Gotham Gazette Mon, 18 Jan 2021 04:39:31 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) The Mayor Must Immediately Create a Just Reentry System for Those Leaving City Jails de Blasio prison reentry programming

The mayor at a pre-pandemic jail to jobs (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

The COVID-19 pandemic has served as another reminder that New York is a tale of two cities. The wealthy and elite were largely able to sequester themselves safely during the height of the pandemic and resume city life once infection rates went down. Many may again be removing themselves as cases rise. But the most vulnerable New Yorkers are still left without basic supports and services.

This is especially true for people released from city jails and detention centers. They were ignored when they were behind bars, where COVID spread at alarmingly higher rates than the rest of the city. Now, with the pandemic still with us and possibly worsening again, these New Yorkers leave the despair and neglect of jail to only once again have their needs discarded as they reenter society. We demand the needs of our formerly incarcerated fellow New Yorkers be met. There can be no equity and equality until we treat all individuals as human beings.

When COVID-19 hit, protecting people behind bars was largely dismissed. People who are incarcerated were largely ignored, even though, as The Legal Aid Society reported, city and state correctional facilities rapidly became epicenters of the virus.

Rapidly soaring covid cases in jails like Rikers and others forced attention to that population and calls to release incarcerated people to protect them from the dangerous conditions that left so many vulnerable to the virus.  The city responded by releasing 1,400 people between March 25 and May 3. As of September 22, over 1,950 people had been released.

This may sound like a good outcome, but in fact the release of incarcerated people during the pandemic has exposed more sharply the injustice of New York City’s reentry programs.

People are released from New York City jails without the basic tools they need to reenter society, including a valid I.D., which is essential for securing housing and other services. Those returning home lack sufficient medication or immediate access to Medicaid coverage due to bureaucratic hurdles preventing the immediate transfer of their medication from jail. Perhaps most shocking of all, many people leave jail, despite the extraordinarily high risk of contracting the virus behind bars, which of course threatens to lead to further community spread given how many people come in and out of our jails.

These basic services could be addressed by the Mayor, who can utilize the IDNYC program to provide a valid ID and effectively transition people’s healthcare upon release from Rikers, while also mandating COVID-19 testing during the reentry process. To further ensure that New Yorkers can get their lives back on track once they leave jail, we must provide safe and stable housing options. Unfortunately, our very own government discriminates against formerly incarcerated individuals through the NYCHA permanent exclusion rule, which can prevent those with criminal records from securing tenancy. We must end this regressive and harmful policy, which disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

We must also pair this change with an increase in affordable housing for those in the reentry process, and the city can and must increase the value of its housing voucher program to meet the fair market rates for housing unit rental prices, while also supporting existing City Council legislation to ban source-of-income discrimination from private landlords.

Establishing a just and wholesome reentry program is essential if we want formerly incarcerated people to fully return to society safely and prevent the recidivism that plagues our prisons and jails. So, Mr. Mayor: What are you waiting for?

Rabbi Barat Ellman is an anti-racism and criminal justice reform activist; a member of CAMMEERR, Children of Abraham, Martin, Malcolm, Ella, Emma, Rosa and Rose, a multiracial, cross-faith group; and of the Faith Leaders for Just Reentry Coalition of Trinity  Church of Wall Street. Shawanna Vaughn is an activist, advocate, and organizer for human rights, and the Executive Director of Silent Cry. On Twitter @BaratEllman & @SilentcrySv.

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The Mayor Must Immediately Create a Just Reentry System for Those Leaving City Jails Wed, 30 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
‘Forsaken Land:’ City and State Officials Mum on Covid Vaccination Plans for Incarcerated New Yorkers and Correction Officers Cuomo state prison walkthrough

Gov. Cuomo visits a prison, pre-pandemic (photo: Mike Groll/Governor's Office)

While New York continues to expand the circle of groups eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, people living and working in correctional facilities are being left out of the equation, despite early commitments from the city's Health Department and the heightened risk of infection in those settings.

With a limited supply of the vaccine, public health officials at the state and city levels have been developing a plan to prioritize populations that are most exposed and most vulnerable to the virus, which has killed more than 36,000 New Yorkers. Tracking guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), inoculations began earlier this month for high-risk city and state health-care providers with direct patient contact, and state health officials have been working with city agencies to create a phased distribution scheme for other populations as more doses become available.

Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state Department of Health have been mum on the position of prison and jail populations in the ordering, but city Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi told lawmakers at a recent New York City Council oversight hearing that congregate settings, including jails and homeless shelters, would be prioritized in the first phase of distribution, which he said could extend into January and February.

Groups representing various categories of essential and frontline workers, from social service providers to cab drivers, have been pushing to ensure that they will be next in line to receive the vaccine. On December 21, residents and staff in the state's nursing homes, a congregate setting ravaged by the virus, began receiving vaccines. On December 23, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced EMS workers with the city's fire department could receive vaccines at three inoculation locations the city had set up for them. This week urgent care employees and residents in addiction rehab facilities will begin receiving vaccines, Cuomo said Monday.

The state's original plan placed ICU, emergency department, and EMS workers, as well as at-risk residents in long-term care facilities in the first round of vaccinations, and first-responders like police, firefighters, and "those living in other congregate settings" in the second. Jails and prisons are not named specifically in the state's vaccine phases, leaving many to wonder where incarcerated people and correctional staff might fall. Officials have not provided any clear answers.

