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New York City Council Adopts Eight Bills For Transparency, Oversight Of Jails

Last week, the New York City Council sent eight bills to Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s desk aimed at bringing greater transparency to the city’s jails.

The wave of legislation was introduced this past spring and its passage marks the latest efforts by the city to reign in the brutal culture of violence and impunity that has reigned inside its jails for years. The city’s largest jail, Rikers Island, has been home to many of the troubling allegations, where a combination of medical and mental health service privatization and corrupt leadership within the Department of Correction has created some of the most violent and unstable conditions for inmates and employees in recent years.

First, the council adopted an Inmate Bill of Rights, which is meant to inform individuals of their rights, due process proceedings and other resources as they are being incarcerated. Under the new law:

The department shall inform every inmate upon admission to the custody of the department, in writing, using plain and simple language, of their rights under department policy, which shall be consistent with federal, state, and local laws, and board of correction minimum standards, on the following topics: non-discriminatory treatment, personal hygiene, recreation, religion, attorney visits, access to legal reference materials, visitation, telephone calls and other correspondence, media access, due process in any disciplinary proceedings, health services, safety from violence, and the grievance system.

Inmates will be informed of the code of conduct, and available educational services and treatment programs. The jails will also provide inmates with “the Connections guidebook for formerly incarcerated people,” describing the resources available to individuals as they re-enter society. A Bill of Rights could provide some small guidance to inmates as they navigate life behind bars and re-integrate, avoiding violations and getting the help they need to avoid longer stays behind bars and recidivism.

The city council passed a bill to expand the scope of reporting on solitary confinement required by the Department of Correction, specifically involving Enhanced Supervision Housing (also known as the ESHU) and other facilities “in which inmates are punished for committing certain infractions wile in custody” and are “regularly kept to their cells for more than the maximum number of hours allowed by the jail standards, regardless of whether such placement is due to a punishment for committing na infraction or not.”

The law requires the DOC post information on its website every quarter documenting the use of “segregated housing units and [Mental Health Units].” These detailed reports will include information on inmates’ age, sentence length, mental health, requests for access to religious services and the law library, as well as the use of force and sexual assault experienced by inmates at the hands of staff. This reform is particularly important as it sheds light on the use of solitary-by-another-name, which often obscures reporting on the actual number of inmates in isolation at any given time. The bill legally enshrines reporting on new “specialized” solitary units like the ESHU, which haven’t exactly been off to a great start.

A separate bill requires the DOC to post quarterly reports on the number of inmates awaiting placement in restrictive housing and “clinical alternative” to segregated housing. The report will “[set] forth the number of city jail inmates who have been found guilty of violating departmental rules but have yet to be placed in punitive segregation, restrictive housing or a clinical alternative to punitive segregation housing, or any successor to such housing units, including which inmates “are known to mental health staff.” The reports will include the length of time inmates have waited for placement.

The council demanded transparency on the impact of the DOC’s visitation policies through legislation that would mandate quarterly reports on the number of people visiting the city’s jails. The DOC will have to report on the “rate of visits per inmate” and differentiate between attorneys and other types of visitors, including the number of failed visitations and the reasons why the visits did not take place.

Changes to the visitation rules were proposed to the Board of Correction in March [PDF] and have rankled community members and activists who feel they are being collectively punished for the failure (and often complicity) of guards in controlling the flow of contraband into the city’s jails. In general they seek to limit physical contact between inmates and visitors, as well as increase security screening measures.

The City Council will require the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) to issue quarterly reports about the average daily inmate population of the city’s jails. Information on pre-trial detainees will include “the charges they are facing, how serious those charges are, how long these they have been detained, how much bail has been set on them, and their criminal record if any.”

DoITT will report on the sentence lengths for those who have been convicted and are serving time as well. Pre-trial inmates unable to make bail constitute the majority of the city’s incarcerated population, and they also experience the brunt of abuse and maltreatment at the hands of law enforcement, sometimes spending years behind bars before getting their day in court.

To that end, DoITT will also report on the court system, namely “the number of cases in which bail was set and the number of cases in which the defendant failed to appear for a court date” as well as cases in which individuals were released on supervision, forms of bail other than cash or bail bond, and the number who post bail. DoITT must report on “the outcomes of cases in which defendants are incarcerated pre-trial, and to report certain key information differentiating between boroughs, and comparing that borough-specific data to borough-specific crime rates.”

Another bill requires the DOC publish current policies regarding the use of force against inmates, “including but not limited to the circumstances in which any use of force is justified, the circumstances in which various levels of force or various uses of equipment are justified, and the procedures staff must follow prior to using force.”

The DOC will be required by law to publish on its website a quarterly report on the population demographics of its jails. The reports will include breakdowns on age, gender, race, place of incarceration, educational background and membership in a security risk group.

Quarterly reports on the department’s grievance system will also be published on the DOC website effective immediately. Grievances are written complaints made by inmates “about an issue, condition, practice or action” relating to their incarceration. They are incredibly important tools for illuminating the conditions at individual jails. These reports will outline the number of grievances submitted by facility, their category and stage within the grievance process, and the number of inmates who have submitted grievances for the time period.

It’s worth noting that not all of the bills proposed by the council this spring have made it through to the Mayor’s desk. Notably, Int. 0770 has been stuck in committee since May, despite being arguably one of the most important reforms proposed by lawmakers to-date. 770 would develop a crisis intervention program that would “address situations in which inmates with mental health issues act out, typically by refusing to leave their cells or disobeying correction officers.”

Such situations have been a major driver of violence against inmates and corrections officers in recent years, particularly due to the failures and neglect of for-profit health contractor Corizon Health Services. The bill would create protocols for handling mentally ill inmates with care and specialized training on how to approach tense situations with the goal of not inflicting immense harm or trauma on the inmate.

All of these bills represent important achievements of oversight over the city’s correction system. But given the DOC’s long history of falsifying reports and under-reporting incidents to serve its own purposes, the council and other government agencies will have to work hard to make sure that DOC not only fulfills its reporting obligations but does so honorably.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.