Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/588 Mon, 23 Jul 2018 11:47:44 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7788:de-blasio-jails-to-jobs-program-launches-close-rikers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7788:de-blasio-jails-to-jobs-program-launches-close-rikers Rikers jails to jobs

On Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Judith is a newly-minted head chef. She had previously been a line cook, and was nervous about interviewing for a job running her own kitchen, but decided to take the plunge after some convincing. When it came time to speak to the hiring manager, Judith, in her own self-assessment, “killed it.”

Before Judith was head chef, before she was a line cook, before she knew kitchen skills, she was incarcerated. But it was her time in “Rosie,” the Rose M. Singer women’s jail on Rikers Island, that placed her on her trajectory to becoming a chef.

In April 2017, four months before her release from Rikers, Judith began participating in the workforce development programming offered onsite by the Osborne Association, a New York-based nonprofit that provides social services for the currently and formerly incarcerated. Osborne offers a number of professional education workshops and certification programs on Rikers, and Judith began training intensely with the group.

“I took advantage of...everything I could get my hands on,” she told Gotham Gazette, and ended up leaving Rikers with certificates in food handling, culinary arts, building maintenance, and job safety.

Upon her release, Osborne’s housing staff helped her secure a home, and its employment team reviewed her resume, coached her on interview skills, organized her paperwork, and placed her in an apprenticeship in a kitchen. When the apprenticeship ended, Osborne helped Judith find permanent employment and supported her emotionally as she progressed professionally.

“They kept encouraging me that it’d be okay, that I need to keep pushing forward. It wouldn’t have happened without them,” she said.

The Osborne Association is one of several organizations in New York City providing services to those incarcerated in city jails, both during their confinement and after their release. Most have been operating for decades — Osborne was founded in 1933, and its peer group, the Fortune Society, has operated since 1967 — and receive city funding. But it’s only been within the past year that the city government has mobilized the Osborne Association, the Fortune Society, and six other incarceration-services organizations — Samaritan Daytop Village, Fedcap, Housing Works, Friends of Island Academy, the Women’s Prison Association, and the Prisoner Reentry Institute at John Jay College — to provide short-term transitional employment to every individual leaving a city jail after serving a sentence.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that lofty goal, which he promised to actualize through the new “Jails to Jobs Initiative,” in March 2017. Jails to Jobs is now a component of the mayor’s ten-year plan to shutter the city jails on Rikers Island by reducing the jail population, combating recidivism, and opening or expanding modern borough-based facilities. The mayor’s announcement was scant on details on the program, simply promising that “everyone leaving city jails after serving a sentence will be offered paid, short-term transitional employment to help with securing a long-term job.”

Employment after incarceration has been shown to reduce recidivism by 22%, and de Blasio says that the city needs to reduce its jail population to 5,000 — almost a 50% drop from figures at the time of his announcement — in order to make feasible the closure of Rikers. In 2017, the average total population of those incarcerated on Rikers or the city’s other jail facilities stood at 9,148. On Monday, July 2, the total city jail population was 8,208, including 6,138 on Rikers, down from 9,206 one year prior.

Roughly 8,500 people leave city jails each year after serving a sentence (many more are incarcerated after an arrest but do not necessarily serve a sentence in a city or any jail or prison). It is not clear what capacity the city needs to ensure through provider agencies to make sure that each of those individuals has access to a “paid, short-term” job. The program is in its infancy. There is no set duration for “short-term,” a mayor’s office spokesperson said, indicating that it depends on the needs of the client and the service-provider.

Employment is, by most empirical measures, both crucial to successful post-incarceration reentry and disproportionately difficult to attain for the formerly incarcerated. In 2017, 80% of those who served a sentence in a New York City jail had been unemployed at the time of their arraignment, and the National Institute of Justice estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of formerly-incarcerated individuals are jobless up to a year after their release.

This joblessness does not seem to be for lack of effort. A survey conducted by the Urban Institute reported that 79% of formerly-incarcerated individuals sought employment once out of jail, but data show that justice-involved individuals consistently face legal, perceptive, and racialized barriers to employment. More than 80% of employers in the United States perform criminal background checks on potential employees, and a government-published study conducted in New York City found that a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a job callback by almost 50%.

Still, white justice-involved applicants were twice as likely to hear back from a potential employer than black justice-involved applicants were. In a city that jails black and Latino people almost exclusively, this racial disparity has far-reaching effects.

Guaranteed employment for the formerly-incarcerated, then, would radically alter the conditions of thousands of New Yorkers leaving a city jail, and Jails to Jobs seems to be the first initiative of its kind in the United States. It may prove to be a massively complex undertaking.

The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) is spearheading the initiative in collaboration with eight criminal justice nonprofits. “The bulk of the initiative,” said Patrick Gallahue, MOCJ’s senior press director, “includes paid transitional employment and supportive services in the community.”

The city works with groups that provide an array of services. For instance, the Friends of Island Academy holistically focuses on the needs of formerly-incarcerated youths while the Women’s Prison Association offers gender-specific services, and Housing Works helps the formerly-incarcerated secure stable housing, a well-documented struggle for justice-involved individuals.

Several leaders of the city’s partner organizations spoke to Gotham Gazette of Jails to Jobs’ collaborative nature, whereby affiliated groups freely refer individuals to other organizations that may be better suited to their needs. For instance, if a Brooklyn resident sought assistance from the Fortune Society, based in Long Island City, Queens, staff there said they might refer them to the Osborne Association, which runs a center in Brooklyn Heights.

The Jails to Jobs initiative officially commenced on January 1 of this year, but most organizations began providing services under the program’s auspices in the spring, meaning the program has only recently launched in earnest.

The network of groups finding employment for formerly-incarcerated people is labyrinthine, and Jails to Jobs runs slightly differently between organizations. When MOCJ solicited programming proposals for Jails to Jobs, it wrote that the city would “strongly favor proposals that demonstrate partnerships through subcontracting or formal cost-sharing arrangements.” As a result, most Jails to Jobs participants are placed into internships through subsidiary organizations.

As of mid-June, the Osborne Association had employed 30 formerly-incarcerated individuals via three different, smaller groups — the Center for Employment Opportunity, Exponent, and the Hope Program — though it hopes to reach 150 people by the end of this year and 200 by the next.

The Center for Employment Opportunity primarily provides day labor cleanup crews and employs Jails to Jobs participants for four to five hours a day at $13 an hour. Exponent, a substance-use program, provides services and certifies in counseling. Programs have not yet begun at the Hope Program.

The Fortune Society, for its part, hopes to place 300 individuals in employment by the end of the year, and had enrolled 128 as of mid-June, 2018. That enrollment figure, as with all similar statistics from service providers, includes more than just the individuals who are currently employed in a paid, temporary internship — Jails to Jobs also funds hard skills training, including culinary, construction, and CDL driving certification.

“It’s going to look different for each person,” said Katharine Samberg, the Fortune Society’s Manager of Trainings and Transitional Programs. “Some don’t have job experience, and the transitional work program is for people who need to get a footing and realize they can be a beneficial employee.”

Experiences vary along lines of gender, as well. In 2015, women comprised roughly 6% of the city jail population, and their experiences before, during, and after incarceration differ from those of men, said Nyasha Rivera, who oversees the Jails to Jobs program at the Women’s Prison Association.

