Jails commissioner proposes Rikers Island reforms

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEW YORK (AP) — The city corrections commissioner on Tuesday detailed proposed reforms to the problem-plagued Rikers Island jail complex that include changes to the housing of teenage and young adult inmates, reforms to the use of solitary confinement and a top-to-bottom review of the department's policies by a private consulting firm.

The announcement was lauded by oversight board members, though Commissioner Joseph Ponte and other corrections officials cautioned that the plans would take time to implement and that many depend on sufficient funding.

Last month, the Department of Justice issued a scathing review of adolescent jails on Rikers, finding they were unsafe because of a deeply ingrained culture of violence in which guards used excessive force and overused solitary confinement as a punishment for even minor infractions. The U.S. attorney's report gave corrections officials 49 days to present their changes.

The impending reforms come amid heightened scrutiny of Rikers, a 10-facility jail complex on a 400-acre island near LaGuardia Airport that holds the vast majority of the roughly 11,500 daily inmates in the nation's second-largest jail system. The Associated Press has reported extensively on the problems at Rikers, including violence against inmates by guards and the gruesome deaths of mentally ill inmates.

"I don't have a holistic plan, but we've done some specific things on reducing violence in the facilities," Ponte said during a public meeting of the oversight board, noting that extra maintenance staff who will install surveillance cameras was hired with part of the $32.5 million recently secured in the city budget to improve security and mental health services in city jails.

Ponte also explained his plans to eliminate the backlog of roughly 1,000 inmates who owe time in solitary confinement but are housed in the general population because there aren't enough beds. Time owed in 23-hour confinement from previous incarcerations will likely be eliminated for the roughly 300 inmates affected, he said.

Uniformed captains will also likely be allowed to dole out alternatives to solitary confinement, such as timeouts and the withholding of recreation time, for minor infractions that don't involve serious violence or weapons possession.

"Right now the system fundamentally doesn't work" because guards have no alternative form of discipline, Ponte said. The eventual goal is "to no longer have punitive segregation for the 16- and 17-year-olds," he said.

Ponte also asked the oversight board to approve his plan to house 18- to 21-year-old inmates together. State law dictates that 18-year-old inmates can't be housed with 16- and 17-year-olds. But advocates have long claimed 18-year-olds don't fare well when housed with adult inmates, and Ponte said he recognized that adolescents require special attention and increased access to programs, education and help finding work after their time in jail.

Unlike previous administrations, officials are now recruiting and training guards to work specifically with adolescent inmates and are reworking policies to better apply to their needs, Ponte said.

City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the committee that oversees the department, said she will hold a hearing next month to further discuss the DOJ report on Rikers but will push one of its top findings: To move the adolescent inmates entirely off Rikers Island.

"The only way we can achieve real reform is by lifting the veil of secrecy that has loomed over Rikers Island and begin a candid discussion about conditions and the culture of the facility," she said.