Compstat for Corrections? Data-Driven Inmate Classification Eyed at Rikers

The entrance to Rikers Island. (Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

The entrance to Rikers Island. (Emily Assiran/New York Observer)

In the 1990s, as New York City’s crime rate climbed, the NYPD turned to statistics—creating CompStat—to predict patterns and better fight crime.

In 2015, as violence has surged in New York City’s jails, Department of Correction officials at Rikers Island are looking to do something similar, using data to change the way they classify inmates.

“The goal is to remove the lions from the lambs, or the lambs from the lions,” Timothy Farrell, the newly appointed Deputy Commissioner for Classification and Population Management, told the Observer in a telephone interview.

A new classification system was among a slew of bullet points in a 14-point plan to cut down on violence, released by Commissioner Joseph Ponte earlier this year, though details at the time were scarce. Yesterday, Mr. Farrell outlined for the Observer a new system rolled out on May 27 that the department believes will cut down on conflict, using data gleaned from an inmate’s charges, the NYPD and Corrections investigators to classify into four categories: low, medium-low, medium, and high. So far, it’s been used to reclassify 600 adult inmates at the George Motchan Detention Center, about half the jail’s population, and the categories will be used to help allocate resources like housing, staff, educational programs and services, the department said.

“If we want to reduce violence in our jails, we need to understand which inmates show a tendency for these acts before they occur,” Mr. Ponte said in a statement. “By reviewing indicators like gang affiliation and age when an inmate arrives, we can start to better understand which inmates are truly high-risk—and house them appropriately.”

It’s one of many changes made by Mr. Ponte, who has promised reform at the city’s jails as Rikers Island faces intense scrutiny concerning violence, the treatment of mentally ill inmates, and what U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who is suing the department, has deemed a “culture of violence” by officers against young inmates.

The new classification system, aimed at stemming inmate-on-inmate violence, was created in-house after the department looked at all of the incidents of violence within the city’s jails in 2014 to try to determine which inmates were most likely to cause trouble.

“We broke down each inmate who was involved in those incidents and tried to identify common traits that they possessed, which would give us a clear indicator of what would be a predictor to be involved in violent incidents,” Mr. Farrell said.

After reading through “thousands of reports” and running calculations, Mr. Farrell said, the department identified certain traits commonly possessed by inmates who were most often involved in violent incidents.

“Stuff we thought were good predictors really were proven not to be, and things that we weren’t using to predict ended up being very common, a common denominator in these incidents,” he said.

How those factors combined with one another also played a role, so the department put together a “decision tree” set-up, he said.

“If you combine, say, gang affiliation, the age of the inmate… whether or not they have a history of incarceration with incidents in the past, those were all found to be, when you combined them together, a good predictor,” Mr. Farrell said said.

With some combinations along those lines, Mr. Farrell said, the department found there was a 47 to 50 percent chance that an inmate would be involved in a violent incident. Without one or two of those traits, the percentage dropped dramatically.

“It kinds of makes it three-dimensional, in how we’re looking at things,” he said.

Mr. Farrell said it’s more than just number-crunching—humans are “unpredictable,” after all, so there’s a “personal touch,” too.

The Correctional Intelligence Bureau, the department’s repository for all information gang-related, will review each inmate to see if they have any relevant information to provide. And the department will partner the with NYPD to glean any other relevant gang or neighborhood issues police may have on file.

“We take all that into consideration and we assign the inmate an appropriate classification score,” he said.

Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the criminal justice committee, has repeatedly argued the best way to curb violence at Rikers is by increasing staffing. That will take time and resources, so until then, Ms. Crowley said, the department needs “to be creative, as creative as possible.”

“And making sure that you house people in an intelligent way, by looking at how likely they are to infract and how serious an infraction they’re likely to get into, makes complete sense,” she said.

It’s more complicated than simply looking at the charge against the inmate, she said. While a murder is a more serious crime than an assault, there are instances when someone charged with murder might be less likely to get into a jail-yard fight than someone there for assault if gang affiliations are involved—she used the hypothetical example of an inmate charged with a domestic violence murder.

“They’re probably not as likely to get into a fight as much as that gang person, who has been arrested three times for violent fights,” Ms. Crowley said.

The new classification system uses four tiers, something that was done for years before a policy change under former Commissioner Dora Schiro reduced to system to just three tiers—something Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the union representing assistant deputy wardens and deputy wardens, said threw those lions and lambs Mr. Farrell talked about together again.

“I support the new changes to the classification system,” Mr. Schwartzbaum told the Observer. “I was very unhappy with the classification system under Dora Schiro.”

Mr. Farrell, the deputy commissioner, hastened to note that the idea of the new system is not to punish those given a higher-risk classification, but to better managed the inmate population. Higher classification inmates might be placed in more secure cell block housing with more staff members per inmate, and with programming targeted at helping them. Lower classification inmates would be more likely to be placed in dormitory housing, with fewer staff members. And inmates likely to fight will be kept away from one another.

“We’re able to direct those resources in a more definitive manner, thereby ensuring we’re getting the most bang for our buck in how we manage the inmates,” he said.

Unlike being placed in the department’s new Enhanced Security Housing Units, where inmates deemed dangerous are locked in their cells for 17 hours a day, the high-risk classification will not mean an inmate spends any extra time locked up.

“Just because you’re classified on a higher class level, we’re not restricting any other privileges or opportunities that any other inmate might have,” Mr. Farrell said. “They’ll get increased programming, so if anything it’s designed to help them.”

When it comes to the number-crunching involved, Mr. Farrell said he understood the comparison to CompStat, which has allowed the NYPD to track crime patterns in real-time and move resources accordingly. Under this new model, incidents will be depicted for staff using visuals that will be updated every day. And staff will meet daily to talk about any incidents—with the classification beginning May 27, Mr. Farrell said yesterday that there haven’t been any yet—and how they might prevent them.

“We would discuss them and instead of waiting for the end of the month and saying, ‘Jeez, what could we have done,'” Mr. Farrell said. “Each day we can identify, we’ve had this type of incident, or this type of incident in this housing unit. Let’s see what we can do right now.”

With a large focus on gang intelligence in the new system, Mr. Schwartzbaum, the union leader, said he hoped to see changes to other policies he believes also spur violence—like housing gang members who are attacked by rivals in protective custody, perhaps more attractive to feuding gang members than other areas where they could be separated.

“Today every single gang-banger who is the victim of an assault, after perpetrating an assault, is being put into protective custody as practice instead of going into administrative segregation,” Mr. Schwartzbaum said, arguing it has caused the department to have more problems in the unit than in the past.

Ms. Crowley, meanwhile, is continuing to push for increased staffing at Rikers. She’s pointed out more than once that the only facility to see violence fall in recent months has been the jail housing juveniles at Rikers—where there are now more officers per inmate than elsewhere on Rikers Island. While higher staffing levels for inmates with high-risk classifications might help, she argued there are bigger problems down the line.

“At the end of the day, we still have space problems and the staffing shortages,” she said. “And until those goals are also met, it’s still going to be a very violent place.”