“We are not using tools that were created for men or are gender-neutral,” Rivera told Gotham Gazette. Since they are often the primary caregivers of children, meaning they must live in bigger homes, be nearer to sources of support, and are often more undesirable to landlords, women typically face less housing stability post-release than men do, which depresses their ability to find employment. And gender-specific “trauma that women experience prior to incarceration, during incarceration, and in the reentry process...serves as a barrier,” Rivera said.

The Women’s Prison Association offers, through various partnerships, employment tracks in culinary arts, building maintenance, and front-of-house restaurant work. As part of Jails to Jobs, the Association offers eight paid weeks of job training followed by a two-week paid internship, a different program than those run by other service providers.

Still, explained Jim Hollywood of Daytop Samaritan Village, “all Jails to Jobs contracts across the city have a similar construction to the programs.” Job training services begun during incarceration place individuals in contact with service providers, who continue employment support after release, which comes, in part, in the form of a city-subsidized temporary internship.

MOCJ allocated almost $9 million -- $8,885,492 -- to the Jails to Jobs program in its first year, which it’s spent mainly in the form of grants to service providers. That money pays for the minimum wage salaries of program participants for up to 21 hours a week, assuaging, the hope is, any sense among employers that to employ a formerly-incarcerated person is to undertake a risk.

Employers can choose to supplement the schedules and salaries of their formerly-incarcerated employees beyond what the city guarantees. Such is the case of Alexandra, who spent 18 months on Rikers Island and a little over a year in state prisons. She connected with the Fortune Society while on Rikers through taking its anger management, family safety, and job training workshops. Upon release, Alexandra entered into an internship at a home health services facility that employs her for over 40 hours a week, paying the half of her full-time salary that the city, through the Fortune Society, does not cover.

Like Judith, Alexandra (Gotham Gazette agreed to withhold last names) credits her connection with an incarceration-services group for her stable re-entry process. Immediately following her release from the Taconic State Prison, where she was sent after time on Rikers, staff at the Fortune Society helped Alexandra open a Medicaid account, apply for food stamps, and begin learning skills necessary for re-integration. She called it a “one-stop shop” in an interview with Gotham Gazette, and is now poised to be hired full-time as a coordinator at the home health services facility once her internship ends this month.

It is difficult to ascertain whether the successes of Judith and Alexandra are representative of most participants’ experiences with Jails to Jobs; most organizations only began running the program two or three months ago. But each service provider, as per the terms of MOCJ’s solicitation for proposals, already has extensive experience in reentry programming in New York City.

Data points for the program are tricky to come by. For example, Gallahue, the MOCJ press director, told Gotham Gazette that the city does “not have a precise number” regarding the expected demand for jobs among recently-released individuals. Though at this time it is known that approximately 8,500 people leave city jails after serving a sentence each year, MOCJ could not say how many individuals who had served a sentence could be expected to be looking for a job at any given time.

No organization told Gotham Gazette of having to turn away an individual for lack of space in an employment program; if anything, most are eager to grow. But, in the words of City Council Member Rory Lancman, who chairs the Committee on the Justice System, without a figure from the city, it is nearly impossible to assure that “every person serving a city sentence would have access to this job training, job placement program...it’s incumbent on the city to explain how it’s going to meet its commitment of serving every person serving a city sentence.”

Anecdotally, a minority of those released from city jails, even those who’d been involved with a service provider while incarcerated, seek post-release services. Judith said that she is the only one of her roughly 20 peers who’d been enrolled in Osborne’s classes on Rikers to seek out the organization’s help once off the island.

Her two closest friends from Rosie “have every excuse [to not go to Osborne]...For one, it’s easier for her to sell drugs on the street, and, for the other one, it’s her boyfriend.”

Improved outreach would help, she said — for some, organizations should “take them by the hand.”

The employment services Jails to Jobs has added resources to have changed Judith’s life, she said.

“I’m so grateful to that program. They did a wonder job on me. A wonder job.”

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by Daniel Yadin for Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

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De Blasio ‘Jails to Jobs’ Program Launches Thu, 05 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Criminal Justice Reform in New York http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7712:max-murphy-podcast-criminal-justice-reform-in-new-york http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7712:max-murphy-podcast-criminal-justice-reform-in-new-york mxm logo

Jarrett Murphy, left, of City Limits, and Ben Max, right, of Gotham Gazette


June 5, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Criminal Justice Reform in New York

fortune society reps for 277

The Fortune Society is on the front lines in the fight to keep people out of jail, help those leaving jail successfully reenter larger society, advocate for criminal justice reforms, and make sure that housing, jobs, and social services are available to all. JoAnne Page, president and CEO of the Fortune Society, and Stanley Richards, Fortune's executive vice president and a formerly incarcerated person, joined the podcast to discuss a wide range of topics related to the work they do, criminal justice policy, and next steps in New York for a fairer justice system.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Criminal Justice Reform in New York Tue, 05 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
The Wrong Site for a Bronx Jail http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7715:the-wrong-site-for-a-bronx-jail http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7715:the-wrong-site-for-a-bronx-jail De Blasio Rikers Bronx Jail

Mayor de Blasio on Rikers (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Closing Rikers Island jails is the right decision for New York City, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of a thriving community. The Concourse neighborhood in the West Bronx has experienced a renaissance in recent years. Densely packed blocks of tenants and homeowners, public and parochial schools, libraries and mom-and-pop shops surround a glut of municipal uses. Shoehorning a 25-story, 1,500-bed jail into this neighborhood would be a significant and lasting mistake, one that would undermine the progress the West Bronx has made and the progress we hope to achieve through new borough-based jail facilities.

A new jail at East 161 Street, behind the Bronx Hall of Justice, would bring additional traffic to an area that already regularly experiences gridlock. There’s practically no parking in the area and it’s not uncommon to find court and police cars parked on sidewalks and in medians. And that’s before factoring in Yankees game-day traffic.

Proponents of the 161 Street site argue that by eliminating Department of Correction bus trips, the jail would relieve congestion. It might help, but the traffic generated by correction staff and visitors would increase traffic in the area tenfold. The de Blasio administration admits it has no plans to expand available parking in the area. Unless the City comes up with a real plan to reduce congestion, it’s unfair and unsafe to site a jail in this area.

If the 161 Street proposal were to go through, the Bronx’s borough-based jail facility would be less than 50 feet away from one of its highest performing high schools. In addition to the high school, an elementary campus, and a parochial school share the same block. I strongly believe no student should go to school in the shadow of a jail. It would disrupt the learning environment and undermine our efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Simply put, our young people deserve better.

Finally, if the administration wants to truly create a more humane jail, I question the rationale behind choosing the site with the smallest square footage. The proposed NYPD tow pound site boasts a lot of 183,000 square feet, in contrast to the 93,000 – 115,000 square feet afforded at the East 161 Street site. Cells, communal spaces, medical facilities, and even correction officers’ quarters will all have to be smaller. Recreation facilities will have to be on the roof, where detainees could potentially see into the apartments of nearby residents.

Female prisoners will have to be housed elsewhere, adding even more traffic to the community when they’re bused in for court appearances. The lot size at East 161 Street would require the jail be built at a towering 25 stories, raising concerns about officer response time in the event of an emergency, like a riot or a fire.

These are serious concerns and must not be taken lightly.

Ultimately, the proposal to site a jail at East 161 Street falls short. Its proximity to the courts may speed up cases and benefit court officers, but the risk to the community, to our children, and to the integrity and intent of borough-based facilities is too great to ignore. The City originally proposed the tow pound site, just two miles away. That site has a larger footprint, allowing for a 10-story facility with ground level recreation, and is several blocks away from the nearest school. I urge the administration to return to its original plan: build a borough jail facility at the tow pound, and allow the Concourse community to keep thriving.