There is urgency "to somehow try to articulate their voice in what seems to be a forsaken land, and a pandemic-friendly environment no doubt," said Anthony Dixon, an advocate with the Parole Preparation Project and Release Aging People in Prison campaign (RAPP), in an interview with Gotham Gazette. Whether or not incarcerated New Yorkers who also fall into other high-risk categories, like those over age 75 and with comorbidities, will receive a vaccine in the first round is unclear.

"Black people's lives matter, not only in death but in life," said Dixon, who is formerly incarcerated. "It seems like the only time that phrase is used is when one of us dies. What about keeping us alive?"

At least 20 people have died from COVID-19 in state prisons since the outbreak in New York began, including two in one mid-December week, according to a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. That death count does not include people who have died in local jails, including the 11 facilities run by the New York City Department of Correction (DOC). Three people have died from the virus in DOC facilities, according to a spokesperson. There have been recent outbreaks at a number of facilities throughout the state.

"Throughout the pandemic, the Department has worked in consultation with the NYS Department of Health (DOH), following facts and science, as the entire incarcerated population was tested for COVID-19," wrote Thomas Mailey, a spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, which runs state prisons, in an email. "DOCCS is continuing to partner with DOH as part of the New York State COVID-19 Vaccination Program that was previously announced," he wrote. DOCCS has not responded to multiple requests for more detail on its vaccination planning.

At a December 4 oversight hearing, held jointly by the New York City Council committees on health and hospitals, Chokshi, the city health commissioner, said jails would be among the vaccine priority settings.

"Congregate settings beyond long-term care facilities have also been discussed at the federal level, in terms of the prioritization framework for phase one, and certainly the areas where there's greater risk. That includes prisons and jails, it includes homeless shelters, and certain other congregate settings, as well, will be part of the prioritization for phase one," Chokshi said at the time. (Phase one is broken down into three sub-phases, meaning a group's inclusion does not necessarily indicate it will receive vaccinations from the first tranche of doses.)

But since that time, preparations for other groups that had fallen under the state's latter phases to receive the vaccine -- like members of the NYPD -- are underway, while spokespeople for de Blasio and the city health department say they are awaiting further guidance from the CDC and the state on how to treat people behind bars and the guards who interact with them.

The latest CDC recommendations place high-risk non-health essential workers, including police officers and firefighters, in the second round of distribution. According to state budget director Robert Mujica, who is part of the team developing New York's vaccination plan, as of December 21 New York only had enough doses to inoculate a quarter of the roughly 2 million people who fall into the first category of eligible recipients -- "healthcare professionals, congregant care and nurses," he said at a press briefing with the governor.

Yet, members of the NYPD, an agency that has also suffered a significant number of casualties to the virus, may become eligible to receive vaccines this week, according to a memo recently obtained by the New York Post. The timeline leaves questions about when many other groups that have been designated top or high priorities will have access to the life-saving regimen.

A City Hall spokesperson said the police department may not be included in the first round of vaccinations, despite the memo, if the state does not approve it, the Post reported.

"When we have the prioritization for the next category then we’ll communicate that to the public and come up with a process for individuals to have access," Mujica said at a December 21 press briefing with the governor.

New York State has received approximately 550,000 doses of vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna. By Monday, over 140,000 had been administered statewide, according to the governor’s office.

"We're now talking about who's getting vaccinated, and let me be clear: there is no politics in the vaccination process," Cuomo said in a December 21 statement. "This is entirely done by medical professionals and our hospitals have already vaccinated more people than any state in the nation."

"There are so many people who need this vaccine. We are going to move very, very quickly to get that vaccine to everyone who needs it," de Blasio said at a December 23 press briefing.

Advocates say that incarcerated populations living in close quarters need to be expedited for vaccines, and that parole should be pursued more vigorously, especially for the system's aging population. A coalition of advocacy groups, has called on the governor "to ensure vaccine priority for all vulnerable people, including New Yorkers behind bars."

"While Governor Cuomo has condemned the federal government for ignoring communities of color in the national vaccine distribution plan, he must not ignore immigrant New Yorkers in ICE detention or incarcerated New Yorkers, who are disproportionately Black and Latinx," the coalition, which includes RAPP, Center for Community Alternatives, HALT Solitary Confinement, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a statement.

Earlier this year, Cuomo ordered the release of people incarcerated for low-level non-violent convictions who were within three months of the end of their sentence, as well as those locked up for some low-level parole violations, and some pregnant and postpartum women. As of late November, roughly 3,100 people had been released under the orders. Working with local officials including district attorneys, de Blasio made a set of decisions related to those in city jails, allowing more than 1,600 to leave detention between March and April, many of whom were being held pre-trial. By November, however, the city jail census had grown by another 860.

Approximately 8,181 people incarcerated in state detention facilities are over the age of 50, according to DOCCS. A press release from RAPP, Center for Community Alternatives, and others states that over 4,000 people total are currently eligible for parole, and more than 6,500 are within a year of their maximum sentence or up for release on good behavior, including five women with infants and one pregnant woman. DOCCS could not immediately confirm these figures.

While the NYPD and FDNY are forging ahead with plans to distribute vaccines to their members amid ongoing discussion at the city and state levels, a spokesperson for the city Department of Corrections said they were not aware of similar steps being taken in correctional facilities. "We have our covid plan in place and once we receive sign off from the state of any new plans for a vaccine then we will of course switch gears," the spokesperson said.

