After years of neglect and a “culture of no,” Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a series of reforms Thursday aimed at helping fix the problems that have plagued Rikers Island for decades.
De Blasio said “in the past, so many inmates ended their time at Rikers more broken than when they came in,” and said this was “an unfair dynamic that served no one.”
Mental health treatment and anti-violence programs will receive additional funding the Mayor said, without specifying the amount. He said 40 percent of Rikers inmates have mental health issues, and they account for more than half of violent incidents at the jail.
“In 40 years of corrections I never thought I’d be running a mental health hospital,” Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte said at a City Hall press conference with de Blasio.
Ponte said he is working closely with the city’s health department to develop what could be a “national model for mental health treatment in custody.”
Inmates responsible for the most serious violent acts will be put in a supervised housing unit, de Blasio said, and punitive segregation will be reduced from 90 days to 30 days per infraction. There are 13 adolescents in punitive segregation today, Ponte said, with the number expected to be zero by year’s end.
Rikers will install 7,800 new surveillance cameras, and create separate housing for transgender inmates.
“This is an institution that deeply needs a culture change,” de Blasio said. He called Rikers a “dehumanizing environment” for the people who work there and who are held there.
Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook said de Blasio is the only mayor in the past 12 years to look out for Rikers’ corrections officers.
Seabrook said city corrections officers need more training handle inmates with psychiatric problems, not just how to react to “outbursts of violence” and suicides.
Jeffrey Smith, who teaches urban policy at the Milano School for International Affairs at The New School, said the mayor’s plan sounded like “fine first steps.” He warned that the “systematic dehumanization” of prisoners can’t be solved simply by reducing staff ratios and isolating people with the most violent tendencies.
“This is a culture where headshots are frequent. When a 16 year old kid mouths off to a corrections officer, that’s absurd,” Smith said. “I was locked up, you mouth off at the guards, it’s what you do … the nature of the beast.”