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City Council Member Vanessa Gibson represents parts of the Bronx. On Twitter @VanessaLGibson.

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

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The Wrong Site for a Bronx Jail Tue, 05 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City Must Stop Using Incarcerated People as Revenue Source http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7628:city-must-stop-using-incarcerated-people-as-revenue-source http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7628:city-must-stop-using-incarcerated-people-as-revenue-source mayor depart cc ponte rikers island

(Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


The City of New York, like many cities and states across the country, profits from people experiencing poverty who come into contact with the criminal justice system. New York imposes a plethora of fees on persons charged with and/or convicted of a crime or minor infraction, ranging from a fee to support the DNA Bank, to an incarceration fee, to a fee for parole or probation.

Among the most egregious of these fees involve phone calls in New York City jails. New York City reaps millions of dollars in profits from people who are in city jails and simply want to make a phone call.

Many of these people have not been convicted of a crime. Nearly 75% of people in New York City jails are held pretrial, many because they were arrested and cannot afford to make bail. Some are in jail serving short sentences for minor misdemeanor offenses. All just want to talk with family, friends, or their attorney.

On Monday, the City Council will take the next step in exploring the opportunity to end this predatory practice when it debates a bill, Intro. 0741, introduced by Speaker Corey Johnson. The bill would put a stop to the City’s practice of using the jail phone as a revenue center. Passing it would be a first and important step toward ending what is truly a tax on justice.

Over the last 30 years, as rates of arrest and incarceration skyrocketed across the country, jurisdictions struggled to pay for the bloated justice system. Cities, counties, and states increasingly tried to generate revenue by imposing fees on people, including children, arrested for and convicted of crimes. In California, the state adds $390 in fees to the $100 fine imposed for running a red light. In Washington State, courts impose an average of $1,347 on every criminal conviction. In New York, people convicted of felonies face mandatory fees of $300; for misdemeanor convictions, the fee is $175.  

Although the criminal justice system is a vital government service meant to protect everyone’s public safety, more and more jurisdictions turned toward a “user-funded” system, unfairly demanding that some of the poorest Americans shoulder the burden.

Justice system fees disproportionately harm low-income people and their families who cannot afford to pay them. Communities of color are particularly devastated because they experience higher rates of poverty and over-policing in their communities. It is a burden that is often too heavy to bear. For the millions of people who cannot afford to pay them, outstanding fees trap them in the justice system for prolonged periods, entrenching poverty, exacerbating racial and ethnic disparities, and diminishing trust in government. And, because so many people cannot afford to pay them, criminal justice fees often generate less revenue than expected.

Some local and state governments have gone beyond simply trying to recoup costs through justice system fees and are trying to generate profits by imposing fees on people who are incarcerated, regardless of whether they have been convicted of any crime. In jurisdictions across the country, fees for “services” in jails and prisons (including exorbitant mark-ups on items for sale in the commissary) as well as fees for mail and “video” visitation are routinely imposed. New York City’s phone fee is a prime example of this unjust, discriminatory, and misguided policy.

Like all justice system fees, the phone fee particularly harms the city’s most vulnerable communities. It may also diminish public safety. When people in jail can’t afford to pay for phone calls, they can be cut off from contact with their families. Research shows that regular communication between incarcerated people and their loved ones correlates with lower recidivism and higher opportunity for successful re-entry to society.

We know the phone fee disproportionately harms people experiencing poverty and communities of color and may lead to higher recidivism rates. Yet, New York City government plans to extract millions of dollars next year from families who wish to stay in contact with their loved ones in City jails. Indeed, the mayor’s proposed budget anticipates that the Department of Corrections will collect nearly $6 million in profits from phone calls made by people incarcerated in city jails. But, budget negotiations between the de Blasio administration and the City Council have until the end of June to get it right.

The Council Speaker’s bill would stop the City from profiting from people who have already been targeted and trapped by a system that takes away freedom, dignity, and hope. It would help ensure that people who are incarcerated maintain critical community ties while they are in jail, increasing their opportunity for successful re-entry when they are released. It should be adopted by the Council and signed by the mayor.

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Joanna Weiss is the Co-Director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Brandon J. Holmes is the #CLOSErikers Campaign Coordinator for JustLeadershipUSA. On Twitter @joannagweiss and @BJHolmes_NYC.

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

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City Must Stop Using Incarcerated People as Revenue Source Sun, 22 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7516:now-overseeing-rikers-closure-council-member-makes-first-visit http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7516:now-overseeing-rikers-closure-council-member-makes-first-visit Keith Powers Rikers Island

City Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten)


Last week, members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice toured Rikers Island to see for themselves the conditions at the problem-plagued jail complex, which is slated for closure within the next ten years. It was the first visit for the new chair of the committee, Council Member Keith Powers, who spoke with Gotham Gazette about what he and his colleagues saw, their conversations with detainees and corrections officers, and the issues it moved him to pursue.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gotham Gazette (GG): How was Rikers?

Council Member Keith Powers (KP): “It was my first time going. It was quite educational and you know, I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprising’ because I’m not surprised but it certainly reconfirmed my belief that we should be doing what we are doing, which is to move in a hopefully expedited time manner to move into communities and create new borough-based facilities. It was super informative.

“We were surprisingly joined by the head of the correction officers’ union [Elias Husamudeen], who came along. We also had Stanley Richards, who’s the Board of Correction member from The Fortune Society, who also came. So with those two joining it was even better than I think we expected and had more conversation than just sort of what was going to be normally presented to us by the agency.”

GG: What was the tour like? How many buildings did you see? Did you meet with any inmates, any officers?

KP: “Yeah we did, we did a bunch. We saw the visitor’s center. We saw what they call ‘advanced supervision housing,’ which replaced solitary confinement for young inmates. We went there, we saw two parts of that. The one for the most restrictive and the one that’s least restrictive. But they’re all the most violent young, or the ones that have had a violent incident amongst the young folks. In one of them, they’re actually restrained, they can’t even get up from their desks even when they’re in the open area and in the second one there’s more freedom...We stood there and we talked to inmates in both of those facilities.

“These are young inmates who have had an incident, whether it’s a slashing or a fight or something else that led them to get in there, and so we talked to them there. We saw the academy, the school for the young inmates, we saw a sort-of medium facility...we saw the welcoming and visiting center where you actually come and show up if you’re a family member, you drop packages off -- we looked at all the protocols there. And we looked at one unit where there’s a pilot program around bringing dogs actually into one of the units, which is kind of like a reward for good behavior, I think.”

GG: This sounds like a long tour. How long were you there?

KP: “We got there around 10 o’clock and we were there till about 5 o’clock. It was really a long day. We left at 9 a.m. and we got home around 6 so basically 9 to 6, and we sort of spent an hour each way but the [DOC] actually set up the bus so we had a bus to get both ways.”

GG: What was your first impression?

KP: “Certain facilities are almost like a century old and they are, even if they’re not unsafe, even if they maybe were, they were perceived to be safe in the past, they’re certainly not, they’re not really set up to succeed, I think, on a lot of safety measures. You have, and the Department of Correction would say that, there’s some facilities that are old and the materials they used could be used, they don’t have modern materials in some of the cells, in some of the facilities that are, that would make it easier to protect the inmates, not being able to be transformed into weapons, things like that.

