Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/199 Fri, 20 Oct 2017 19:37:51 +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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Leading the Way on Ending Punitive Segregation Tue, 11 Oct 2016 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6119:city-council-members-move-to-improve-tampon-access http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6119:city-council-members-move-to-improve-tampon-access ferreras alastriste hearing applause

City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland (photo: William Alatriste) 


Members of the New York City Council are poised to introduce a package of legislation to make tampons and other feminine hygiene products more accessible. The legislation, being spearheaded by Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, includes a resolution calling on the state to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products, and three bills to make such products readily available for free in public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities across New York City.

“We have legislation being drafted as we speak…we’re going to be introducing it as a package in the next weeks or months,” Ferreras-Copeland, who represents parts of Queens and chairs the Committee on Finance, told Gotham Gazette on Tuesday.

“We are going to be rolling out a package of solutions that will address the Department of Education, Homeless Services, and the Department of Correction,” she explained, as well as a resolution “currently being drafted” calling on the state to pass the bill introduced by Assemblymember Linda Rosenthal to make feminine hygiene products “not taxed by New York State or the City.”

Ferreras-Copeland has been working on the issue for months, having conversations with city officials at the relevant departments, talking with young people, and offering free feminine hygiene products at her offices. Speaking with Gotham Gazette, she noted that she had been offering free condoms for quite some time and that it only made sense to also offer tampons and pads.

With some incredulity, Ferreras-Copeland discusses how challenging it can be for young women and poor women of all ages to have easy access to feminine hygiene products.

Currently, there is no citywide policy on access to feminine hygiene products in New York City schools. When girls get their period and aren’t carrying tampons or pads, they often must miss class time and go to the nurse’s office in order to get what they need.

So, Ferreras-Copeland said, in one school a “young girl could ask the nurse and she would get the pad and in another school, the girl would have to go to the counselor who then would give her a pass to the nurse, and then, at the nurse’s office, she has to sign and put her student ID and [explain] why she didn’t have a pad before she got a pad.”

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña has agreed that there should be a citywide policy, Ferreras-Copeland said, but the DOE did raise questions regarding the cost of providing free tampons and pads in schools.

“As finance chair, obviously I’m always thinking about the cost,” Ferreras-Copeland said. “But I’ve never heard anybody complaining about how much it costs to buy toilet paper at the DOE.”

When men walk into a bathroom, they are provided with everything they need to take care of their normal bodily functions - women are not. No student has to ask several people to get toilet paper.

“It’s a matter of basic human dignity,” said Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading national voice calling for better access to feminine hygiene products and vice president of development at the Brennan Center for Justice.

According to Ferreras-Copeland, conversations with Fariña and the DOE were productive, and an announcement with the DOE will be made “in the coming weeks,” probably before the Council legislation is introduced.

In her Queens district, Ferreras-Copeland and the DOE are already running a pilot program in one public high school, which installed a dispenser with free tampons and pads in the girls’ bathrooms. The program, Ferreras-Copeland said, “was very well-received by the young people and the parents in the schools.”

Even with cooperation from the DOE, Ferreras-Copeland said she was determined to move legislation so that the policy would remain in place regardless of the schools chancellor or other future elected or appointed officials.

Tampons and pads are also in short supply in homeless shelters, where women are already often unable to purchase such products. SNAP, WIC, and flexible spending accounts cannot be used to buy tampons or pads. Congressional Rep. Grace Meng from Queens has introduced a bill that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

Last summer, Ferreras-Copeland held a roundtable with students, representatives from the Women’s Prison Association, Care for the Homeless, and Food Bank for New York, among others, during which, Ferreras-Copeland said, “I learned that [tampons and pads] are the number one product to fly off the shelves when they have them available at food pantries, because there’s such a need.”

The situation in prisons is even more humiliating, where women ration pads just to make it through their cycle because they are only given a small supply and cannot afford to buy more from the (often understocked) commissaries.

During that roundtable discussion last summer, Ferreras-Copeland said she heard from representatives of the Women’s Prison Association that “some women were reduced to using one pad for their whole cycle.” City Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte was not particularly receptive to her interest in improving access in prisons, Ferreras-Copeland said, again incentivizing her approach to legislating the issue.

