De Blasio to Seek Stricter Rikers Island Visitor Rules

Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference today at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen/New York Observer)

Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference today at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen/New York Observer)

On a visit to Rikers Island today, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he’ll look to increase restrictions on inmate visits, limiting physical contact and turning away certain visitors in an effort to cut down on the weapons and drugs flowing into the city’s jails.

“Right now it is way too easy to pass weapons and drugs and contraband,” Mr. de Blasio said, standing beside Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte in a new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit designed to hold the city’s most violent inmates.

But the specifics of any changes—which include a proposal to screen out some visitors with serious criminal records or gang connections—will need to be worked out and approved by the Board of Correction, with the department looking to make its proposals at a May meeting.

Mr. de Blasio said the changes would cut down on violence at Rikers Island, which has continued to rise even as the city looks to reform the city’s jails.

“We are going to the root of the problem: you cut off the weapons and you cut off the drugs,” Mr. de Blasio said. 

Between November 14 and January 31, the department seized 10 weapons and 68 contraband drugs from 26 visitors looking to visit inmates who were established as gang members. The mayor and commissioner said the new rules would reduce contact between inmates and visitors—”There will be a brief embrace when they come in,” Mr. Ponte said. But then inmates and their visitors will sit across from each other at a table, with a low glass partition to make it more obvious if they try to pass something across. Inmates will be able to hold their children.

“Family support, family contact is extremely important for rehabilitation,” Mr. Ponte said.

He and the mayor said they would balance the stricter rules with the rights of inmates to receive visits.

“We’re gonna do that in a way that of course respects a families right to visit their loved one,” Mr. de Blasio said, “but we’re gonna be smart.”

And some people simply won’t be able to visit, the mayor and commissioner said, though they did not have specific details on exactly how they would screen people out or what kinds of criminal records would bar someone from visiting.

“We’re also going to add restrictions as to who can visit, because some individuals raise security concerns through their visit,” Mr. de Blasio said, noting they can not only pass contraband but also information calling for assaults or other violence. “Those individuals will not be allowed to make the visit. We’re going to offer a really clear message.”

The changes to visitation are part of a 14-point plan for reducing violence at Rikers Island, which houses most of the city’s jails and has been under intense scrutiny following reports of violence by inmates, brutality by officers, and a lawsuit from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. 

The department will also increase its use of sniffing dogs to detect drugs—screening both visitors and, on occasion, correction officers.

The new unit that Mr. de Blasio visited today, in the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, is also part of the effort to cut down on violence at Rikers. The ESHU, which will be more restrictive than general population and have a higher ratio of officers to inmates, will house the inmates most prone to violence and lock them in their cells for 14 hours a day. Unlike punitive segregation, solitary confinement the city is cutting back on using, the inmates in ESHU will be out of their cells for seven hours a day, receive programming, and be able to interact with one another and watch television.