“And the second is that, a new facility would seem to lend itself to set up so that you could actually have less direct contact between staff and inmates, especially the very violent ones. And the other thing is that you go into a cell and you see how ridiculously small and lacking a cell is, especially particular cells we saw. It’s incredible to think that you have to spend your entire life for some period of time in one of these cells because they’re tiny and they’re not modern...it depends on where you are but there are jails that go back to the 1930s, so you’re in something that was built before World War II. It’s incredible.

“So it’s shocking, it’s really shocking. When you talk to the inmates directly, some of them are really candid, they didn’t really hide why they were there. They speak openly about what they did to end up in Rikers but also end up in a unit where, what the situation was that caused them to go into a unit with additional security.

“You know getting there and getting into the facility, the time it would take to do a whole trip there and see a loved one, that takes an entire day out of your life. And second, once you’re in there, you can see how these are really not, these are really meant to be upgraded, modernized and put closer to home.”

GG: At any point did you lock yourself in a cell to see how it feels

KP: “We went into one cell...I actually asked them to open one up…[O]ne of the most fascinating points was when Elias [Husamudeen] from the correction officers union and Stanley Richards had a kind of impromptu back and forth about solitary confinement. The argument is that corrections officers want to see solitary, punitive segregation as they call it, restored for inmates that are under the age of 21, believing that they’re still a risk...not having them in solitary, a policy the city took a few years ago to end it.

“So his argument is that it’s basically just the same thing as being in a regular cell, and so all you’re doing is having less hours outside of your cell, it’s not a dungeon or anything. So I actually asked them to open one up so I can walk in and see what it would feel like to be inside of a cell for like a minute, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to be in there for 23 hours a day. We can always talk about ways to keep it more secure but I don’t think, an average stay on Rikers is 60 days and solitary is less than that but any period of time to be in a cell for 23 hours, that seems beyond reason, I think anybody would agree with that.”

GG: How did it feel? Claustrophobic?

KP: “The one I was in was small, I saw other ones that would be claustrophobic and almost impossible to believe that you could stay within your own senses. They were tiny and they were old and they, you know, they’re meant to be jail cells, I mean they’re meant to be restrictive. They’re claustrophobic...you feel your lack of freedom while you’re in there.”

GG: You said you spoke with inmates. What did they feel about the jail? Did anyone talk about what they wanted? About what they felt the jail was like?

KP: “We talked to a few. We went to the high school and we saw some that are getting ready to take the TASC [Test Assessing Secondary Completion] test, which is the new GRE, and were taking actually a sample test, so we talked to them a little about what they were doing. I gotta say, the teacher that was in that classroom won, I think, an award last year for being one of the best teachers in New York City. She seemed fantastic.

“I think they were just reading ‘The Alienist’ and she seemed to really challenge them, but the challenge in that setting is that they can be only there for 100 days or a year and so it’s only a moment in time where they’re getting a particular education. We talked to them a bit..Then we went to the unit where we really talked about what got them in and, you know, look there was a sense of frustration. We had certainly some complaints about process-related stuff, about them believing that they were supposed to get a hearing and that the hearings weren’t getting recorded...wasn’t being recorded correctly. Two of them told us that they received notice that they had refused a hearing and they hadn’t. So there were a lot of process related complaints.

“One of them talked about an altercation that he had with a corrections officer where he admitted that he got in a fight with a corrections officer and instigated it, well, was part of the instigation of it. A lot of it was about the relationship between the staff and the inmates...But I think we all understood that I think almost anybody in a restrictive climate would feel restricted and then thereby would have complaints about those who they have to deal with on a daily basis. You know a lot of it was talking about why they got in, particularly what got them in a specific unit, and then a lot of it was about process of getting a hearing, but acknowledging they had an audience and they knew we were City Council members and that this was an opportunity to raise any points that they wanted to.”

GG: Did you talk to any of the guards?

KP: “We talked to a lot of them. I will certainly tell you two things. One is, we met with a lot of guards, we met with wardens, deputy wardens, we met with corrections officers, we met with people working in the mental health unit. We met with one of them in the mental health unit who I would say demonstrated to me a real compassion and care, he was deputy warden, I think, in that unit, been there for like 30 years. Elias told me he retired and then unretired and really seemed to care.

“I thought the staff was, I thought they were really impressive. They were smart, they had a real care for the job, the ones we met at least. They really had a deep knowledge, not beyond just the job they do but more like the whole ecosystem around Rikers Island. We were there briefly for a security incident where they actually put the vests on and there was light that was going off, and we talked a lot about security and safety in there.

“Look, they have a really, really, really tough job and I was impressed by a lot of the staff that we met and their commitment to the job but recognizing that they would all tell you how difficult it can be and how safety and security is the top priority for them, not just themselves but for the inmates as well, the inmate-on-inmate violence and keeping people safe.

“I’m recognizing that there are people on that island who are not even guilty, who potentially could not be found guilty... so there’s a lot of different constituencies...in any building on the whole island. So we talked to a lot of staff and they were knowledgeable and they were smart and had a care for the job. But none of them would tell you it’s an easy job or that they feel safe at all moments.”

GG: Has it pushed you on wanting to move on one specific thing first? Has it changed your priorities at all?

KP: “Yeah it did. Number one is, it reaffirmed to me that we can build safer facilities and put people close to home and the proximity to your family and loved ones, the ability to have safer facilities and more modernized facilities and the ability for people to come and get there much easier is all worth it. It’s all worth what we’ve been talking about all along. The Close Rikers campaign was grounded in people’s real experiences, it was not just an ideological goal. People had come to this with real concerns.

“The second part of it is, I think we want to look at safety and security protocols in two ways. This opened my eyes. One is the procedures ongoing about keeping the people that work there safe in light of the incident a few weeks ago [where a guard was attacked] and in light of the things that we talked about. I think I would like to have a hearing at some point on the safety and security of everybody who works there and ways we can improve it. And second is, we were already planning on talking about contraband, but my visit to the visitors center, or the welcome center where you first walk in, did highlight for myself and some members the idea that it seems to me we could be doing more around preventing people from getting contraband into the prison.

“We asked a number of questions about packages and people that are entering into the jail and I think we still have a lot unanswered questions about safety of the inmates and security based on who and what is coming onto the island. So I think a hearing on two safety items - you know the people that work in the facility and people who work in the jails and two is the contraband.

“And the third one I think is grounded in conversations I had...today with [Board of Corrections] members but also based on being there, which is health services on the island and ensuring that we’re providing appropriate medical services to people on that island who really need it. And we didn’t get to go to the women’s facility but I think in that facility particularly there’s probably a lot of services that are required. So I think we should dive into health care on the island and connected to the island as well.”

GG: What do you think about what’s happening with the Bronx jail site proposal?

KP: “I think that, when the announcement was made and that was obviously the newest jail, while the other ones had been discussed and previewed in the past, and they’re based on existing sites, this is a totally new one. So it’s not totally surprising to me that there are a lot of questions that are coming from the community and that we end up talking about concerns.

“I think that there is a way that we can work with the community and the elected officials there to find something or find some compromise, or some way to work to site it there. I think that everybody understands the need and the importance of having the borough-based facilities and the fact that the Bronx would be one of them. But the elected officials that represent that area or nearby...found out about it from a press conference and were concerned about it. I think every community, every elected official wants to find out well in advance, at least have an opportunity to talk to the community about it.

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that it’s caused a conversation about location and the siting of it but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a place where all communities that are receiving new sites will be comfortable with them and will find the appropriate balance between their needs and the needs of the city.”

