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.

Bradley Ballard

Report: Corizon’s “flagrantly inadequate, substandard and dangerous” care killed Rikers prisoner Bradley Ballard

The New York State Commission on Correction released a new report this week, detailing the findings from its investigation into the horrific and preventable death of mentally ill black inmate, Bradley Ballard.

Ballard was left in his cell for six days straight in September, 2013. Guards shut the water off to his cell for over four days, and not once during that time was he treated for his schizophrenia and diabetes. On the rare occasion that he was seen by a medical worker, their talks did not last for more than a minute at a time. He was eventually found naked on the floor, covered in feces and urine with a rubber band wound tightly around his cut and infected genitals. Ballard would go into cardiac arrest just a few minutes after being removed from his cell and die from “diabetic ketoacidosis due to withholding of his diabetes medications complicated by sepsis due to severe tissue necrosis of his genitals as a result of self-mutliation.” The commission agreed with earlier assessments that Ballard’s death was, in fact, a homicide.

We’ve known a few of the major details of this case since his family filed a lawsuit on his behalf a few months back. But this report contains more explicit details of Ballard’s mistreatment that should reinforce the intense unease prisoners’ and their advocates feel over the continued role and impunity of Rikers’ for-profit inmate healthcare provider, Corizon Health Services, which will soon oversee inmate care in Rikers’ soon-to-be-constructed $14.8 million super-solitary unit known as the ESHU.

Between generous redactions, we are afforded a glimpse at the disturbing reality prisoners’ face under the care of Corizon staff and Rikers’ corrections officers. You should read the actual report because you can’t beat primary sources, but I’ll admit it is a bit cumbersome given the heavy blocks of redacted text and it’s call-and-response format. I created this annotated version of the report to organize the components a bit more logically, which I hope is helpful to some readers.

The commission does not mince words or shy away from assigning blame. It calls out Corizon repeatedly and unequivocally for “substandard medical and mental health treatment.” They write that Corizon’s work was “so incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience,” and that Ballard would have survived had he received the appropriate care. Corizon staff are said to have shown “deliberate indifference to Ballard’s serious medical needs by collectively failing to provide the very basics of medical care and failing to take appropriate action in a timely manner to a medical emergency.”

Ultimately, the commission writes, “The lack of coordinated care for and mismanagement of Ballard’s [redacted] represents grossly negligent medical care by Corizon, Inc., endangered Ballard’s life and subsequently caused his death.” Continue reading

solitary is torture jailsaction by @aintacrow on twitter

NYC’s new rules for solitary are not the reforms we’ve been looking for

Would NYC’s new rules for solitary confinement have saved the life of 19-year-old Andy Henriquez?

Henriquez was brought to Rikers Island when he was only 16. Three years later, he was still awaiting trial when he was placed in isolation. Henriquez had complained of chest pains for seven months before being thrown in ‘the bing,’ but no one at the prison took him seriously.

Health and correction staff ignored Henriquez’ increasingly-dire calls for help, to the point where other inmates on his block began shouting for someone to save him. But no one ever did. Henriquez suffered alone and in extreme pain, given only a prescription for hand cream under the wrong name, until he eventually died from a tear in his aorta.

The question of whether things might have turned out differently for Henriquez stood out in my mind on Tuesday as all 7 members of NYC’s Board of Correction (BOC) voted to adopt changes to the city’s solitary confinement policy.

The amendments featured an end to solitary confinement for all 18 to 21 year old inmates by 2016, “provided that sufficient resources are made available to the Department for necessary staffing and implementation of necessary alternative programming.” Effective immediately, solitary confinement will no longer be used for 16 and 17 year old inmates, those suffering from ‘serious mental illness,’ or those with owed-time.

The amendments also pave the way for the construction of a controversial new isolation area on Rikers Island called the ‘Enhanced Supervision Housing unit,’ or the ESHU, which will cost $14.8 million, introduce 250 new isolation beds to the island and have its own specially-trained, full time staff. Continue reading

Tweet by Raven Rakia (@aintacrow)

UPDATED: NYC Board of Corrections Approves New Rules for Solitary Confinement, ESHU

This post is being updated throughout the day. Please check back later for more updates.

Update 8:07, 1/14/15:

Here is a copy of the final rules approved by the BOC yesterday.