Officials at city and state health departments say they have not made any final decisions on where incarcerated people and facility staff fall in the vaccination line-up, and have not given details on the timeline for when they might receive vaccines (or even when a decision will be made). Some state lawmakers and advocates for incarcerated people have been pushing for details to no avail.

“Unfortunately, I have not heard from either the City or the State about their vaccination plans for incarcerated individuals," wrote Bronx Senator Gustavo Rivera, chair of the state Senate's health committee, in an email to Gotham Gazette. "It is critical that those individuals in correctional facilities are vaccinated imminently."

“Science and sound public health policy point to what we already know: all persons living and working in congregate settings in New York, including those incarcerated in correctional institutions, should have access to COVID vaccines as soon as possible," said Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who chairs the Assembly's health committee.

"COVID doesn’t distinguish or discriminate between different kinds of congregate settings, and neither should the State of New York," he added.

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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‘Forsaken Land:’ City and State Officials Mum on Covid Vaccination Plans for Incarcerated New Yorkers and Correction Officers Mon, 28 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
We Must End Solitary Confinement in New York solitary confinement jail cell

We need to end solitary confinement in our city and state. Spending all day in a cell the size of an elevator can cause permanent brain damage. Common sense tells us this. Science confirms it. But only the words of someone who has been in solitary confinement can begin to explain it.

“No one to talk to. Nothing to do. I did push-ups. I read the Bible. That’s it. For days.” That is the way my brother-in-law explained it to me. And the haunting look in his eyes –– years later –– conveyed more than words ever could.

This is an issue of fundamental human rights. The United Nations General Assembly, through the adoption of the Nelson Mandela Rules, has denounced the use of solitary confinement for any period exceeding 15 days. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture raised banning solitary confinement altogether for persons detained pretrial. However, prisons and jails in New York State hold people in solitary confinement for years, and our city jails routinely use solitary confinement in pretrial detention.

This is also a racial justice issue. Black people represent about 18% of the state population, 43% of those incarcerated in the state, and 57% of those held in solitary confinement. In New York City, of the jailed patients receiving mental health services, Black and Latino patients were 2.52 and 1.65 times more likely to be put in solitary confinement than white patients.

The harm is undeniable. Hypersensitivity to stimuli. Hallucinations. Increased anxiety. Diminished impulse control. Severe and chronic depression. Nightmares. Self-mutilation. Difficulties with concentration and memory. These effects last well beyond solitary confinement and incarceration. Those who have spent time in solitary confinement are more likely to die upon release from custody, either by homicide or suicide, and are more likely to be reincarcerated.

The specter of solitary confinement looms large in jails and prisons. Contrary to popular perception, solitary confinement is not reserved for persons convicted of the most violent offenses or those who put staff and others in custody in danger.

Take, for example, my brother-in-law. He was in a schoolyard fight as a college student. One of his friends had a gun. Everyone in the fight was prosecuted. My brother-in-law was incarcerated for a gun he never touched and did not know about. He then was put in solitary confinement when he stood up for himself after someone twice his age took his dinner and dared him to say something.

Also contrary to public opinion, solitary confinement does not make prisons or jails safer. Research supports common sense here too, finding that the psychological damage caused by solitary can cause those placed there to act more violently. Other jurisdictions have shown that reducing solitary confinement can reduce jail violence. Cook County in Illinois banned solitary confinement in 2016 and found that assaults on people in custody and staff plummeted to an all-time low.

Lawsuits can help. I was the Chief Deputy at the New York Attorney General’s Office, and we sued a private contractor that provided medical services for a county jail. On the contractor’s watch, five people died due to inadequate medical care. Two others died, in solitary confinement, in another jail overseen in the state by this contractor. Our lawsuit got the contractor barred from providing jail health services in New York for three years.

But, the best and clearest solution is for the State Legislature and the City Council to act. Right now, the state prison system uses solitary confinement with impunity, handing out lengthy and virtually unlimited sentences for even minor infractions. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act would go a long way towards reducing its overuse, prohibiting anyone from being held in solitary confinement for more than 15 days and limiting its application to the most egregious conduct.

New York City has limited solitary confinement to serious infractions and capped its use at 30 days. But, the city’s Department of Correction has dodged these requirements by putting some people in a so-called “restraint desk,” where persons in custody have both legs and one arm strapped to a desk during their “out of cell time.”

Both the city and state must go further. We must ban the use of solitary confinement altogether -- as well as these “restraint desks” or any other method that results in banning solitary in name only.

I think often of my brother-in-law, in solitary confinement, doing push-ups and reading the Bible. The horrors of solitary confinement violate standards of human dignity. One need not be of a particular faith or religion to see this. But, this week after Christmas, let those of us of the Christian faith not view the Bible only as a text that may give comfort to those in solitary confinement and otherwise marginalized by society. Let us also recall Jesus’ clear direction to the rest of us to care for and speak up for those in prison.

Alvin Bragg is Co-Director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School, former Chief Deputy Attorney General of New York State, and a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @AlvinBraggNYC.

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Photo: 70023venus2009

We Must End Solitary Confinement in New York Sun, 27 Dec 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Closing Rikers Must Remain A Priority, and We Can Do It Without Building New Jails rikers form one

Rikers Island (photo: formulanone)

New York City’s historic commitment to closing the Rikers Island jail complex is in jeopardy. Thanks to an adverse court ruling, a struggling budget, and unfocused political leadership, Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build four new jails at a cost of $9 billion is endangered -- and so is the very idea of closing Rikers. In recent weeks, the discussion over Rikers closure has devolved into debates about real estate, and lost sight of the people and communities harmed by our medieval jail complex and broken criminal justice system.

