Gotham Gazette

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tish james and ponte

Public Advocate James listens to testimony from DOC Commissioner Ponte (photo: William Alatriste)

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued the latest in a series of reports on mismanagement at Rikers Island last week, pointing out that the city's jail costs twice as much per bed as similar facilities in other big cities and is besieged with violence. Over the last year the New York City Department of Correction has been buffeted by scandals, lawsuits, and accusations of incompetence, corruption, and mismanagement. Throughout this period the Department's main oversight body, the New York City Board of Correction has been largely missing in action. Mayor Bill de Blasio needs to intervene to reinvigorate this important but largely dormant oversight body under his control.

The Board of Correction was created in 1957 as part of the City Charter and has the authority to make rules for the Department of Correction, conduct investigations of conditions and acts of misconduct, and issue public reports. It also has the ability to issue subpoenas and hold oversight hearings. The Board is made up of 9 members that oversee a professional staff of investigators and monitors.

Currently three of the nine seats on the Board are vacant and the chair is a holdover from the previous administration. The City Council chooses three members and the city's judiciary has a say in three more, but these must be approved by the Mayor, who also appoints three members directly, including the chair.

In August, US Attorney Preet Bharara issued a scathing report outlining a "culture of violence" among guards at Rikers Island, especially in its juvenile facilities, and raised major concerns about the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year olds. Bharara has threatened legal action unless there are major reforms forthcoming.

His report was in response to widespread allegations of excessive force by guards—especially against juveniles, mistreatment including the deaths of people with mental illness in the "mental observation" unit, and widespread access to contraband, leading to the arrest of two corrections officers and a nurse in recent months. In August, The New York Times found that officer use of force had increased by 90% in the last 4 years.

The new Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has recently been criticized for his appointment of William Clemons as Chief of Department. The city's Department of Investigation (DOI) had recommended demoting him after they found widespread failures to report violence in the juvenile facility where he was warden. The DOI, based on a review of video tapes and other documents, uncovered 375 incidents of violence that were not reported. Evidence of this wrongdoing was then withheld from the Department of Justice during its investigation.

The treatment of people with mental illness remains a profound problem at the jail. By some accounts 40% of those at Rikers have significant mental illness, including as many as 50% of juveniles. This vulnerable population is much more likely to be subjected to violence from both guards and prisoners and are heavily over-represented in solitary confinement units, where their conditions often worsen. Even the special mental observation unit is plagued with problems. In September of last year, Bradley Ballard died after days of neglect by guards and health workers—despite his obvious extreme distress. In March, homeless veteran Joseph Murdough literally baked to death in his cell because of faulty heating equipment and negligence, despite being on suicide watch.

This week the Associated Press reported that they have discovered 14 cases in the last 5 years where inmates at the jail died of preventable causes due to inadequate health care as a result of failure of guards to notify medical staff or failure of medical staff from the for-profit health group Corizon to provide needed treatment.

Mayor de Blasio needs to take a more active role in bringing about changes at Rikers. The Board of Correction, which could be a major player in investigating problems and making changes to rules and procedures has been at best a bit player. Despite the mandate to make public reports about problems at the jail, their last two reports, while useful, were remarkably thin—calling for enhancements on recreation time for people in solitary and pointing out some of the problems with mental health treatment through case studies of three inmates. After initially rejecting calls for major reforms to solitary, the Board is now preparing rules to restrict or eliminate its use for juveniles and those with mental illness and limit its use in general. Much more is needed.

There are currently three vacancies on the Board and the Mayor needs to step in and make strong appointments to revitalize the Board so that it can be a force in implementing reforms called for by advocates and the US Attorney. In particular, he needs to appoint a chair with a strong commitment to active intervention and a mandate to use its full powers of investigation to uncover abuse and recommend appropriate solutions. The Jails Action Coalition has urged that at least one of the new appointees be someone formerly incarcerated at Rikers and this seems like an important way of grounding the Board's work in real life experiences. Rikers could be a model of enlightened corrections policy; instead it is reviled as dysfunctional, dangerous, and corrupt. The mayor must change this.

Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics. He is senior policy adviser to hte Police Reform Organizing Project and serves on the New York State Advisory Committee to the US Civil Rights Commission. You can follow him on Twitter: @avitale