Mayor de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
New Yorkers are beyond tired of the tale of two mayors: one who claims to be committed to substantive reform of New York City’s criminal legal and jail systems and another who resists, delays, and undermines efforts to address the deep injustices of those same systems. The first mayor touts his support for closing Rikers Island jails, ending solitary confinement, and releasing people from jail at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak — though he came to these positions only under constant pressure by advocates, and we are often reminded that he has not truly understood our demands.
The other mayor tells a very different story with his actions, such as his support for expanding the use of bail (and willingness to amplify his NYPD’s efforts to spread fear about bail reform), his choice to prioritize the jobs of police and correction officers over human services, his unwillingness to address ongoing abuse by law enforcement, and most recently, his plans to cut jobs at the Board of Correction by 31% compared to last year.
For most New Yorkers, the Board of Correction may be a relatively unknown agency. The BOC is an oversight board that regulates, monitors, and inspects facilities run by the Department of Correction (DOC). The Board is supported by a small staff of 25 that is already too small to fully meet its mandate. The Board’s budget is only 0.23% of the Department of Correction’s budget, compared to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, a police oversight entity whose budget is now set at 1% of the NYPD’s personnel budget.
The BOC’s oversight role is at least as crucial as the CCRB’s, if not more. The NYPD’s brutality can sometimes be seen in public, recorded by cell phone cameras, and shared widely, but abuse of people in the city’s jails happens behind locked doors, and only the Department of Correction and Board of Correction have access to the video evidence.
Over the five years that DOC has been under a federal monitor for excessive use of force against people in their custody, use of force has only increased — to rates now 105% higher than in 2016. This month, New York City settled a $5.9 million lawsuit with the family of Layleen Polanco, and recently disciplined 17 correction officers involved in her death, after an extensive report by the Board. In the wake of COVID-19, the Board has also served an essential role in advocating to keep incarcerated people safe (including by releasing people), and compiling regular reports about management of COVID-19 in the jails. These reports have been critical in substantiating the sweeping claims by people in custody that safety protocols touted by the Department of Correction have not been happening in practice. The voices of people in custody are too often discredited by prosecutors, judges, and other stakeholders, leaving the Board’s monitoring and subsequent reporting essential to elevating the many safety concerns voiced from inside the jails.
There has probably never been a worse time to cut back on jail oversight. Despite the revenue shortfalls New York City is facing, this disaster can be avoided by looking to a much more appropriate place for budget cuts: the department that is perpetrating these abuses against New Yorkers. The Department of Correction has more than two uniformed officers for every person in custody — amounting to the highest jail staffing ratio in the United States, more than eight times higher than the national average. Despite that ratio, the Department’s budget still includes over $60 million for overtime. The Federal Nunez Monitor’s most recent report said that this overstaffing is actually driving more violence against people in the jails, especially through Probe Teams (essentially riot squads), which still have an operating budget over $37 million.
Mayor de Blasio faces a clear choice here, and the decision he makes will have life-and-death consequences for people in the custody of his Department of Correction. He can choose to cut the Board of Correction budget and worsen the human rights crisis on Rikers Island and in all city jails. Or he can preserve the Board’s budget and essential functions, a necessary step that must be followed by further action to finally end the Department of Correction’s reign of terror.