempt to change Rikers' punitive segregation policies, the lawyers, case workers and activists who form the Coalition sang and held a banner that read "Solitary is Torture."

The banner invoked Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights,who called more than 15 days in solitary confinement 'torture' and recommended the punishment not be used at all for adolescents and people diagnosed with mental illness.

In June, following a petition by the Jails Action Coalition, the Board commissioned an independent investigation into punitive segregation at Rikers.

The study found that punitive segregation sentences at Rikers routinely exceed 15 days and that people with mental illness are disproportionately placed in isolation for breaking the rules. When the researchers visited the city jail over the summer, they found a quarter of the adolescent inmates of 16 and 17 years old in solitary confinement.

A separate, recent count by the DOC also revealed that more than one in seven inmates at Rikers is currently being held in isolation — significantly higher than thenational average of about one in 25.

Rethinking the City's Largest Psych Ward

Nearly 40 percent of the population at Rikers Island is mentally ill, according to the Department of Correction, making it, de facto, the city's largest psychiatric facility.

Martin Horn, the city's previous Commissioner of Correction and Probation, said this has posed more than just a disciplinary challenge.

"You're asking the jail to take on a role and a responsibility that it was never intended for, it was never physically constructed for, it was never properly equipped for, the staff was never properly trained for, and the staffing patterns were never properly based upon," said Horn, who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

This past month, the DOC launched the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation at Rikers, which wasannounced in May as an answer to "widespread concern about the impact that solitary confinement has on the mentally ill."

The program places people who break the rules and have bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or another condition the Department considers a "serious mental illness" in a separate, but more communal setting, where therapy is available.

Inmates diagnosed with mental disorders that are not considered "serious" can still be placed in isolated cells for breaking the rules, although they will be offered therapy and incentives for good behavior.

The Department expressed hopes that this approach would help remedy the fact that the average stay of a mentally ill inmate at Rikers is twice as long as that of an inmate who has not been diagnosed with a mental illness.

But advocates for prisoner rights say the DOC needs to focus on improving the quality of its psychiatric treatment in order for it to be effective.

"The way they're trying to provide therapy with a therapist who isn't really engaged reading from a manual, that's just not the way we do it," said attorney Jennifer Parish of the Urban Justice Center. Parish has represented several mentally ill inmates at Rikers and is a founding member of the Jails Action Coalition.

Parish said inmates who receive therapy while in solitary often meet with the mental health clinician inside their cells.

"If you read the [Minimum] Mental Health Standards, there's no way that you can think that adequate mental health treatment could be provided in a punitive environment," Parish said.

Making Solitary Public

There are no public records of the number of people in solitary confinement at Rikers.

In April, City Council members Daniel Dromm and Elizabeth Crowley introducedlegislation to require the Department of Correction to publish monthly statistics on punitive segregation. The mayor’s office has declined to comment on the pending legislation.

"We need to know who they're putting in solitary, why they're going into solitary, and how long they're staying in solitary," said Dromm, who added he took up the cause after noticing the "very, very detrimental effect" solitary confinement had on a friend who served time at Rikers for drug charges.

The punitive segregation capacity at Rikers peaked at 1,035 cells and is now on the decline, according to the DOC.

The Department attributed the hundreds of punitive segregation beds added in the last two years to a "long-standing backlog" of unserved time by inmates who have broken the rules. Dromm has introduced aresolution calling on the Department to end the practice of cashing in on "time owed" in solitary confinement by inmates who return to Rikers after being released.

Is there a way out?

The addition of punitive segregation cells at Rikers has corresponded with a significant increase in violent incidents in the last five years, according to Mayor’s Management Reports between2008 and2013.

"Correction officers bear the brunt of it by being assaulted on a daily basis," Norman Seabrook, president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association,told City Limits in March.

Both Seabrook and former Commissioner Horn have cited cuts to the number of correction officers at Rikers as part of the problem.

There was a decrease in jail violence during Horn’s tenure from 2003 to 2009, which he attributes to a variety of preventive tactics, including the installation of video cameras. "I think it was the result of putting staff resources where they were most needed," Horn said.

Still, Horn said that punitive segregation is necessary to maintain order.

"If two inmates get in a fight, they have to be separated, they have to be protected from each other. In society, when you break a rule, you go to jail. Punitive segregation is the jail within the jail."

Parish suggested that offering inmates more services could also create more alternative punishments for breaking the rules.

"The more incentives that you have that people want to be involved in, the more you can make not having access to that one of the potential punishments," she said.

Parish acknowledged the need to separate inmates who pose a threat to others, but said the disciplinary system should be "focused on rehabilitation, not locking someone in for 23 hours a day."

"As long as we see even one day of that as trivial, as not such a big deal, we're going to have a hard time getting to another place."

Caroline Lewis is a freelance radio and web journalist working towards a Masters at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Read and listen to her stories here.

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Reforming Solitary Confinement At The City's Biggest Psych Ward — Rikers Island Mon, 18 Nov 2013 02:44:00 +0000