GG: Do you think Rikers will be shut down in less than 10 years?

KP: “Yes, I do. I do and I think that there’s two points that matter here. One is, we’re now on the land use, siting, and design process part of it -- which is, we’ve actually put us on a timeline on the process...if they certify the ULURP in November or December, which is what I think they’re expecting to do, and then they go through the ULURP. Then that’s a year or so by which they’re sited. That’s the good news. That was the importance of doing this now, to actually get that year of process out...I think we’re ahead of the ten-year schedule and we’re gonna be moving faster. And if we can get some reforms in Albany like speedy trials and bail reform and design-build...I think we move even faster than expected.”

[Related: Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Now Overseeing Closure, Council Member Makes First Visit to Rikers Tue, 06 Mar 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7486:bronx-electeds-residents-cry-foul-as-mayor-and-council-announce-jail-site http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7486:bronx-electeds-residents-cry-foul-as-mayor-and-council-announce-jail-site Bronx jail site NYPD tow pound

Planned Bronx jail site (photos: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


When Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced last week that they’d reached a deal to speed up the closure of Rikers Island by creating or expanding jail facilities in every borough except Staten Island, it seemed to be a clear sign of a productive partnership between the administration and local elected officials.

The mayor and speaker made the announcement at a news conference at City Hall, alongside four Council members -- Diana Ayala, Karen Koslowitz, Stephen Levin, and Margaret Chin -- willing to accept the political risk of a new or expanded jail in their districts. The city will launch a unified land use review application for all four jails, the mayor and speaker said, combining the arduous and lengthy multi-stage approval process for siting certain municipal facilities.

But the proposal to build the Bronx jail -- the only one of the four that is not either a current or former jail facility -- immediately raised the hackles of elected officials from the borough other than Ayala, a newly elected Council member whose districts spans East Harlem and part of the South Bronx.

“Look the site in the Bronx is a site owned by the City of New York. It is a very smart site in terms of its closeness to the courthouses,” de Blasio explained at the news conference, when asked about a critical statement put out by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who had not been kept in the loop by the administration or the Council. “There is going to be a full community process, but let's be clear, we're going to talk to everyone, we're going to listen to everyone, we're going to try in every way possible address community needs and address other benefits that communities need.”

De Blasio emphasized, “That being said, up here are the people who ultimately have to make the decision – the Council, represented by the Speaker, the members who represent those individual districts, and me and my administration.”

Ayala was aware of the criticism she may face for supporting a site in her district. “We all know that this siting process is bound to be controversial,” she said. “In the Bronx in particular, we are not repurposing an existing detention center but instead building a brand new facility that will require additional careful thought, serious consideration and robust community engagement, and I really wanna underline that…We also know that in the Bronx, too often we see a concentration of city facilities in our borough and there is rightfully some resistance to that. But we in the Bronx also understand the urgent need for criminal justice reform.”

Top Bronx officials were taken aback that this was the first they were hearing of a new jail intended for their backyard. Any consultations that had happened had excluded Borough President Diaz Jr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake, whose district neighbors the one where the proposed site is located at 320 Concord Avenue, currently an NYPD tow pound; and Assemblymember Marcos Crespo, the Democratic Bronx County party leader whose support helped Johnson win the speakership.

“I was surprised to learn that the administration has already selected a site for a new jail in The Bronx,” said Diaz Jr. in a statement that preceded the mayor and speaker’s Wednesday news conference. The proposed site had been first revealed by the Wall Street Journal the previous night, just after de Blasio delivered his State of the City address. “I hope that, going forward, this lack of outreach is not a harbinger of the amount of community input the people of my borough will have in this process,” Diaz Jr. said. (At the news conference, Johnson showed some contrition immediately, apologizing to Diaz Jr. and promising a “robust, meaningful” community engagement process.)

“It is simply disrespectful that a decision of this magnitude of proposing to open a new jail in the South Bronx was made behind closed doors, without engaging the broader Bronx community,” said Assemblymember Blake, in a statement released Wednesday night.

Crespo, the Democratic Bronx county boss, took to Twitter, calling out the mayor and speaker. “We spent so much time talking the last few months how did this rikers plan in my district never come up?” he wondered.

“I think we were all caught off guard with how far ahead the city seems to be when no one in the Bronx was informed of the process,” Crespo later elaborated, in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette. “Once you decide on a site, that’s gonna have an impact for generations.”

Crespo and the other electeds aren’t opposed to the administration’s goal: building capacity in the boroughs so that Rikers can close. But, he said the Concord Avenue site is not the best option, and the city should explore alternatives. The community and the borough already host their fair share of municipal facilities, Crespo insisted, echoing widespread criticism that the city has long chosen to place seemingly undesirable facilities such as jails, homeless shelters, and waste treatment plants in low-income communities of color. “Make no mistake about it, this borough has been handling an unfair share already for a long time,” he said.

“There’s major investments and their success would also be endangered,” he said of the Mott Haven neighborhood, where new development is underway literally across the road from where the jail would be situated.

The rapid outpouring of criticism didn’t seem lost on Speaker Johnson, who quickly seemed to equivocate on the Bronx site. “I am committed to facilities in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan,” Johnson told NY1. "We are not wedded to an individual location. If there is a better location I am happy to have that conversation."

Responding to an assertion that he was backpedaling, Johnson said in a subsequent tweet that he is “not at all” backing away from the site, but reiterated that the main goal is closing the jails on Rikers Island and that he is “not wedded” to one location. “If there's a better one,” he wrote, “I'm all ears. No other location has been presented.”

If the Bronx elected officials were stunned by the announcement, it’s little wonder that those who live in the neighborhood around the proposed site were likewise surprised and offended to learn of the plan.

bx jail site 2The site is located in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, north of the Harlem River, with large industrial and manufacturing spaces running between the waterfront and the Major Deegan Expressway.

Residents and others expressed a mix of astonishment, resignation, anger, and resentment as Gotham Gazette told them on Friday that the city intended to build a jail within blocks of their homes and places of work.

“I thought they were gonna do a mall,” said Jesus Ortiz, 50, who runs an auto-repair shop across the street from the NYPD tow pound that occupies the block.

The site is sandwiched between East 141st and 142nd Streets, next to Bruckner Boulevard, in a neighborhood with a mix of housing and commercial properties. Enclosed by metal sheet walls, the tow pound is almost a hill overlooking its neighbors, with impounded cars visible from the street through a peripheral treeline that is leafless in February.

“They’re trying to rebuild the South Bronx to make it nice,” said Ortiz, “That’s not the way to rebuild, by putting a jail here.” Having worked there 15 years, Ortiz said he’s seen rapid development in recent times. Even the building that houses his auto shop was recently bought out, he said, and the landlords gave him a one-year lease till 2019. He’ll soon be gone from the neighborhood too.

“They’re buying all around,” he said.

Adam Bele, 40, loads containers at the lumber supply warehouse that sits behind 320 Concord. “Nobody wants to be near a jail,” he said. His biggest concern, one that others shared as well, is for the children that attend the several schools in the neighborhood.

“You don’t want children hanging around a jail,” said the father of two infants who will likely attend one of those schools, he said.  

As with other residents, Bele was wary of the process for choosing the site. “It’s like they know it’s gonna be unpopular so they tried to hide it and do it quick, quick, quick,” he said. He had a simple piece of advice for the mayor. “Be transparent. Listen to this community, and take our recommendations into consideration.”

