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Reforms For Young Adults On Rikers Island Could Face Further Delays

In a letter to the New York City jail oversight board dated January 8, Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte made his second request [PDF] to the Board of Correction for more time to exclude young adult inmates between the ages of 18 and 21 from punitive segregation. If all goes according to plan, the Department of Corrections (DOC) hopes to limit solitary confinement for juvenile detainees by June, 2016.

Commissioner Ponte also requested an extension [PDF] on the Board of Correction’s new requirement that youth inmates be housed separately from adults, which he now hopes to achieve by the end of March, 2016. In both cases, the Department cited the need to carefully develop and implement its Young Adult Plan in order to properly comply with the Board’s reforms.

In November, the Board agreed [PDF] to grant the DOC an extension for ending solitary for young adults until February, 2016, so long as the DOC provided the Board with its Young Adult Plan.The Board also granted [PDF] an extension for separate housing the following month. Nonetheless, the DOC states it does not believe it can implement staff trainings, building repairs and new alternative housing units in under the current timeframe.

A document [PDF] entitled “Young Adult Plan Updated 2016” recently published on the Board’s website appears to be an executive summary of the DOC’s plans to comply with these rules. The plan is not even four pages long, but because the Board of Correction has ignored repeated requests for the full Young Adult Plan by this reporter since November 2015, it’s hard to tell whether or not this is everything.

In the document, the DOC writes that “In developing this plan DOC has been focused on balancing safety and disciplinary concerns with brain research demonstrating that while Young Adults have a greater propensity for impulsivity and rash decision-making, they also have the capacity for behavioral change.”

To eliminate solitary and establish “progressively more restrictive alternative housing unit pilots” by June 2016, the DOC will need to establish three levels of ‘alternative housing’ for inmates with infractions. These units will be known as Transitional Restorative Units (TRU), Second Chance Units (SCU) and Secure Units. Adolescents have already been placed in TRU and SCU housing, but they have yet to be used with young adults.

The new “Secure Unit” model will be used as the “highest level of secure housing for the most persistently and severely violent young adult inmates whom previously have been placed in punitive segregation.” There are no further details on the Secure Unit or how it will differ from punitive segregation.

In March 2016, the DOC will “pilot the use of the Secure Unit for the most seriously and persistently violent inmates that previously would have been placed in punitive segregation.” But the department will reserve the right to use punitive segregation “as an option for only the most violent young adult inmates” while it “tests the operations of the Secure Unit with a subset of this group and builds staff capacity to safely run this new alternative housing unit.”

After a 60 day review period, the DOC anticipates it can eliminate punitive segregation for young adults, relying on Secure Units and other alternative housing measures instead. This is expected to happen beginning in June, 2016.

The DOC also cites plans to reform the decision-making process for alternative housing units, particularly regarding young adult inmates who engage in violence. The DOC will adopt criteria to evaluate an inmate’s propensity for violence and facility leadership will assess the inmates against that criteria. The DOC will review inmate progress to determine “whether inmates have accomplished the goals set forth in the individualized plans they will receive upon admission into these units and determine whether inmates can be securely stepped down to progressively less restrictive settings.”

The DOC plans to begin placing the “least serious, non-violent infractors (whom previously would have been placed in punitive segregation)” to Second Chance housing, moving young adult inmates who commit “isolated acts of violence” to the TRU after that.

Housing young adult inmates separately from adult inmates will first require the completion of extensive repairs to the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers. This includes implementing 100% camera coverage and repairing cell doors in areas that will house high and medium-high security inmates. Young adult inmates are expected to be moved in as repairs are completed.

The DOC says it also needs to complete staff training for “Safe Crisis Management.” Personnel in the alternative housing units will receive additional training, including in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, “both to better manage inmates but also provide such programming and training directly to the inmates.” Staff will work with inmates and their program counselors.

There will also be a new admission center for young adult inmates inside GMDC and “expand programming” in “select housing areas.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of community advocates are calling on city officials to close Rikers Island, citing wasted resources attempting to reform a scandal-scarred jail complex that is beyond saving. They are said to be modeling their efforts after the long but successful campaign to rescind New York state’s Rockefeller-era drug laws, which fueled racist and harsh law enforcement and the large-scale and disproportionate incarceration of minorities.

According to the Associated Press, advocates “propose drastically decreasing the inmate population through changes in bail, diversion programs and other means, and then building a collection of new, better-designed jails in the city’s five boroughs, where defendants are arrested and tried.”

Aside from building new jails, the call to close Rikers instead of reform it is worthy of careful and serious consideration. The Rikers Reform effort began with spectacularly awful stories of abuse, followed by great denunciations and grandiose promises of a new era in criminal justice by city officials – some of whom used the issue to propel themselves into office. But not only could truly reforming NYC’s jail system take generations — such a reform plan is also a distraction from the point of view of communities that feel these institutions do not serve them.

If the DOC ever gets around to it, ending “punitive segregation” will be an improvement on the status quo, but in truth we still don’t know how these programs will help inmates and if the additional specialized units will be anything other than solitary by another name. We don’t know if this will be enough to change the root problem: the violent, inhumane culture that coats the insides of the Island’s youth and adult detention centers.

NYC officials at various levels are very busy making reforms, in many cases spending millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars while earmarking millions more to experiment with ways to turn the jail system into a model for the nation. Progress has been, as one might expect, excruciatingly slow – something no one feels more than the inmates trapped on the Island.

New York has embarked on a seemingly endless path of tweaking jail conditions and dreaming up new units that will do little more than make those on the outside feel better about themselves. All of these units and programs wrapped in the language of rehabilitation and justice represent resources better spent on investments and experiments that actually confronting societies problems and don’t rely on incarceration.

David Bowie performing on the "Diamond Dogs" Tour (1974) at
Charlotte Park Center, North Carolina on July 5, 1974. (Flickr / Hunter Desportes)
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.