It’s time to focus on how to close Rikers quickly and responsibly -- and without building new jails. 

When I helped launch the campaign to close Rikers Island in 2016, most people in politics were deeply skeptical, if not outright opposed. But along the way, we built a 180-organization coalition, won over nearly every elected official in New York City, forced a commitment to closure from Mayor de Blasio, and watched the City Council dramatically pass legislation with a timeline for closure.

Our goal on the #CLOSERikers campaign had been threefold:

Shutter the Rikers Island jail complex, an 85-year moral stain on our city.

Dramatically reduce the number of New Yorkers in jail pre-trial, particularly people there simply because they are too poor to pay bail.

Invest in and build up communities most harmed by mass incarceration, so that fewer people get ensnared in the system in the first place. 

Lost in the myriad controversies over the Rikers closure plan have been the significant successes over the past few years. For all the controversy over last year’s City Council vote, it ultimately put about 80% of the Council on the record supporting closure. This year New York City’s jail population reached its lowest point in decades, fewer than 4,000 people. (There are currently about 4,600 due to a recent uptick.)

In 2019, the New York State Legislature passed major reforms to bail (wrongly partially rolled back in 2020), discovery, and speedy trial laws. Investments in community-based “violence interruption” programs are up. Restorative justice programs are taking root in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each subsequent election for District Attorney -- Brooklyn in 2017, Queens in 2019, Manhattan in 2021 -- has featured more progressive ideas around what criminal justice reform should look like. 

All of which brings us to the real question we should be asking right now: how can we close Rikers without building new jails? There was an aborted version of this debate before the 2019 City Council vote. While I argued then that Rikers should be closed without building new jails, those of us who supported that view didn’t do enough to explain how that would work, and Council members were largely uninterested in listening. Now, with the entire plan in jeopardy, it is imperative that we have that conversation. 

First, we must remind people that we already went through an exhaustive citywide debate about why Rikers Island must close. It is beyond reform, a brutish penal colony that has bucked attempts to “improve conditions” every generation since its founding. Second, we must point out that nearly everyone on Rikers Island is there either pre-trial (legally innocent), for a technical parole violation (things that would not be a crime for regular people), or serving a short jail sentence for a misdemeanor (often petty crimes). Having established that Rikers is a horrible place, and most people currently jailed there are not the dangerous villains stereotyped by some on the right, what are steps we can take to further reduce the jail population, so that we don’t need to build new jails? 

Continue passing legislation to reform the justice system. We’re sending more progressive State Senators and Assembly members to Albany than any time in recent history. Pre-covid, “technical parole violations” were the fastest rising cause of people being jailed at Rikers, and typically represent around 10% of people in our jail system. Let’s fix our long-broken parole system, so that people coming home from prison can actually get back on their feet instead of cycling through our jails over and over again. This will reduce our average jail population by about 700 people. 

Build a real community-based mental health-care program. This is something we all need as New Yorkers, as covid has made abundantly clear. A robust mental health-care system will require significant work to build, but as anyone who has struggled with or seen a loved one struggle with mental health can attest, it will be more than worth it. At Rikers Island, up to 40% of detainees experience mental health issues, and an increasing share have serious mental illness, about 1,100 (or 16%) according to 2019 figures. Finding community-based support for any substantial group of people who would be better served there instead of jail would reduce New York’s jail population by hundreds as well. 

Invest in programs that break the cycle of harm. We already have great programs that work with young people who get in trouble with the criminal legal system, let’s put more resources into them to help more young people get their lives back on track. Right now about 500 people in our jails are 18-21, and many more are in their early twenties. We shouldn’t give up on them. If you’re wondering how to pay for this, consider that we spend approximately $300,000 per person per year to incarcerate someone on Rikers. The money’s there, we’re just spending it on cages.

These are just a handful of ideas to reduce the number of people in jail, while improving public safety. The same City Council members who gave long-winded speeches about their historic vote to close Rikers a year ago should be holding hearings now on how to get this done. Mayor de Blasio should show some humility and re-evaluate his unpopular new jails plan. Community groups fighting so hard to block jail construction should demonstrate their sincerity to closing Rikers by lending their support to reforms in this moment. And as a Manhattan District Attorney candidate, I pledge to cut our jail population by 80% so that we don’t need a new jail in Manhattan.

Closing Rikers Island without building any new jail beds would require cutting our jail population to about 2,300, the existing capacity of the Tombs, Brooklyn House of Detention, and VCBC, the barge in the Bronx. These are all deplorable facilities, and while living conditions there can be improved marginally, in 2021 we must have a robust conversation about what system replaces Rikers Island in the long-term, but it should not be de Blasio’s planned jail towers. 

Closing Rikers is a big deal. We can be the city that shows America the path out of the dark days of mass incarceration, and provide a different model for justice. Let’s make history together.

Janos Marton was a leader of the #CLOSErikers movement and is a candidate for Manhattan District Attorney. On Twitter @janosmarton.