Ferreras-Copeland is developing the package of legislation in conjunction with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. There are certain to be a number of other co-sponsors once the bills are written and introduced to the Council.

A press secretary for Mark-Viverito, Robin Levine, said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, "These are very important issues and the Council is proud to be taking them up.”

“For New York City to make a demonstration of support like this for menstrual health - the world watches New York City, so I think leading by example in this way is incredibly important,” said Weiss-Wolf, who has written about “fair and equitable menstrual policy” for The New York Times and other publications, and started a petition with Cosmopolitan Magazine calling on state legislators to exempt feminine hygiene products from sales taxes.

In New York City, the total sales tax is 8.875 percent, meaning women pay an extra 89 cents to buy a $9.99 box of 36 tampons. Women will spend an average of $70 per year on menstrual products. On average, women have their first period around age 12, and continue to get their period until age 50.

While the tax may be a matter of cents, for those living paycheck to paycheck, every penny counts. Taxing an item only women need is a matter of gender equity, advocates say, and places an unfair added burden on women who already make 78 cents to every dollar that a man makes. African-American and Latina women are hit even harder, earning 64 cents and 56 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by a white man, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Five states have already scrapped the tampon tax: New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota. Five others do not have a sales tax, leaving 40 states taxing tampons and pads, but not products that are considered necessities, like food and medicine.

Two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would classify feminine hygiene products as medical necessities, thus making them exempt from the state sales tax. A bill has also been introduced in Ohio to make feminine hygiene products exempt from sales tax. Last July, Canada repealed its Goods and Services Tax on feminine hygiene products.

Yet in New York State, tampons and other feminine hygiene products are classified under the “cosmetics and toiletries” section of the tax law. According to the State Department of Taxation and Finance, “Feminine hygiene products are generally used to control a normal bodily function and to maintain personal cleanliness. Sales of these products are, therefore, generally subject to sales tax” (except in the case of using such products as “treatment for a specific medical condition”).

Last week, Ingrid Nilsen of USA News Today asked President Barack Obama why states tax tampons, he said, “I have no idea why states would tax tampons as luxury items. I suspect it’s because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed.”

“I think it’s pretty sensible for women...to work to get those taxes removed,” the president continued, “...it’d be governors and state legislatures who would have to reverse those.”

To Weiss-Wolf and others, the so-called tampon tax isn’t some misogynistic plot against women, it’s “just what happens when you don’t have women at the decision-making table. Our needs are not recognized or considered.”

“It’s not because they’re patently ignored,” Weiss-Wolf said of women's needs, “it's just not even on their radar screen - but this [New York City Council] legislation goes a long way to eliminating one obstacle."

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by Meg O'Connor and Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette   @MegOConnor13   @tweetBenMax

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City Council Members Move to Improve Tampon Access Wed, 27 Jan 2016 05:21:44 +0000
Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5998:stringer-joins-calls-to-shut-down-rikers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5998:stringer-joins-calls-to-shut-down-rikers rikers stringer new school

Stringer at The New School (photo via @scottmstringer)


Giving keynote remarks at an event focused on Rikers Island jails, city Comptroller Scott Stringer added his voice to calls for shutting down the troubled complex.

“Right now, Rikers Island is a case study in poor outcomes,” Stringer said, presenting data analysis by his office on large screens behind him. Stringer went on to point to court-mandated and other reforms being implemented at Rikers, but added that while changes are made, he believes the city must “plan for the day when Rikers Island can be safely and responsibly closed. Because part of the problem at Rikers is Rikers itself,” Stringer said to a crowd and panel of experts who appeared largely in agreement.

At the New School's Center for New York City Affairs on Wednesday, criminal justice experts and stakeholders discussed Rikers Island, home of the city's massive jail complex, where about 11,000 inmates, many of whom are awaiting trial, are held. Introductory remarks were made by Glenn Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, who said that he had made a personal plea for shutting down Rikers to Mayor de Blasio on the mayor’s inauguration day. After Stringer spoke, a panel discussion ensued, with the organizing question of whether Rikers should be reformed or shut down.

Overwhelmingly, panelists favored the latter.

