De Blasio Vows Sweeping Changes to ‘Dehumanizing Environment’ on Rikers

Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a roundtable discussion today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen)

Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Mayor Bill de Blasio at a roundtable discussion today. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen) Jillian Jorgensen/Observer

Mayor Bill de Blasio blamed years of neglect for what he called a “dehumanizing environment” in the city’s jails today — and promised sweeping changes to the culture on Rikers Island.

“This is a culture change. This is gonna take widespread reform. But we’re convinced we can do it,” Mr. de Blasio told reporters at a City Hall roundtable outlining recent changes made on Rikers Island and in the city’s troubled Department of Corrections.

As part of his efforts, Mr. de Blasio vowed to visit the infamous jail complex on December 18 — a visit Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, welcomed.

“I think that when the mayor comes to Rikers, he’s going to see an environment which is going to shock the Hell out of him,” Mr. Seabrook told the Observer in a telephone interview. “I hope that he doesn’t just go to the newly painted areas, where everybody is on Thorazine and everybody is like a mummy — he needs to go into the belly of the beast, and see what it is we do every day.”

Mr. Seabrook and other union leaders are among the many constituencies weighing in on the efforts of Mr. de Blasio and Commissioner Joseph Ponte to overhaul the city’s jails — there’s also the city’s health department, advocates for inmates and the mentally ill and the City Council, whose members have pushed for an end to solitary confinement and the housing of juveniles on Rikers.

They don’t all always agree: Mr. Seabrook has knocked mental health officials for not doing enough and is opposed to ending punitive segregation for violent juveniles — often pointing out how dangerous inmates can be. The commissioner has vowed to end punitive segregation for young inmates, but not for all inmates — while City Council members have called for the solitary confinement to disappear all together.

But despite those differing interests, Mr. de Blasio said they’re all mostly on the same page: that change is overdue and it must happen.

“I think the history is one of neglect and lack of creativity and lack of belief and disregard for the human beings involved,” Mr. de Blasio told the Observer. “We just don’t think of things that way. And I believe that these changes have to happen and they will happen.”

While the mayor acknowledged that he himself gave Rikers Island little thought before taking office, it’s become almost impossible for anyone to ignore the problems plaguing the city’s jails in the last year. A New York Times report outlining brutal conditions for the mentally ill was followed up with a report from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleging a culture of violence toward young people on Rikers. A homeless veteran baked to death in an overheated cell; a top uniformed official, William Clemons, retired recently after it was reported he’d overseen a juvenile jail that incorrectly reported the number of fights taking place.

Mr. de Blasio emphasized that these problems pre-date his tenure.

“It is, of all of our agencies, the one that I think suffered the most neglect before we came along, and needs the most support,” Mr. de Blasio said.

In that area, Mr. Seabrook — who was not present at the roundtable — agrees with the mayor.

“I think that the mayor has recognized that Correction has been an agency that has been neglected for many, many years and is finally realizing that the work that we need to accomplish in reforming some parts of the agency is long overdue,” Mr. Seabrook said.

The mayor and Mr. Ponte highlighted several changes they’ve made. More than 90 percent of the department’s senior leaders have been replaced; there is a renewed focus on mental health; the city will spend $15.1 million to add 7,800 cameras to cover all areas of the city jails; the longest stays in punitive segregation will be cut down to 30 days from 90; the small percentage of the inmates who cause the most violence will be housed in a separate, “enhanced supervision” unit. That last change has won the most favor with unions.

“I think that Joe Ponte has demonstrated a sense of urgency in getting the reform needed to enhance housing for dangerous and violent inmates,” Mr. Seabrook said, “because there are gonna always be dangerous and violent inmates in the system, and until we do something about it, we are going to be faced with more and more violent assaults on correction officers and inmates.”

Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the union representing deputy wardens ad assistant deputy wardens, said that with Mr. Ponte agreeing to dole out less time in punitive segregation, the new enhanced unit was a necessity.

“He needs a viable tool to address the 10 percent of the inmate population who are committing 100 percent of the violence — so this is a good tool to use to isolate them, to have a higher level of supervision and to nullify their ability to network, smuggle drugs, put out contracts for violence on other gangs,” Mr. Schwartzbaum said.

Those violent inmates — often members of gangs — also need to understand that being in that class of prisoners is not “chic,” and will result in consequences that will make joining gangs or committing violence less attractive.

Mr. Seabrook said more could be done — he called for district attorneys to be more aggressive in charging inmates who commit crimes in jail, rather than treating the offenses as “out of sight, out of mind.”

But while he’s often been characterized as resistant to the reforms proposed for Rikers Island, Mr. Seabrook said he agrees with most of what the mayor has proposed.

“I don’t see a downside to this, because it’s gotta be better than what we have,” he said. De Blasio Vows Sweeping Changes to ‘Dehumanizing Environment’ on Rikers