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Closing Rikers Must Remain A Priority, and We Can Do It Without Building New Jails Tue, 27 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Plan for Ending Solitary Confinement in City Jails is Imminent, Board of Correction Chair Says Plan for Ending Solitary Confinement in City Jails is Imminent, Board of Correction Chair Says Thu, 22 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000 De Blasio Administration Fails to Provide Proper Reentry Services for Those Leaving Jail Amid Pandemic, Providers Say crim just rel

The mayor at a jails to jobs announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

For Julio Medina, the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City was going to pose a unique set of challenges. As executive director at the Exodus Transitional Community, Medina focuses on support and services for the formerly incarcerated, or re-entry services. When Rikers Island became one of the most densely COVID-19-infected areas, the city released over 1,500 people either being detained pre-trial or toward the end of their short sentences. But, advocates and service-providers say, a lack of coordination among city agencies in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and between the city and service providers has deprived many of those released amid the height of the covid outbreak stable housing, medical care, and other essential services.

Medina, who is formerly incarcerated himself, has been working in and out of hotels used to provide housing to the recently-incarcerated since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in New York. After he got a call from the mayor’s administration, he’s been running services in hotels where the city is paying to house people released from jail amid the pandemic but who have no housing to head to. The challenge worsened given they had to scramble to secure benefits for the recently-incarcerated, especially medical care and personal identification. 

“We didn’t know how many people would be released,” Medina said in an interview. “Some people required medication -- we didn’t know what they were because they were released without documentation, and they couldn’t pick up their ID cards. My staff was trying to go back to Rikers and get their property, and something as basic as that was hard to do.” 

Medina was also informed that those who came to the hotels from Rikers were tested and not positive for COVID-19. However, he said there were 8-10 people in one hotel that they thought demonstrated some covid symptoms and told to quarantine. A lot of the confusion, he said, could have been avoided if there was stronger communication between the medical unit at Rikers and the various city agencies that provide essential services to those released from city jails.

Medina is among the many service providers who say that the de Blasio administration is setting them and the recently-incarcerated up to fail through a lack of communication and coordination.

Leading the call among advocates for a better system is The Faith Communities for Just Re-Entry, a diverse coalition of faith leaders advocating for the just treatment of people released from city jails. The coalition is calling for access to stable housing, medication, and COVID-19 testing for those released from Rikers Island jails, as well as better coordination among city agencies to provide essential services. The policy platform demands provision of identification upon release, transition of people’s health-care needs from Rikers, testing every individual for COVID-19 during the discharge process, ending the permanent exclusion policy by the city’s public housing authority, NYCHA, and dealing with landlord discrimination against the formerly incarcerated.

In 2017, de Blasio announced that by the end of that year, every person in the Department of Correction’s custody would receive reentry services to help connect them with jobs and opportunities outside of jail. This would be done in collaboration with the New York City Diversion and Re-Entry Council including city government agency representatives, the courts, district attorneys, public defenders, service providers, members of the faith community, formerly incarcerated individuals, and advocates. Those leaving incarceration would be matched with effective service interventions before and after jail. But according to service-providers and other experts, not enough is being done to ensure housing and medical care, especially for the larger-than-usual number of individuals released amid pandemic concerns. 

While some being released from jail went to hotels, others went into traditional city shelters. Reverend Winnie Varghese of Trinity Church, which is part of the Faith Communities for Just Reentry campaign, said the system has been fraught with problems that the pandemic has only exacerbated.

“The jail sometimes doesn’t give you anything back and all you’re left is with the coat on your back,” she said. “You’re then given a pass to get on the subway, but that is either old or outdated. They end up going to an intake center, even though this person was leaving jail  and we knew that they were. But during a pandemic, shelter services can be complicated. The incarcerated who are homeless end up in an intake shelter, where they have to stay for 90 days to qualify for housing, but at the time of a pandemic this could prove unsafe for everyone at this point.” 

Those who are recently incarcerated are given a housing voucher, but landlords, Reverend Varghese said, don’t take those vouchers because they are not set at minimum market rent and because of prejudice against the formerly incarcerated. 

Meanwhile, in the city’s public housing system, at New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the process for attaining an apartment or moving into one includes a criminal background check for any new resident or temporary guest. Per NYCHA rules, those who are arrested on misdemeanor charges can be banned from public housing for a minimum of three years, while those arrested on felony charges can be banned for up to six years. Though the Family Reentry Program has been made permanent by NYCHA, few applications have been approved so far, according to Alison Wilkey, director of public policy at the Institute for Justice and Opportunity at John Jay College. This targets more Black and brown communities given their higher incarceration rates. “It’s like this never-ending perpetual punishment that people go through,” Wilkey said.

A spokesperson in Mayor de Blasio’s office did not provide a comment in response to questions about the re-entry process for the formerly-incarcerated, particularly those released under emergency coronavirus orders. 

When the covid outbreak was still at its peak in May, advocates wrote to NYCHA to waive criminal background check requirements at the moment many individuals were being released from Rikers to decrease crowding in jails. The city was also trying to decrease crowding in congregate shelters. According to Wilkey, NYCHA refused to waive the requirement. “We need to think broadly about how people can access housing during COVID-19. And when you have rules like NYCHA permanently excluding people, how can families support each other at this time or get a new apartment?” Wilkey said. 

“The pieces exist but it’s impossible to navigate as someone who’s just out of jail,” said Reverend Varghese. “Once you leave the jail, the jail is no longer responsible for you. The continuity of care has to happen while in jail. There needs to be a pipeline that goes into our jails and out of city services.” 

