In New York City, ending youth solitary confinement comes with a complicated price tag

Under Mayor de Blasio’s new preliminary budget, 282 correction officers would be brought on to oversee New York City’s juvenile prisoners as funding for staff and alternative programming doubles to $25.3 million in 2016 — the year NYC is scheduled to end solitary confinement for 18-21 year olds.

The mayor’s proposal, which arrives amid a federal lawsuit and several bombshell investigations concerning conditions in the city’s jails, also includes:

  • Funding for 6 new staff at the Department of Investigation to investigate “Department of Correction excessive use of force allegations and allegations of criminal conduct.”
  • A $1.8 million infusion to troubled private healthcare provider Corizon to provide additional medical and mental health staff for the new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) for solitary confinement.
  • Expanding the hiring task force known as the Applicant Investigation Unit and re-establishing a dedicated recruitment unit in an effort to fight the epidemic corruption and abuse among newly-hired CO’s.
  • Provisions for 10 new corrections officers to monitor feeds of the new $15 million security camera network and 6 more CO’s for expanding the canine unit.
  • Significant collective bargaining increases for the officers’ unions

It’s important to note that last month, just before the city voted to ban solitary for prisoners 21 and under, and just after several successive months of mounting public pressure to reduce guard-on-inmate violence, the Board of Correction (BOC) amended its proposed rule change to include the condition that the youth solitary ban only take effect if ‘adequate funding for staff and alternative programming’ is available in 2016.

This was also the same vote that authorized the construction and staffing of the controversial $15 million ESHU, which shocked former prisoners, families and advocates when it was announced and led to protests at the BOC hearings and final vote.

The combination of nearly 300 more corrections officers, a boatload of funding and a new solitary unit has turned a well-intentioned effort to end youth prisoner abuse into a deepened commitment to youth incarceration and solitary confinement. This is hardly a fair compromise. As far as I can tell, no comparable effort or funding has been afforded to getting juvenile prisoners out and into programs, treatments and settings that might actually help them.

The New York City Council has yet to respond to the mayor’s budget, but if it were to meet these conditions, the corrections officers and the dues-collecting unions that represent them would arguably stand to gain more from these “reforms” than the city’s chronically victimized prisoners.

Laughably Bad Security Allows Rikers Staff to Make Thousands of Dollars Selling Drugs, Alcohol and Weapons to Inmates

A new report by New York City’s Department of Investigation found rampant security violations on Rikers Island that allowed corrections officers and staff to sell contraband such as weapons, alcohol and narcotics to inmates for a sizable profit. DOI has been investigating the Department of Corrections since early January and plans to release a full report by the end of the year.

Security is so lax and inconsistent at Rikers facilities that a high schooler could get through the checkpoints without a problem. Smuggling vodka in a Poland Springs bottle? That’s the oldest trick in the book! But if you’re feeling lazy, lying works, too: one undercover investigator was able to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint by telling the security guard he had already emptied his pockets and didn’t need to do it again.

Here’s how the DOI described the ease with which CO’s and staff could make it through security with prohibited items: Continue reading

New York City Jails Need More than Resignations and Reforms

There has been a flurry of activity surrounding the NYC Department of Corrections and Rikers Island after a series of horrendous reports exposing subhuman conditions, abuse and corruption at the city’s largest jail. But I am unconvinced that the situation is moving in the right direction.

The top uniformed official at the Department of Corrections, William Clemons, resigned at the end of October. Clemons was one of two men to have been promoted by DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte after corrections staff fudged statistics on jail fights to make it look like the number of violent incidents were down on his watch, when in fact they just weren’t making their way into the reports. (The other was Turhan Gumusdere, who Ponte promoted to become the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.)

Ponte, who was appointed by de Blasio and is said to be a ‘reformer,’ stood by the promotions even after the public became aware that the performance reports at their foundation were completely fraudulent. It was only after the department came under fire for conditions at Rikers that Clemons tendered his resignation. Two of Clemons’ deputies — Joandrea Davis and Gregory McLaughlan — resigned along with him. Continue reading

Rikers

Real Reform Won’t Come to Rikers Without the Department of Justice

If there was ever any doubt as to whether the DOJ needed to intervene in the clusterfuck on Rikers Island, this story should lay it to rest. The New York Times reports that officials at Rikers (some of whom have since been promoted) underreported violence against juvenile inmates for months and withheld key information about what happened and who was involved from US Attorney Preet Bahrara.

It’s a complex and heartbreaking story that, as the Times writes, “underscores the pervasive dysfunction of the city’s Correction Department.” I highly recommend reading the piece and taking a look at the document comparisons they provide. After reading this, I am convinced that any hope of securing safety and humane treatment for Rikers prisoners is not going to come from NYCDOC, but will have to come from the federal government, instead. Continue reading