Rikers Island Reforms: What Is New York City Doing to Change Culture of Inmate Abuse?
Rikers Island Reforms: What Is New York City Doing to Change Culture of Inmate Abuse?

NEW YORK—Following the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) investigation, which revealed widespread abuses against teen inmates at the Rikers Island jail complex, New York City’s Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte testified before council members on Wednesday to discuss reforms the corrections department has since implemented.

The results of the federal investigation, published in August, unveiled a “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers Island—the country’s second largest jail facility. Corrections officers at the facility frequently used force to punish adolescent inmates aged 16 to 18 who disobeyed orders or had other nonthreatening disrespectful behavior. 

The DOJ also found that teenagers, many of them with mental health needs, were often sentenced to solitary confinement for extended periods of time for nonviolent rule violations, exacerbating their mental trauma.

Ponte, who was formerly commissioner of Maine’s corrections department and enacted significant reforms there to reduce the use of solitary confinement, was appointed as New York City commissioner in March before the DOJ investigation.

Chief among the DOJ’s recommendations was to remove all adolescent inmates from Rikers. On Wednesday, Ponte said that while he agrees with the idea, he has not found an appropriate facility outside of Rikers yet, and plans to meet with other city agencies to continue searching for one.

Chair of the committee on criminal justice, Council member Elizabeth Crowley suggested jails in Queens and Brooklyn, which Ponte said he would look into.

Proposed Changes

Ponte also reported that the corrections department has revised its policies for the use of force, and increased the staff’s capacity to supervise 16- and 17-year-old inmates, reducing the officer-to-inmate ratio from 1:30 to 1:15. That effort costs $4.4 million per year.

The corrections officer academy also began using a new training curriculum in September that includes crisis prevention, youth brain development, and how to deal with traumatized teens.

Ponte said that as a result of these changes, the staff’s use of force has decreased at the main facility, the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC), from 28 incidents in April to 19 in September.

The department also plans to install an additional 400 cameras at the RNDC within the next year and a half, which will eventually cover the entire facility. The DOJ report had noted many teen inmates experienced getting brutally beaten by corrections officers after getting escorted to areas where there were no security cameras.

For the 16- and 17- year-olds who are required to attend school while at Rikers, the department recently adjusted their school schedules to include more programs, such as recreation time and therapy sessions. 

Teen inmates are also given social services to assist them in transitioning back to society after their release.

A change in state law in April requires separating 16- and 17-year-olds from those 18 and older. Ponte said that about 1,200 adolescents from ages 18 to 21 will eventually be offered the same types of services.

Ponte’s Decision to Promote

During the more than two-hour questioning session, city council members also took Ponte to task for standing by his promotion of William Clemons to chief of department, the top uniform position—after the New York Times reported several weeks ago that a 2012 internal corrections department audit found Clemons shirking in his responsibility to oversee reports of inmate violence when he served as warden of RNDC in 2011. 

The audit had recommended that Clemons and the deputy warden of RNDC be demoted, but then-corrections commissioner Dora B. Schriro ordered statements related to their incompetence be removed from the final draft of the report that was submitted to DOJ for its investigation.

On Wednesday, Ponte said he still believes Clemons is “experienced” and “competent,” and that he based his decision to promote him on the final draft report.

When Crowley questioned Ponte about why Clemons was not present to testify, Ponte responded that he was on vacation.

Solitary Confinement 

In an internal memo to the mayor, which the New York Times first obtained, Ponte said he would eliminate the use of solitary confinement for the roughly 300 16- and 17-year-old inmates at Rikers by the end of the year. 

On Wednesday, he said the current average number of adolescent inmates in solitary confinement is 20, compared to 30 in August. Teens who act out and exhibit violent behavior will instead have privileges taken away or be locked inside their cells for limited periods of time, Ponte said.

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