But Bele empathizes with the city’s rationale that detainees deserve to be housed closer to their families in humane and modern facilities, and that Rikers needs to close. “You don’t want them treated like animals, they’re human like us,” he said. The mayor and speaker have promised to seek community feedback on the proposed site and, as required by the city’s land use review process, community boards will get an opportunity to hold votes, albeit nonbinding, to approve or reject the proposal. Borough presidents also get to weigh in with advisory opinions.

Along Concord Avenue, in what could eventually be the shadow of a new jail, sit rowhouses, a few of them old and abandoned and showing signs of disrepair. “For Sale” signs hung in a few windows.

In one of those houses lives Nereida Chavez, 38, a stay-at-home mom with four kids. “Oh my god!” she exclaimed on hearing that her biggest neighbor could one day be a jail.

“I don’t like the idea of having a jail here,” she said. “It’s just scary.”

She worried that a jail could mean more traffic along a little-traversed street. “We have our kids and they love to play out here with their bikes,” she said. And, it might also mean that parking, which has become an issue already owing to the large lumber and oil and gas companies around them, might worsen. “We hardly have any parking here. It’ll be even more complicated if they put a jail here,” she said.

But Chavez was more concerned that she hardly had an opportunity to be heard on an issue that quite directly would affect her. “It makes me worried that things happen around us and we don’t know anything,” she said. “They also put shelters around us. They don’t let us know until it’s there.”

bx jail site 3At a bodega on East 141st Street, Mel McKenzie, 33, was buying milk. Gotham Gazette asked if the homemaker knew about the city’s plan to build a jail, three blocks from her home.

“For real?” she said.

“I’m not with it,” she frowned. “It should stay an impound lot....[A jail] won’t bring the community together. It’ll probably make us scared. And it’s too close to home.”

Another shopper, Nancy Lopez, 43, chimed in. “Why move it so close when there’s other areas where they could put it?” she wondered. “Put it across Bruckner where it’s more industrial. There’s kids that walk by everyday on Concord.”

The city’s plan to close Rikers and replace some of its capacity in borough facilities near courthouses entails building for about 6,000 inmates, with the goal of getting the jail population down to about 5,000, according to the mayor.

McKenzie acknowledged that its a laudable objective to help detainees, most of whom are pre-trial and not convicted of any crime, remain connected to their communities. “That makes sense,” she said, but she also expressed concern about what school-going children would take away from it. “That’s the message they’re sending? You’re gonna be close to home if you get locked up.”

“What happens if a prisoner escapes?” said Lopez, who said she is on disability and lives on Concord Avenue in the same row as Nereida Chavez. Instead, she proposed a “positive” alternative. “Why don’t they build affordable housing?”

Both women had one shared concern, however, that neither of them had received an opportunity to weigh in. “They should notify the public,” McKenzie said.

“As it’s happening, not when it’s already decided,” added Lopez. The city will present plans to the public, particularly through the community board, when the site is set for its place in the land use review process. It may be up to local residents to seek out opportunities to hear more and provide their feedback.

Presenting the site as a “fait accompli” would undermine the process, said the Bronx borough president in his statement, but it’s what one resident seemed to expect from the administration. “The city does whatever it wants,” said Hector Camilo, 55. “It doesn’t matter. You can’t argue with the city.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been corrected to note that Assembly Member Michael Blake does not represent the district where the proposed jail site at 320 Concord Avenue is located. He represents a neighboring district. 

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Bronx Electeds, Residents Cry Foul as Mayor and Council Announce Jail Site Tue, 20 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
What’s The [Data] Point? 10, with Michael Jacobson http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7351:what-s-the-data-point-10-with-michael-jacobson http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7351:what-s-the-data-point-10-with-michael-jacobson whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 22 -- 10, with Michael Jacobson [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

jacobson wtdp w carol ben

Michael Jacobson is the executive director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and is involved in efforts to close the Rikers Island jail complex. Previously, he has served as the city's correction commissioner as well as the probation commissioner. He joined the podcast to discuss his work as a member of the Lippman Commission convened by the City Council to solve the crisis at Rikers, especially the plans for expanding borough-based jail facilities that would replace the Rikers jails if all goes according to plan.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Carol Kellerman of CBC (@cbcny), and guest Michael Jaobson (@Michaelislg). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What’s The [Data] Point? 10, with Michael Jacobson Wed, 06 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
De Blasio Administration Disappoints at Rikers Hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7349:de-blasio-administration-disappoints-at-rikers-hearing http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7349:de-blasio-administration-disappoints-at-rikers-hearing martin 10 years sucks via close rikers

Glenn Martin & JustLeadershipUSA (photo: @GlennEMartin)


New Yorkers depend on City Council hearings to hold agencies accountable and to demand transparency from the mayor’s administration. On Monday, what the City Council members of the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee got instead was a dismissive attitude cushioned in lofty rhetoric from a mayor’s office that seems unwilling or unable to make closing the jails on Rikers Island a priority.

Time after time, representatives from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the city Department of Correction (DOC) sidestepped important questions, reaffirmed their adherence to a too-long ten-year timeline to closing Rikers jails, and adamantly refused to offer a concrete plan for how to achieve even that goal.

Several Council members were quick to point out that a ten-year timeline is not justified by any information that has been presented to them, but the de Blasio administration made clear that they see the challenge of closing Rikers jails as a “steep climb,” and something that will be nearly impossible to achieve in anything less than ten years.

Glenn E. Martin, president of JustLeadershipUSA and founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign, voiced a concern that many were palpably feeling during the hearing when, in his testimony, he described Mayor de Blasio’s actions on closing Rikers as “opaque, narrow, and visionless.” Martin and others voiced concerns over some of MOCJ’s proposals, including the use of risk assessments in evaluating the population at Rikers Island, as well as the language used by new DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who constantly referred to people incarcerated on Rikers as “inmates.”

On Twitter, Martin noted that Brann’s call for cultural change at Rikers – what he sees as an untenable given the deeply-entrenched culture of brutality on the island – was rendered meaningless by her refusal to “recognize the humanity of the people there.”

There were other moments in testimony from MOCJ and DOC offering insight into how the mayor is approaching the problems presented by Rikers Island.

MOCJ Director Liz Glazer reaffirmed her office’s commitment to using data to help reduce the number of people incarcerated at Rikers, while pointing out that the seriousness of the charges that many are facing may make it difficult to immediately relocate or release several of those people. Additionally, DOC Commissioner Brann highlighted some of the increased programming that has been introduced at Rikers, and walked Council members through some of the recent reforms that are a result of oversight efforts from the court-appointed Nunez Monitoring Team.

However, even with these moments, the hearing felt like a missed opportunity to communicate the mayor’s vision, if he has one, to a city eager for concrete action and meaningful change. “While today's hearing should have been an opportunity to engage with the administration and learn about what they have done and intend to do, the hearing showed that the mayor is simply not interested in crafting meaningful and bold solutions in the effort to close Rikers,” said Martin.

What was perhaps most shocking, however, was not just how little was said about what’s next, but how little was said about whatever has been achieved up to this point. The City Council was given very little substantive information to work with, and was instead forced to reckon with the fact that, in many ways, the mayoral administration’s work on closing Rikers still sits at square one. In fact, judging by the few proposals and initiatives that were discussed by the administration, it would appear that they still do not understand the scope or the urgency of this issue.

Much of the testimony offered from the mayor’s representatives felt like it could have been spoken, without changing a word, several years ago. This is despite what the mayor claims has been significant progress on criminal justice reform throughout the second half of his first term. Time and again, MOCJ and DOC testimonies were centered on platitudes about the challenges that remain and the general vision that the mayor reluctantly adopted when he did finally agree that the city should work to close the Rikers jail complex.