Medina believes the lack of communication showed during the pandemic. Those who were released immediately, he says, had no clothing, no medication. “We need point people from big systems to communicate with one another,” he said. “People wanted to help but it’s difficult to move things without getting 20 signatures in the bureaucratic’s just a simple fix.” 

Yung-Mi Lee, Legal Director at the Brooklyn Defender Services, said there was little clarity and no communication provided in the process of releasing hundreds of detainees. “Other than clients reaching out to us asking us what was happening, just knowing that we can help with coordination efforts would have made a difference,” she said. “We could have come in and helped with reaching out. But that requires constant communication.”

“This is on the mayor’s desk,” said Reverend Verghese. “And these are vulnerable, unpopular New Yorkers. If the mayor decided that this population was a priority, all the pieces exist within city government and their coordination is key. No department can do it alone.”

by Divya Karthikeyan, Gotham Gazette

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De Blasio Administration Fails to Provide Proper Reentry Services for Those Leaving Jail Amid Pandemic, Providers Say Thu, 01 Oct 2020 04:00:00 +0000
City's Supervised Release Program Has Positive Impacts Without Increases in Missed Court Appearances or Rearrest Rates, Report Finds 3 report positive impacts

Mayor de Blasio makes an announcement (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Defendants in New York City's pretrial supervised release program are no more likely to miss court than people who have bail set and are not rearrested at a higher rate, according to a city-commissioned study by MDRC's Center for Criminal Justice Research being released Thursday.

The research, contracted by the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) and the Mayor's Office of Economic Opportunity with funding from the Manhattan District Attorney, comes at a time when some city officials, including Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, have blamed a months-long spike in gun violence in large part on recent changes to the state bail law that increased reliance on alternatives to incarceration, like supervised release.

“You hear terms such as supervised release right now, that is a fallacy. There is no supervision. There is just release, and you are seeing the repercussions of that across the city,” Shea said in June.

MOCJ officials say the new findings vindicate the program. "I think being able to show that the program is just as effective as bail in ensuring return to court and also ensuring that folks are not being rearrested at a higher rate is really exciting," said Miriam Popper, the executive director of MOCJ's Office of Pretrial Justice Initiatives, by phone.

According to Popper, before supervised release, judges for the most part had two options at arraignment: they could set bail, a monetary condition for returning to court, or they could release the defendant on their own recognizance. "This evaluation has showed that adding a third option of support and supervision in the community was able to meet the goals of the New York State bail statute...just as effectively as a monetary condition," she said, "which as we know can often lead to an unequal system for those without financial resources and those with."

But while supervised release successfully diverted some candidates from having bail set without meaningfully impacting court appearances, the data shows it also led judges to assign supervision to defendants who would otherwise have been released on their own recognizance, a trend known as "net-widening" and viewed unfavorably by criminal justice reformers. The city and the nonprofit providers of supervised release programming say they are working to prevent net-widening from further ensnaring people in the criminal legal system, but defense attorneys are concerned by the findings.

Supervised release, a program first piloted in New York City in Queens in 2009 and expanded citywide in 2016, allows a defendant to remain in the community while they await trial under the condition that they follow a personalized plan of check-ins with a case manager and other service providers. Participants are often connected with services like employment training and housing support. The program has been lauded by community-based organizations as an effective and more just approach to treating those presumed innocent and ensuring defendants return to court, while also strengthening community ties.

Enrollment in supervised release increased the percentage of cases that were dismissed by roughly 10 points, while reducing the percentage of guilty rulings by 11 points, the study found. The analysis lends credence to the theory that the threat of being incarcerated with or without bail incentivizes defendants to plead guilty in order to be released.

The study also found that the program's impact did not vary across different racial, ethnic, or age groups, but "had stronger effects" on bail rulings and pretrial detention for felonies than misdemeanors, and for cases in Manhattan versus the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens.

Over the course of the study period from May 2017 to January 2019, defense attorneys sought supervised release for only a small portion of the roughly 287,000 defendants who were arraigned after a custodial arrest (this does not include people who received desk appearance tickets to be arraigned at a later date).

Seventy-two percent of arraignments (over 200,000) included charges that would've made the defendant eligible for supervised release, but only about one in ten of the eligible defendants were screened during the 20-month period, the study shows.

"The main explanation for this pattern is that defense attorneys opted to have their clients screened for SR only when they believed them to be at risk of having bail set, otherwise preferring to preserve their chances for being released on their own recognizance (ROR)," the report states.

When defense attorneys did offer the option of supervised release at trial, judges in 58 percent of cases assigned it. Those that weren't assigned to supervised release were just as likely to have bail set as be ROR'd -- roughly 20% each.

Despite what the report identifies as the "gatekeeper" role of defenders to prevent net-widening, MDRC's modeling found that about 44 percent of people on supervised release would have otherwise been ROR'd. About the same percentage, 45 percent, would have received bail.

Reforms passed in 2019 and 2020 eliminating bail for most non-violent felonies moved that gatekeeper role from defense attorneys to judges, who now exercise greater discretion in setting pretrial conditions, according to Popper.

"What that means now is that it requires more training on our part, a really close eye on what the outcomes are and what is happening," she told Gotham Gazette.

Aubrey Fox is the executive director of Criminal Justice Agency (CJA), the nonprofit that first piloted the supervised release program in Queens and interviews every defendant as part of an assessment to determine the likelihood they will return to court. He said CJA's recommendation following the assessment, while non-binding on judges, can help ensure the program captures the right participants because guidelines call for individuals who are not eligible for bail and get recommended for ROR to receive it.