I’ll have more to say on this in the next day or two when I have time to put together a full post, but I would be very cautious of reports and official statements touting Rikers as a new ‘model for reform’ given its proposed restrictions on solitary for juvenile offenders. Not only because there are so many questions that have yet to be answered concerning alternative programming and its funding, but also because of the ways in which mentally and physically ill inmates have been left exposed to Rikers’ new super solitary unit, aka the ESHU, at the discretion of one of the most untrustworthy prison contractors in the nation.

Update 10:26, 1/13/15:

According to Raven, the protection gap for 18-21 year olds will, in fact, be closed — but there’s a hitch:

That means juvenile prisoners may still be subject to isolation for the remainder of this year at least. Solitary confinement for this age group will end in 2016 provided there is “adequate funding” for alternative programs to take its place (although it’s unclear what exactly those programs would look like).

So I guess we’ll have to wait until next year to see if NYC has enough money to stop torturing young prisoners with isolation. Continue reading

"Rikers Island" by User Sfoskett on en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rikers_Island.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Rikers_Island.jpg

NYC Doubles Down on Solitary Confinement with Latest Rikers “Reforms”

The AP reports that the NYC Board of Correction (BOC) will vote this coming Tuesday on changes to solitary confinement on Rikers Island, including a new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) for the prison’s “most dangerous” inmates and policies that seek to limit punitive segregation for other inmates, particularly the mentally ill and juveniles aged 16-21.

The proposed BOC rules also include:

  • Ending isolation for ‘owed time
  • Ending isolation for ‘minor offenses’
  • Exempting ‘seriously mentally ill’
  • Exempting juveniles aged 16-17
  • Capping solitary confinement at 30 days
  • Additional training for ESHU guards

The announcement of a $14.8 million ESHU is the latest piece of Mayor de Blasio’s Rikers Island reform package, and it is complicated by the fact that we don’t know what the programming or therapy regimen for its prisoners will look like. Such proposals are supposed to come out later this year. However, a former head of the Dept. of Mental Health & Hygeine voiced his skepticism over the plan when he testified at a public hearing last month, noting that “previous attempts to create special housing units for troublesome inmates that similarly claimed would provide therapeutic services ultimately turned into restrictive, punitive holding pens.”

And if you dig into the document, you can begin to see what he’s talking about. Continue reading

How much will Rikers reform help mentally ill prisoners?

Rikers Island Reform: the Good, the Bad and the Omitted

After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.

Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.

The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”

In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report: Continue reading

The Boldest by peterkreder, on Flickr

Are NYPD Protests Reaching Rikers Island?

In December, the New York Times ran a story on a sadly historic event:

The first Rikers Island correction officer to be tried for civil rights abuses in more than a decade was found guilty on Wednesday by a jury for his role in the death of an inmate in 2012.

Terrence Pendergrass could serve up to 10 years in federal prison for refusing to seek medical attention for Jason Echevarria, 25, a pretrial detainee, who cried out for help after swallowing a highly toxic packet of detergent that burned through his digestive tract.

Mr. Pendergrass was found guilty of one charge of violating the constitutional right of a prisoner to receive attention for serious medical needs. His lawyer, Samuel M. Braverman, said he would appeal the decision, which was handed down in Federal District Court in Manhattan.

This was the first time in over a decade that a Rikers corrections officer went to trial for civil rights violations. Before him was Roger Johnson in 1996, after he and several other Rikers guards beat inmates and then falsified reports.

After representing a man who refused medical attention for a dying and helpless prisoner, defense attorney Samuel Braverman said he believed it was “a very tough time for a law enforcement officer to be on trial.” He told reporters he felt the recent protests against police brutality in the city ‘influenced the jury’ and said he thought the jury was trying to ‘compensate for other systemic issues at Rikers.’

While I’m willing to give Braverman the benefit of the doubt that these were more off-hand remarks meant to explain away the guilty verdict than they were honest, deep analyses of the system, these kinds of statements are revealing nonetheless.

If the protests are, in fact, moving juries to finally bring convictions against criminal Rikers guards, we should all go out and thank a protester today for bringing an end to an 18 year freeze in justice for inmates. But it remains to be seen whether this is an isolated case or the beginning of a thaw in legal accountability for Rikers officers. If it does continue, there is little doubt in my mind that we can expect to see the same reaction from them as we have from the NYPD and its unions. Rikers Island has its own history of lashing out against threats to their impunity that bares striking resemblance to the actions of the NYPD in recent months. Continue reading