NYC city council held a hearing yesterday featuring department of corrections commissioner and fabled “reformer” Joseph Ponte.
It was cathartic to see some city council members confronting Ponte over the DOC’s utter failure to protect young prisoners on Rikers Island. In discussing the case of Kaleif Browder (a 16 year old boy who was wrongfully imprisoned and spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement) city councilman Daniel Dromm (D) told Ponte that officials “subjected this child to torture. There’s no other way to put it.”
Nonetheless, Ponte seemed to be unmoved by the gravity of the situation. He continued to parrot his weak assortment of promises to reduce violence and phase out the use of solitary for a small number of the facility’s incarcerated children. Unfortunately, the “reforms” have more holes than swiss cheese, and are so weak as to suggest they would be more accurately described as ‘damage control.’
When confronted about his promotion of two Rikers officials to top positions, despite emerging evidence that their staff routinely underreported jail fights, Ponte never once hinted he would do the reasonable thing, which would be to review his decision in light of this new information. Instead, he pretty much tried to shrug it off: Continue reading
On September 29th, the New York Times reported that the New York City Department of Corrections was eliminating solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-old inmates at Rikers.
The department claimed it would be the “first round of changes” and “solitary confinement [would] be replaced by ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring.'”
New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte
While it’s fantastic news that these young inmates will no longer be subject to punitive segregation, the 16-17 year old age group at Rikers is a small portion of the population; only 300 of the 11,000 prisoners in the city’s jails would qualify for such leniency. The NYCDOC says there are 51 youths in solitary right now, but it’s unclear how many would see relief from this policy change.
It’s also great to hear the NYCDOC plans to replace solitary with ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences […] and steps designed to pre-empt incidents,’ however vague that may be. If it reduces the use of solitary confinement, it can’t hurt.
But I think it all misses the point: is there reason to believe that Rikers is the right environment for young people? Continue reading
New York City Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte has responded to Mayor de Blasio’s charge to improve conditions at Rikers Island by hiring private consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to draft a reform plan.
McKinsey & Co., which is “mostly known for helping Fortune 500 and other large companies” and has reportedly “little if any experience” working with prisons, has signed a 12-month, $1.7 million contract with the city.
Despite these circumstances, I suppose it’s possible McKinsey consultants can break through to Rikers guards, who “often respond to even minor slights from inmates with overwhelming force” and “have been accused of smuggling in drugs, alcohol and sometimes weapons and selling them to inmates.” Maybe they can soften correction officials who have been “described as adhering to a “powerful code of silence” when it comes to problems like brutality and corruption.”
But, as Barry Ritholtz pointed out a few years ago, there is reason to approach McKinsey’s management wisdom with caution:
McKinsey, the global consulting firm, has created dubious strategies for all manners of companies ranging from Enron to General Electric. Indeed, where ever there has been a financial disaster in the world, if you look around, somewhere in the background, McKinsey & Co. is nearby.
Yes, you read that right. Enron’s former consulting firm is going to take on reform at Rikers Island. I’m sure there’s a punchline in there somewhere. Or maybe about how McKinsey’s former executive Rajat Gupta spent two years in prison (lucky for him, not at Rikers, but a federal institution in Massachusetts) for insider trading on the board of Goldman Sachs. Continue reading