“You can’t reform something that’s that sick, that has that much inequity, that’s that bigoted as a system,” Khary Lazarre-White, executive director of Harlem youth organization Brotherhood/Sister Sol, said. To applause, he continued: “It has to be almost, like, crushed to the ground and reimagined.”

Other panelists included Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of The Marshall Project; Martin Horn, of John Jay College and formerly commissioner of the city’s correction department; Ann-Marie Louison, a co-director at CASES; Charles Nunez, a community advocate at Youth Represent; and Carmen Perez, a co-founder of Justice League NYC. It was moderated by NY1’s Errol Louis.

The discussion took place following the presentation of striking data from Stringer: Riker’s cost per inmate (now $112,000 annually) has risen by 67 percent since 2007. And while the inmate population is historically low, use-of-force incidents by uniformed Rikers employees increased by 27 percent and the number of assaults on guards by inmates by 46 percent in fiscal year 2015.

Reforms are currently being implemented by the Department of Correction under Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Mayor de Blasio. They are, in part, the result of a settlement between the city and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who had joined a class-action lawsuit about Rikers, Nunez v. City of New York.

“As we implement the consent decree, I believe we must also plan for the day when Rikers Island can be safely and responsibly closed,” Stringer said of the settlement. Calling for a shutdown of the complex, Stringer noted that one of the settlement details - the appointment of a federal monitor - has happened at Rikers before.

“By the late 1990s, a federal monitor had been appointed to supervise solitary units and staffing decisions,” the comptroller said. “There were significant reductions in violence but the improvements were just short-lived.”

Shutting the ten-jail complex down, Stringer added, would take “years of planning.” The mayor's office did not indicate there is any current consideratoin to begin that process in response to the Daily News.

In his remarks, Horn said that finding space to replace Rikers would be difficult, but that it was truly a matter of political will.

“The impediment is simply politics,” Horn said. “The way it works in New York City is if the City Council person whose district the facility is located in objects, then the City Council will not approve it,” Horn said. “And that’s the final step of the city’s land-use review process.”

Horn outlined a plan for how to replace Rikers, but noted that any such planning would be at the mercy of about three Council members as it calls for modifying detention centers in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.

But such solutions are not often politically popular. As he mentioned at the panel, Horn met resistance when, as DOC commissioner, he tried to reopen the Brooklyn Detention House to some inmates from Rikers. Former City Comptroller Bill Thompson successfully blocked the plan in court.

In addition to New Yorkers preferring correctional facilities isolated, the political value of being seen as “tough on crime” could also impede a Rikers closing.

“I think ultimately closing Rikers is about two things. It is about the politics, and it’s about the politics of fear,” panelist Neil Barsky, of the Marshall Project, said. “It’s all about the demagoguery that exists around this issue.”

Barsky said that the killing of police officer Randolph Holder (posthumously promoted to detective) made the progressive mayor “go to war” with a judge who followed what Barsky called a proper legal process. The politicized reaction to Holder’s death, according to Barsky, is a “horrible thing, in my opinion, for what lies ahead because this is not gonna be easy politically.”

In addition to that, Barsky said, the support of the major New York newspapers would be crucial to shutting down Rikers. Occasionally, local press has been highly critical of Rikers; 129 incidents of severe injuries to inmates were reported in a New York Times Rikers investigation last year.

The New Yorker was highly praised for a piece on Kalief Browder, the teenager who killed himself after languishing for years on Rikers on charges of stealing a backpack that were later dropped.

Rikers’ culture of brutality is viewed as central to Browder’s tragic tale. He is not alone in terms of inmates, as well as corrections officers, who are severely damaged by time on Rikers.

“When you’re there, you’re not considered a person,” said Charles Nuñez, a community advocate who said he spent six months on Rikers himself. “You’re more acknowledged from your bed number or from your cell number,” he said.

“I had to put on this face everyday and make sure that I wasn’t approachable because I knew that every situation was able to lead to a confrontation of violence,” Nunez said, his voice trembling. “And I was under that once you encounter those things, you have to be able to talk to someone about it.”

Mental health treatment on Rikers, the city’s bail system, and the age of criminal responsibility being 16 in New York State were also discussed as major problems at the panel.