But that was pretty much all they offered, and that’s the problem.

Rikers Island continues to be a destructive force for New York’s communities, budget, and conscience. It is, as Comptroller Scott Stringer has said, a stain on the moral fabric of our city. For this administration to offer little more than empty words and half-hearted ideas is a true disappointment for all of the New Yorkers eager to work with this mayor to end the trauma that results from this national embarrassment. Perhaps most importantly of all, this administration’s attitude was a deeply painful insult to the people who’ve been directly harmed by Rikers, many of whom were in the audience, looking on as the mayor’s representatives seemed to look past them.

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Shanequa Charles is a #CLOSErikers campaign member.

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

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De Blasio Administration Disappoints at Rikers Hearing Mon, 04 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Shut Down Rikers Island, and Don’t Replace It http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7342:shut-down-rikers-island-and-don-t-replace-it http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7342:shut-down-rikers-island-and-don-t-replace-it de Blasio Rikers jail

Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Due to the work many have done to illuminate the dehumanization and torture rampant on Rikers Island, city officials are finally proposing tangible steps to shut it down. This Monday, December 4, the New York City Council will hear testimony on progress being made toward closing the Rikers Island jails. Much of the discussion around closing Rikers jails, sure to continue Monday, centers on reducing the overall jail population in the city, but also on replacing available jail space.

As politicians and city agencies share plans to shut down the island’s ten-jail complex, it is imperative that the people of New York recognize the impact of these proposals: the modernization and adaptation of New York City’s jails will ultimately expand the scope of surveillance and imprisonment in the city and state.

The challenge going forward is to resist the prevailing attitude that the horror of jail is unique to Rikers Island and not inherent to the institution of jail itself, and to prevent the expansion of the jail system under the guise of reforms, improvements, and repairs. Critical Resistance NYC and the imprisoned organizers with whom we work recognize that jail systems cannot be converted into something humane and that the solution to the violence of Rikers cannot be a new kind of imprisonment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan calls for a ten-year process of depopulation, renovation, and new construction that will eventually result in the closure of Rikers, but we call out these strategies, outlined in his Smaller, Safer, Fairer “roadmap” for closing Rikers, as simply an extension to the life of the system. Closing Rikers only to replace it with new “state-of-the-art” jails and an expanded network of technologically-driven monitoring does nothing to alleviate the material consequences of detention and imprisonment or to curtail the reach of the prison industrial complex in New York. Instead, the city must implement tangible policies that bring us closer to ending the use of pre-trial detention altogether.

With millions of dollars allocated for repairs and technological upgrades to existing facilities on Rikers, the Department of Correction’s budget does not reflect the claim that we are on a path to divesting from the very system that produced the horrific conditions that now warrant the closure of Rikers. Repairs to facilities marked as problematic and slated for demolition squander funds that could otherwise be spent on life-sustaining services that address social and economic needs and on community-led initiatives for addressing harm and accountability in non-punitive ways.

The Mayor’s plan to shrink the jail population without more significantly shrinking the number of people who are policed, criminalized, and arrested in the first place is not an effective path to decarceration. Reductions that aim to stop the flow of people into the city’s jail system could start immediately – in particular, by putting an end to broken windows and community policing, which only increase police presence in our neighborhoods and broaden their jurisdiction over virtually every aspect of our lives, especially in communities of color. New York City must refuse imprisonment and mandated monitoring as sustainable solutions. Instead, we must build a city-wide system that guarantees transformative, voluntary social services as well as resources that support people released from jail in order to facilitate the immediate jail depopulation that will actually move us closer to closing Rikers while making any new jails obsolete.

The city’s decision-makers must abandon any process to close Rikers that feeds, expands, and further calcifies the city’s jail system. We cannot truly overcome the violent reality of Rikers if our solution to its abuses depends on deepening wasteful spending in other jails and new forms of surveillance and monitoring in our communities. We must work to shift priorities from imprisonment and control to supporting and amplifying true community-led solutions to conflict, harm, and violence that strengthen community stability and meet people’s needs.

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Kate Hudson and Marlene Nava Ramos are members of the New York City chapter of Critical Resistance, a national, member-led organization that seeks to create genuinely healthy and stable communities that respond to harm without relying on imprisonment, policing, and punishment.

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

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Shut Down Rikers Island, and Don’t Replace It Thu, 30 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Ends Term with Flurry of Oversight Hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7328:city-council-ends-term-with-flurry-of-oversight-hearings http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7328:city-council-ends-term-with-flurry-of-oversight-hearings mmv hearing john mccarten city council

Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


[Note: this article has been updated based on fluctuations in the City Council calendar]

A flurry of oversight hearings are filling the City Council calendar as the Council enters its final month of the four-year session, most notably a hearing slated to address controversies over NYCHA’s falsified lead inspection reports, a hearing to discuss the city’s progress in closing Rikers Island jails, and a hearing on integrating the city's segregated public schools.

More than a dozen oversight hearings are slated for Council committee discussion between November 20 and December 19 as this current iteration of the Council ends its term. A new class of Council members, many of whom are current officeholders who won reelection this fall, will be sworn in just after the new year, with a new Council Speaker chosen at the first full-body “stated meeting” in early January.

At oversight hearings, Council members typically question the relevant top officials in the mayoral administration about the topic at hand, before testimony from other stakeholders, like advocates, non-governmental experts, or members of the public. While the hearings can be informative to Council members, journalists, advocates, and the broader public, further Council action will likely be taken in the next session, when many committee chair positions will have changed hands.

Along with the oversight hearings on the NYCHA lead controversy and initial steps being taken toward closing Rikers jails, some of the scheduled oversight hearings deal with fighting homelessness, the NYPD’s role in school safety, mental health services for military veterans, evaluating workforce development programs, “the feasibility of microgrids,” and more.

The oversight hearing scheduled to discuss closing Rikers, set for December 4, comes on the heels of the de Blasio administration’s release of a request for proposals to assess existing jails as potential sites to accommodate additional inmates and the overall need for space across the boroughs other than State Island, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has said no new jail will be opened.

A 10-year plan issued by the mayor’s office in June committed to reducing the city’s jail population from the now roughly 9,500 to 5,000 within this time frame, while ensuring space in four borough jails for that smaller number of detainees.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited out of office at the end of the year, has been a driving force behind the mission to close Rikers jails. At a press conference on Thursday, she told Gotham Gazette that the hearing will be important in terms of examining progress on several fronts important to the larger goal.

“There’s already sites that exist and what we have to do is look at how we can create a modern day facility that really addresses some of the concerns that were raised and the recommendations made in the independent commission report,” she said, referring to the issue of identifying space and the RFP being put out by the city whereby a consultant will be hired to study resources and need. She also referred to the report put forth by a commission she empaneled led by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, which crafted its own 10-year plan for closing Rikers jails. "There’s stuff to talk about, there’s other recommendations and action items that have to be taken, action that has to be taken and we can’t do that alone so it’s a matter of figuring out, where do we stand, what’s next to do, how quickly can we get it done,” Mark-Viverito said.

The timeline for closing Rikers, the designation of responsibility, locations for housing detainees, the rate of population decline within the correctional facility, and a number of recent bail reform laws are topics of interest for the oversight hearing according to Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, which will host the hearing. Crowley will lead it, likely along with Mark-Viverito.

