Council Passes Package of Bills to Boost Transparency at Rikers

The City Council today passed eight separate bills aimed at making public basic information about Rikers Island.

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

The City Council today passed eight separate bills aimed at making public basic information about Rikers Island—including the demographic breakdown of inmates, the charges and bail amounts they’re facing, their rights and the rules regarding uses of force by officers—as part of an ongoing effort to reform the violence-plagued jail complex.

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“We’re working hand-in-hand to really figure out how to turn this around,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viveirto said of cooperation with the mayor’s office and Department of Correction. “Yes, there has been lack of transparency—that goes back a long time.”

Today’s push for new information from the department comes on the same day as the release of the Mayor’s Management Report—a compendium of statistics on city agencies that revealed violence at Rikers Island has continued to rise over the last year, despite reform efforts by Commissioner Joseph Ponte.

The number of infractions issued for fights and assaults increased to 9,424 for fiscal year 2015, which ended July 1, up from 8,827 fights and assaults reported in 2014. Stabbing and slashing incidents rose from 88 to 108 in fiscal 2015, and inmate-on-staff assaults jumped by 31 percent.The rate of violent incidents among inmates rose 15 percent; the rate of violent incidents between inmates and staff rose by 46 percent from fiscal 2014 to 2015. The rate of serious injuries to inmates as a result of violent incidents with other inmates jumped nearly 38 percent.

The increase in violence comes even as the department has rolled out programs aimed specifically at stemming it—including “idleness reduction” classes the Observer was permitted to visit, a new classification system to keep inmates likely to fight away from one another, and new secure units meant to house the most violent and dangerous inmates.

Mr. Ponte has been at the helm of the department for more than a year. Asked if she thought he was taking too long to produce results, Ms. Mark-Viverito said it was difficult to measure.

“It’s really hard to put, you can’t really put a figure on something like this, of a three-month period, or six-month period, or twelve months,” she said, going on to add the department had shown a “willingness” to engage in reforms.

Today’s legislation also comes as a great deal of attention is being focused on the conduct of those working at Rikers—where U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleged there is a “culture of violence” by correction officers against juvenile inmates in a lawsuit against the city. In the last two years the city has rolled out extensive reforms—including ending punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, for all inmates under 18 and promising to do the same for those under 21; and limiting punitive segregation for all adult inmates, something correction unions have argued is fueling the rising tide of violence. As part of a settlement with Mr. Bharara, the city will also try to move inmates under 18 off the island, and will have a federal monitor.

“Our city has an obligation to keep people safe when they are in our custody —regardless of whether or not they have been charged with a crime,” Councilman Dan Garodnick, who sponsored bills that will require the department to report the demographic population of its inmates, to report those who are placed in new enhanced security housing units, and to make public the department’s use of force of policy, said. “Inmates have been beaten, abused, neglected, assaulted and harassed. All this horror occurs at the same time that our inmate population continues to go down.”

Some of the most recent controversies at Rikers Island have focused less on the jails on more on the bail system that strands many poor New Yorkers inside of them. One inmate, Kalief Browder, was arrested as a teenager for allegedly stealing a backpack and spent more than two years at Rikers Island because he could not afford his bail—only for those charges to eventually be dismissed. Browder died by suicide earlier this year after being arrested after an altercation.

Legislation from Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal would provide information that so far has been difficult to obtain—including how many inmates at Rikers are awaiting trial and are there because they can’t afford bail.

“We all suspect that New Yorkers who have not been found guilty of a crime languish in jails just because they’re too poor to afford bail,” Ms. Rosenthal said. “Well, now we’re going to have the facts.”

Councilwoman Inez Barron sponsored legislation to report the number of grievances filed by inmates in city jails—a system used by inmates to report problems with jail conditions or services but not violence and which advocates say is underused.

“As everyone is aware we have a crisis before us with our prison population, which I might say has a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos incarcerated,” Ms. Barron said. “Many of them have not had their day in court. There are opportunities here after having listened to the hearing, the testimony that was presented, for the City Council to step up and have more oversight and involvement and make sure that these inmates’ rights, their privileges, and their entitlements are not abused.”

Other bills were aimed at gathering information about violent inmates. A bill from Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee that oversees Rikers Island, will require the department to report the number of inmates who have committed infractions and have been sentenced to a segregated housing—but are remaining in general population because the segregated housing has a waiting list. It will also require the department to report inmates who are on waiting lists for units to house the mentally ill.

“The waiting list for these units is far too long,” Ms. Crowley said. “This process is leaving dangerous inmates with the general population.”

She and Councilman Daniel Dromm co-sponsored a bill to require the department to inform inmates of their rights—and, in an effort to prevent accidental infractions, the rules and responsibilities they have—when they arrive in a city jail. Mr. Dromm also sponsored legislation to look into the jail visitation process—the family members of inmates report is time-consuming and confusing.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that it is the number of infractions for fights and assaults, not the actual number of fights and assaults,that increased to 9,424 in fiscal year 2015.

Council Passes Package of Bills to Boost Transparency at Rikers