The MDRC report's authors point out that with the relatively small number of participants during the study period, few defendants were caught in this process.

But defense attorneys say it's more serious. "Our perspective on that and what we've seen is that judges and prosecutors don't in any way recognize that there is a harm to unnecessarily placing our clients on supervised release," said Libby Fischer, the managing attorney of the criminal defense practice at the Harlem-based Neighborhood Defender Service, in an interview.

"There are entire categories of cases where the DA's office asks for supervised release even though the cases are misdemeanors, even though the clients have no record," Fischer said. "And since the judges can't see or don't see the negative consequences of putting large swaths of communities of color under court surveillance, they set supervised release when it's asked for."

"If the request had been for bail, in old times, they would've understood the negative consequences and ROR'd the client," Fischer added.

The study also found that supervised release increased the average total time before trial by about two months (from 86 to 143 days) and doubled the amount of time spent in the community from 64 to 128 days. The percent of defendants who received desk warrants (which the report considers a good proxy for missed court appearances) increased from 24 to 34 percent, a finding the study called statistically insignificant because of other factors that created uncertainty that these outcomes "aren't just the result of chance," explained Melanie Skemer, the study's lead author.

"In a lot of alternative-to-detention programs, what ends up happening is they have the so-called 'supervision effect,' which means that people fail at a higher rate because they are being watched more closely," Fox said.

"The really remarkable thing about supervised release is that -- I think mostly because of the skill of the social workers who work on the projects and the kind of ethos of the program -- the program managed to avoid that pitfall of well-intended but creating unintended consequences of penalizing people more," he said.

Popper said supervised release employs a "graduated response" model that aims to provide a "light touch" whenever possible. "If someone comes into the program who is lower risk and might have otherwise been released on their own recognizance, unless otherwise assigned by the judge, they would be put on a low level of supervision," Popper said.

"While the type of people who are put into the program is really up to the judges at this point, there is a lot we can do within the program, such as these policies, to ensure that being in supervised release does not lead to deeper entrenchment in the system," she said.

"Proportionally, the estimated increase in time at risk is far greater than the estimated increase in bench warrants,” the report states. “Hence, when accounting for the time at risk of pretrial failure and the increased number of opportunities to miss court appearances, enrollment in SR does not appear to have increased failures to appear to court appreciably, if at all."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City's Supervised Release Program Has Positive Impacts Without Increases in Missed Court Appearances or Rearrest Rates, Report Finds Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
De Blasio's Cuts to Jail Oversight Must Not Stand may doc opps

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.

Darren Mack and Roger Clark are formerly incarcerated leaders and members of the Jails Action Coalition. On Twitter @iamdarrenmack & @JailsAction.

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De Blasio's Cuts to Jail Oversight Must Not Stand Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
New York Has An Incarceration Problem. Letting People Go Is The Answer ny go is

Governor Cuomo at a correctional facility (photo: governor's office)

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and scores of Black Americans have once again put a spotlight on the brutality of policing in this country. But policing is only one part of a criminal legal system that was founded on dehumanizing and oppressing Black people. There are countless Black lives, including those of Kalief Browder, Layleen Polanco, Benjamin Smalls, and Lulu Benson-Seay, that have been taken away in jails, prisons, and detention centers across New York. Now is the time to address the full spectrum of this racist harm and send people home.

Over 48,000 New Yorkers are incarcerated in jails and prisons across the state, and the COVID-19 crisis we’re experiencing on the outside is substantially worse for people in these facilities. The reality is that COVID-19 was bound to ravage jails and prisons, which have always been breeding grounds for poor health outcomes.

Social distancing cannot be practiced in crowded cages. Proper personal protective equipment is not readily available at facilities made for the people most marginalized in our society. And slowing the spread of the virus is not possible when testing is limited or unavailable. All of these factors make prisons, jails, and detention centers hotspots for the virus, yet New York has done far too little to address this issue. Elected leaders, especially Governor Cuomo, instead added fuel to the fire by leading the charge to roll back historic bail reforms and creating a prison nursing home — all during the peak of the pandemic.

This failure to free more people resulted in lost lives, including my fellow Brooklynite Leonard Carter. Leonard was granted parole in January 2020 after serving 25 years behind bars. He was eager to go home and hug his grandson for the first time. Unfortunately, Leonard died six weeks before his release date even after the Parole Board approved his prison departure. Leonard is one of dozens of people effectively sentenced to death by Cuomo’s prison system during COVID-19.

After months of calls from advocates to address this crisis head-on, the New York State Senate is finally holding a hearing on the impact of COVID-19 in jails and prisons today — Tuesday, September 22. Legislators will hear testimonials from directly-impacted community members and their families, and from advocates who are on the frontlines of reform. But this hearing will mean nothing without action. COVID-19 is a clear and present danger to the lives of every incarcerated individual, corrections worker, and those they come into contact with after their shifts. The time to act is now.

First, we need to send people home and keep them home. The Governor must utilize his clemency power and significantly reduce the elder and immunocompromised populations in prison, in addition to all the people who are within one year of release. The Legislature must meaningfully reduce the incarcerated population while ensuring that more people are not being introduced to the system, especially during this pandemic. That means passing the Elder Parole and Fair & Timely Parole bills in Albany, stopping the reincarceration of people for technical parole violations, and forcefully protecting bail reform from further rollbacks (which caused an uptick in the state’s jail population for the first time in a year).