“This would be the most ideal way of wrapping up the session because it’s an immense endeavor and one that clearly the Department of Corrections doesn’t have the talents right now and the ability to address,” Crowley told Gotham Gazette in an interview. “I’m hoping that we can put together recommendations for the mayor’s office to help make this plan more of a reality.”

The NYCHA lead hearing was a recent addition to the slate, called by City Council Member Ritchie Torres, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Public Housing, in light of a Department of Investigations report revealing that NYCHA submitted false documentation of lead paint safety inspections never completed. The hearing, set for December 5, will discuss the practice and steps being taken to make things right, Torres said. According to the report, NYCHA failed to perform apartment inspections in 2013, 2014 and 2015 despite not having conducted the approximate 55,000 annual inspections required to satisfy the federal rule.

The DOI report asserted that false paperwork was submitted even after NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye learned of the department’s non-compliance with city and federal rules. Olatoye is expected to appear before the committee during the oversight hearing next month. “I want to ask the chairperson about the agency’s practice of misleading the federal government about conducting lead paint inspections. Why did those practices transpire? When did she find out those practices were happening? How long did it take her before she revealed it to the general public and revealed it to DOI?” Torres told Gotham Gazette in an interview.

In response to the DOI report and fallout, NYCHA announced personnel and programmatic changes. Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio has stated his support for Olatoye, whose departure has been called for by several people, most notably Public Advocate Letitia James.

The Department of Investigation, Council Member Torres, and Public Advocate James, among others, have called for an independent monitor to oversee NYCHA inspections in the future. “NYCHA no longer has the credibility to monitor its own lead paint inspections. The only hope for restoring public confidence is an independent monitor,” Torres said.

On December 7, the Council's education committee will hold an oversight hearing on "diversity in New York City schools," whereby the Council will check in on progress in reports from the Department of Education mandated by legislation co-sponsored by Council Members Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres.

"This hearing will begin with testimony from the NYC Department of Education (DOE) about the plan they released in the spring (“Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools”), the third-annual “School Diversity Accountability Act” report (just released last week), and other efforts such as their recently-announced plan for District 1 and the work they are beginning for District 15 middle-schools," according to an announcemnt from Lander's office.

"After that -- and just as important -- the hearing will also provide an opportunity for the City Council to hear public testimony from students, parents, educators, and advocates working to combat school segregation and create truly integrated schools," the Lander announcement adds.

An oversight hearing to discuss career pathways and workforce development systems is also scheduled, for November 27. New York City’s population is notably underprepared for the workforce, with more than 3.3 million residents over the age of 25 lacking an associate’s degree or other level of college education, according to July 2016 Census data estimates. Those with degrees are concentrated largely within Manhattan. The city’s launch of the Career Pathways program in 2014 was an initial step in addressing the issue; committed to improving working conditions for lower-wage workers emphasizing training and education and creating connections with city employers. While the program has shown some promise in reforming and overhauling the city’s approach to skill-building programs, Career Pathways still lacks permanent funding and has yet to establish the necessary system of referrals and partnerships, according to report released by Center for an Urban Future in 2016.

The oversight hearing will likely include an update on the status of the Career Pathways program from the city’s Department of Small Business Services and testimony from Stacy Woodruff of the Workforce Professionals Training Institute on changes within the job market, according to Council Member Robert Cornegy Jr., chair of the Committee on Small Business.

“November’s small business committee hearing will be geared towards gaining a better understanding of the progress of the Career Pathways program announced in 2014. As New York’s economy continues to evolve, it is essential we understand the ways in which we can anticipate that evolution and ensure we prepare New Yorkers for the jobs that will come along with it,” said Cornegy, whose committee will co-host the hearing with the Committee on Civil Service and Labor, chaired by Council Member Daneek Miller.

Earlier this year, Mayor de Blasio announced a new plan to use city resources to spur 100,000 new, good-paying jobs, with an emphasis on making sure that current city residents and those who have long-lived in the city are able to fill the new jobs. The Career Pathways program is seen by many in economic development and job training circles as key to this effort, but experts say that it has been underfunded by the de Blasio administration.

Under this City Council, a bill was passed and signed by the mayor in 2016 to establish a separate Department of Veterans Affairs, outside of the Mayor’s Office. The new department has a much bigger staff and budget than the old Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, and works to place veterans in jobs through Workforce1 centers, reduce homelessness among military veterans, connect veterans to benefits and services, including mental health care. An oversight meeting on Monday, November 20 included discussion of the city’s progress in providing mental health services for veterans.

The hearing was co-hosted by the Committee on Mental Health, chaired by Council Member Andrew Cohen, and the Committee on Veterans, chaired by Council Member Eric Ulrich.

“This is the end of the City Council session so it’s the last opportunity to check in here on the status of the newly created Department of Veterans, the overall services available to veterans. I’d like to make an inquiry into the nexus between Thrive[NYC] and our veterans, the number of veterans being serviced through Thrive and just kind of an overall taking the temperature of where we’re at in terms of connecting veterans with mental health services,” said Cohen, referring to the de Blasio administration’s large mental health care program spearheaded by First Lady Chirlane McCray.

Also on the City Council calendar is an oversight hearing that took place Tuesday, November 21 to discuss “the feasibility of microgrids.” Local energy grids capable of disconnecting from central power sources and operating autonomously, microgrids are used to provide power when the traditional grid has been compromised by an emergency or major power outage. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which left 800,000 city residents without power, microgrids could offer an important alternative in helping deal with future storms.

Such grids also enable greater use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, potentially allowing city residents more flexibility in their energy sources. “These types of small electricity grids have the potential to change the way we generate and consume power “ said Council Member Costa Constantinides, chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection, in a statement to Gotham Gazette prior to the hearing, which his committee hosted in conjunction with the Committee on Consumer Affairs, chaired by Council Member Rafael Espinal. “We hope to learn more about how microgrids could be implemented in our city, how consumers could save money on utility bills, and hear feedback from environmental advocacy groups,” said Constantinides.

On Monday, November 20, the committees on housing and on general welfare held an oversight hearing on how the city’s housing department coordinates with the city’s homeless services department and its welfare agency “to address the homelessness crisis.”

Other scheduled oversight hearings, some of which have now occurred, include: a public safety committee hearing on “NYPD’s School Safety’s Role and Efforts to Improve School Climate”; the committees on higher education and technology on “CUNY Tech Incubators”; the committees on health and immigration on “Immigrant Access to Healthcare”; the governmental operations committee on “DCAS’s Energy Management and Energy Efficiency Initiatives”; the economic development committee on “NYC’s Sagging Air Cargo Industry”; the recovery and resiliency committee on “Update on assisting vulnerable populations in emergency evacuations”; the juvenile justice committee on “Trauma-Informed Services in the Juvenile Justice System”; the contracts committee on “Examining Existing Supports and Needs of Underrepresented Business Owners in City Procurement”; the aging committee on “Supporting Unpaid Caregivers”; the technology committee on "MODA's Data and Verification Plan"; the housing committee on "Housing Development Fund Corps. (HDFCs) & Transparency"; the environmental protection committee on "The City’s Wastewater Infrastructure – Current Condition and Future Plans"; the economic development committee on "Economic Impact of Vacant Storefronts"; and a few others. 

(Note: be sure to re-check the Council calendar as hearings are often postponed or canceled.)

(Note: this article has been updated with information about an additional hearing.)

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by Grace Dixon for Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

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City Council Ends Term with Flurry of Oversight Hearings Sun, 19 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000