Even for those visiting Rikers, it can be a nightmare. “Just the way in which you’re treated, regardless of your title, right?” Carmen Perez of Justice League NYC said.

“You’re really stripped down of your humanity,” Perez said, discussing protocols for making female visitors change their clothes.

In some quarters, the idea of closing Rikers has gained traction: City Council Member Daniel Dromm, of Queens, has said that closing Rikers should be a goal. Demonstrators voiced the demand last month, and it has become a popular hashtag.

But no hope for its closure in the immediate future was expressed at the panel.

“Can we envision Bill de Blasio running for office and saying ‘We’re going to close down these big out-of-date, poorly designed, dehumanizing factories of despair in Rikers Island and we’re going to build smaller jails for fewer people in Kew Gardens and Brooklyn Heights?’” Horn asked.

Many in the audience laughed. Even if the mayor did, there would almost certainly be significant resistance in the neighborhoods targeted for new facilities: as Horn mentioned, there was an outcry among parents at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights when a federal pretrial services building moved near it.

“I mean, society doesn’t want this to happen,” Horn said. “And I’m just not very optimistic that any serious politician is going to do what needs to be done.”

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by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette 

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Stringer Joins Calls to Shut Down Rikers Fri, 20 Nov 2015 00:20:28 +0000
Inmate Bill of Rights Among New Wave of Rikers Reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5897:inmate-bill-of-rights-among-new-wave-of-rikers-reforms http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=5897:inmate-bill-of-rights-among-new-wave-of-rikers-reforms bdb rikers video

Mayor de Blasio at Rikers Island (photo: Mayor's Office)


The New York City Council passed eight bills last week in an effort to mandate greater transparency into and oversight of the Department of Correction and to reduce violence within the city's jails. All are expected to soon be signed into law by Mayor Bill de Blasio, with the package part of ongoing reforms aimed at changing the culture at Rikers Island and other jail facilities run by the city.

One of the bills (Intro 784-A) creates an inmate Bill of Rights and Code of Conduct and mandates rules for ensuring that it is presented to prisoners.

The bill would require the DOC to inform all incoming inmates of their rights and responsibilities under the DOC rules of conduct in plain and simple language. The bill also requires inmates' rights and code of conduct to be communicated orally to the inmates in their primary language. Currently, upon intake all inmates are given a rulebook, which explains the regulations they are expected to adhere to.

Yet, with so many regulations listed in the dense rulebook, many inmates have failed to understand just what rules they are expected to follow behind bars, and many remain unaware of their rights as prisoners, especially since a significant number of inmates on Rikers are illiterate. There are also often language barriers if inmates primarily speak a language other than English.

The bill aims to "clear the lines of communication between inmates and staff," Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, the bill's prime sponsor, said last week at the meeting of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services that saw the bills passed before they were then moved through the full Council.

The inmate bill of rights will "communicate their rights to services, such as visitation and medical care," Crowley said at City Hall on Thursday. "It is critical that all individuals are aware of these rights."

"Carlos Mercado died while in our city jails because of a diabetes-related complication, and because of simple neglect," Crowley continued, referring to the recent death of a Rikers Island inmate whose repeated pleas for medical assistance were ignored by correction officers over a 14-hour period. The new rules appear meant not only to make sure that inmates know their rights and expected conduct, but also to remind correction officers of what they must provide inmates.

Seymour James, Jr., the Attorney-in-Charge of the Criminal Practice of The Legal Aid Society, worked closely with the City Council to develop the legislation. James Jr. said that he believes the eight bills passed last week "will go a long way to address some of the problems," but added, "Aside from these bills, there needs to be greater oversight and discipline of the correctional officers. There's a pending lawsuit which is awaiting approval for the court which will attempt to address some of the problems."

On the other hand, the president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, Norman Seabrook, called the move for greater transparency a "welcome development," but added, "this package of legislation completely ignores the needs of our heroic correction officers."

Though 784-A does not alter the rules that have already been established for prisoners, the change in the methods of communicating those rules (and rights) to inmates seeks to curb violence and mistreatment within Rikers by ensuring that all inmates (and guards) are well-informed.