This also requires improving conditions for people currently inside by offering meaningful and frequent amounts of PPE, including masks, hand sanitizer, soap, and other cleaning and health care products. It means testing everyone for the virus and offering multiple follow-up tests. It means passing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act to put an end to the abusive practice of solitary confinement, which has only increased since the pandemic began several months ago. And it means reconnecting people with their families by offering safe opportunities for visits and regular communication with loved ones on the outside.

We must also remember the more than 300 people in the Buffalo Federal Immigration Detention Facility in Batavia, New York who are similarly experiencing horrid conditions. The federal government must halt its inhumane family separation and detention policies, and instead work towards comprehensive reform that supports our immigrant neighbors and ultimately puts an end to detention centers that are by their nature harmful and deadly.

It is critical that we stand with the tens of thousands of incarcerated New Yorkers and their families and fight for their health and safety like our lives depend on it. Our response to this pandemic is only as strong as the people most harmed in our society, and we can’t let them down any longer.

Jabari Brisport is the Democratic nominee for State Senate in Brooklyn’s 25th District. On Twitter @JabariBrisport.

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New York Has An Incarceration Problem. Letting People Go Is The Answer Mon, 21 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Covid Must Change How We Handle Rikers and the Future of Jails in New York City comm hospital chair

Council Member Carline Rivera, the author (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

Like most New Yorkers who lived through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am still reeling from the trauma and chaos we experienced this spring. But until I set foot on Rikers Island last week, I had an incomplete understanding of what the true horrors of COVID-19 were for some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers.

At the height of the pandemic, Rikers saw an infection rate seven times higher than the rest of the city. The Department of Correction (DOC) was forced to reopen a shuttered facility on the island to quarantine suspected covid patients when existing isolation wards and clinics reached capacity. Numerous incarcerated New Yorkers, Correction staff, and health care workers died as limited use of PPE and testing allowed the virus to spread like wildfire in closed, poorly-ventilated cell blocks.

Today, with low infection rates citywide, many may view the risk to those at Rikers to be over, but if a second wave does arrive this winter, as many scientists predict, Rikers will once again be directly in the disease’s crosshairs. It’s clear to me from the stories of whistleblowers and the conditions I just saw at the jail that there are many vulnerabilities that still exist - from inconsistent use of PPE and social distancing by staff, to sleeping situations that still place some incarcerated individuals just a few feet apart

Even if DOC commits to adopting solutions at a City Council hearing I am holding on this issue, there is only so much we can do to protect people housed in this decrepit facility.

The de Blasio administration already recognized that, when in April they began a dramatic increase in early release for incarcerated individuals. The Mayor’s Office and DOC worked quickly to identify individuals for early release, including older adults, those with underlying health conditions, those being held on technical parole violations, and those serving city sentences of under a year. In a few short weeks, we went from 5,557 people in Department of Correction custody to only 3,800 - a population drop that had previously been projected to take years to reach (the census has since crept back up to just over 4,100). And analyses show these early releases saw fewer repeat arrests than would be expected for normal release populations pre-covid.

Even with the rapid reduction, jails like Rikers have still been scrambling for space to social distance. Over the last few months, the city’s Correctional Health Services recommended more than 1,500 additional individuals be released, including hundreds who meet the same requirement that were provided for early release in April. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations continue to be rejected by DOC, which refuses to release the total number of approved releases. 

Continuing to release people in DOC custody, while implementing policy solutions to reduce arrests overall, will save lives not just on the inside but in New York City as a whole. Justice and public health advocates have identified the “jail churn,” the phenomenon by which people are cycled through jails for short periods of time, where they risk exposure to covid, and are then released back into their communities. 

But one day COVID-19 will come to an end, and with the plan to close Rikers and open four smaller borough-based jails delayed until 2027 by the city’s shrunken budget, we should take this opportunity to consider how we can safely reduce the city’s current jail population beyond the pandemic, while interrogating how the physical structure of jails negatively impacts public health, and what any new jails will look like in terms of safety and scope. 

This won’t happen overnight, but we can take steps while prioritizing safety and public health. First, we as a city and state must take every possible action to reduce the number of arrests made, remove officers with histories of police misconduct, and work to dismantle the system that enables the ‘blue wall of silence.’ The state can also pass laws to remove unnecessary criminal statutes (like the “Walking While Trans” Ban) and reinstate the portions of historic bail reforms that were sadly rolled back in the wake of pressure from police unions. And we can continue to redistribute funding from our police departments towards community programs proven to be more effective at reducing recidivism.

At the same time, the Mayor’s Office could work with DOC to compile an annual report on city jail populations and corresponding recommendations on how to reduce that overall population in a time-sensitive manner beyond the census projected for the post-Rikers borough-based jails. Since demolition work at the proposed jail sites has yet to begin, these reports could influence the size of the currently proposed local jails each year before construction begins. 

COVID-19 has completely changed how we view our society and work to address its failings, including the systemic and racist inequities that ravage communities of color. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t use this opportunity to ensure we are constantly reviewing our criminal justice reform efforts, from Rikers today and into the future. 

City Council Member Carlina Rivera represents the 2nd District in Manhattan and chairs the Council’s hospitals committee. On Twitter @CarlinaRivera.

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Covid Must Change How We Handle Rikers and the Future of Jails in New York City Sun, 20 Sep 2020 04:00:00 +0000