The bill mandates that prisoners are given information about their rights "under federal, state, and local laws, and the board of correction minimum standards" on topics such as "personal hygiene, recreation, religion, access to legal services, visitation, telephone calls and other correspondence, media access, due process in any disciplinary proceedings, medical care, safety from violence, and the grievance system."

The plain-language document provided inmates will also have to include "a description of educational, vocational development, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and other related services available to inmates." DOC will be required to post the documentation "on the department's website." The bill also mandates that each inmate receives a copy of "Connections," the resource-filled guide to reentry.

Other bills passed last week are specifically intended to increase Department of Correction transparency by mandating that the city makes far more information publically available, including: demographic breakdowns of inmates; the rules regarding the use of force by staff on inmates; the number of inmates on a waiting list for a segregated housing unit; the bail amounts set for inmates; how long inmates are incarcerated pretrial; the number of visits inmates in city jails receive; and the number of grievances filed by inmates, the status of grievances, and the resolution or dismissal of grievances.

"There has been a lack of transparency and that goes back a long time," City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at a press conference last Thursday. "The majority of inmates in our jails, in fact, have not been convicted of any crime and are still awaiting their day in court."

"It is our moral obligation to ensure people in our jails are treated decently and humanely," Mark-Viverito continued. "These bills will mandate greater transparency regarding conditions in our city jails so the nature and extent of problems can be more readily assessed and addressed."

Transparency alone will not necessarily reduce violence or protect inmates rights' within the city's jails, Alex Vitale, associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and senior policy adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project, points out. Vitale told Gotham Gazette that "rights are only as good as the enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure them."

"So it seems to me that it's not likely to be a very fruitful strategy for reducing abuses. The existing Board of Correction already has the authority to guarantee these rights, and to enforce them, but almost never does so," Vitale elaborated. "So, in my mind, if you want to really improve the situation at Rikers you need to do two things: reduce the population and get the BOC to be a robust oversight agency."

The move to mandate greater transparency is still a "positive development," Vitale said, since the bills "hold out the possibility of giving advocates additional tools to push for meaningful reforms."

Martin Horn, executive director of the New York State Sentencing Commission, expressed a similar point of view, "I'm a big believer in transparency. Increased transparency is always a good thing. The test will come when we see what they do with the data."

Although Crowley maintained that the "grouping of bills emphasizes the Council's desire to curb violence on Rikers Island by addressing inmates' as well as staff's needs," the head of the correction officers' union does not share the same view.

"We need to do much more to achieve real reform for inmates as well as the hard-working correction officers who are still treated like second-class citizens by a Department of Correction that doesn't seem to care about them," Seabrook said in a statement.

The new package of Council bills comes as Mayor de Blasio and DOC Commissioner Joe Ponte continue to make changes at Rikers, including to limit the use of solitary confinement. There are also new proposed rules around visitation to Rikers inmates that have drawn criticism from advocates and family members of incarcerated individuals.

Greater transparency about the conditions on Rikers Island and increased protection of inmates' rights are desperately needed, as U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's 2014 investigation into the conditions on Rikers Island found there to be "rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by New York City Department of Correction staff," and that the "inadequate reporting by staff of the use of force, including false reporting" contributed to the "excessive and unnecessary use of force by DOC staff."

At City Hall on Thursday, Council Member Dan Garodnick, who sponsored three of the eight bills that were passed, called attention to the fact that "conditions have deteriorated to the point where the United States government is now suing the New York City Department of Correction in order to enforce change. It should never have come to that."

Garodnick and other Council members have noted that it is the Council's responsibility to perform oversight of city agencies and in doing so, they must have more data at their fingertips. Ideally, the increased availability of information will make the situation in New York City jails much clearer, ultimately making it easier for advocates and policymakers to enact meaningful reform to alleviate some of the problems that plague the jails system - including violence that hurts both inmates and officers.

"We believe that if they have to report on the problems that are in existence, then there will be pressure on them to reduce the problems and limit them," James Jr. of Legal Aid Society told Gotham Gazette. "If in fact there are long waits for people to get into housing, if there are problems with visitation, if they have to report on it, it's an incentive for them to correct the problem."

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by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@megoconnor13

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Inmate Bill of Rights Among New Wave of Rikers Reforms Mon, 21 Sep 2015 20:19:49 +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