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Rikers Island Imposes Harsh Restrictions on Contact Between Inmates And Visitors

Just before the holidays and with little-to-no mention by the press, New York City’s jail oversight board voted to restrict physical contact between inmates and their visitors on Rikers Island.

The new rules [PDF] adopted by the Board of Correction will go into effect on January 23 and were proposed by Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who believes they are an important step toward stemming the flow of weapons entering the jail. The amendments also poke holes in recent reforms meant to limit the number of consecutive days an inmate can spend in punitive segregation, creating longer isolation sentences for those who assault staff.

After inserting a paragraph into the rules extolling the importance of “maintaining personal connections with social and family networks and support systems,” the board removed language that has, until now, permitted inmates to engage in physical contact with their guests throughout the visit, “including holding hands, holding young children, and kissing.”

In its place, the board outlined specific interactions and restrictions to be managed by the department. Only a brief hug and kiss at the beginning and the end of the visit will now be permitted. Inmates will be allowed to hold children fourteen and under throughout the visit, but the department “may limit an inmate’s holding of children to one child at a time.”

The board added a provision to the rules stating further restrictions of physical contact during visit should be tailored to the specific threat posed by an individual inmate, and granted some flexibility with regards to hand-holding, stating the department “may limit” such contact with a partition of no more than six inches.

Such restrictions might make more sense if they were minimum standards, but that’s not what the board chose to do. Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, told Shadowproof, “The new rule on visits unnecessarily limits conditions of contact visits for individuals in the city jails.”

“The Board should have modified the language indicating that the proposed permitted physical contact is ‘the minimum’ that must be permitted,” Kerr argued. “This modification would protect the right to contact that is ‘consistent with reasonable standards of decency’ (as required by state law) and would provide for flexibility in the exercise of this right.”

“Instead the new rule limits contact unnecessarily to ‘include a brief embrace and kiss between the inmate and visitor at both the beginning and end of the visitation period'” According to Kerr, “The failure to state this as a ‘minimum’ will likely result in this restriction on contact for all visitors regardless of any needed security precaution and may lend itself to heavy-handed enforcement by staff that may provoke unnecessary conflict during visits. Such conflict may in turn lead to visit suspensions and other disciplinary action.”

Visiting a loved one Rikers Island can be accurately termed a nightmare. Aside from the stress of visiting someone you know who has been incarcerated, guests must make an arduous journey to the isolated island and pass through complex and unclear security screenings before ever getting close to the visiting room.

As the NY Daily News recently found out, this is a long, exhausting, and often humiliating ordeal for families. “Parents struggle with cranky toddlers as they endure hours-long waits, facing chaos and confusion at multiple checkpoints that could take nearly an entire day just to have an hour-long visit with a loved one who’s behind bars,” the Daily News reported.

In an October essay warning of the proposed changes to the visitation policy, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services Lisa Schreibersdorf wrote, “[The Department of Corrections’] proposal will greatly restrict the more than 300,000 people who visit city jails in a given year, and there is no evidence that current screening procedures during family visits, which are extremely invasive, are not already sufficiently preventing weapons from being smuggled into the jails.”

Schreibersdorf continued, “Currently, visitors pass through three screening checkpoints with metal detectors and pat frisks, women have to lift up their bras, and visitors have to partially pull down their pants. DOC’s Emergency Service Unit and K-9 Unit conduct searches on NYC buses and visitors arriving to Rikers Island by way of public transportation, often without explanation or warning.

The jail complex can receive up to 1,500 guests on visitation day. The department convened a panel last spring to review and streamline the security processes that make a one-hour visit an all-day fiasco, but the panel has yet to produce a single idea.

If the board plans to fight the contraband problem by giving officers greater power over inmates, we should first examine whether the department can be trusted to implement these rules appropriately.

Consider the department’s treatment of the roughly 250 inmates on the “non-contact” visit list in November 2015. This list is supposed to be reserved for those being punished or determined to be at risk of bringing contraband into the jail.

Since November, Commissioner Ponte has sent two “audits” to the board, in the form of letters, concerning inmates on the non-contact visit list. In the first audit [PDF], Commissioner Ponte conceded there were “several issues with which we are not currently in compliance in regards to non-contact visits.” He admitted his department hadn’t reviewed all inmates on the non-contact list as it was supposed to every six months, nor had it shared those placement determinations with the board. Inmates who had been placed on the list generally remained there for the duration of their incarceration.

In its second audit [PDF] in January 2016, the department told the board it had ordered all facilities to provide complete paperwork for inmates who had been placed on the non-contact visit list for evaluation. The facilities provided the department with “all paperwork they were able to retrieve” but there were a “small number of packages” that disappeared.

The department has claimed it will take these inmates, whose paperwork was lost, off the non-contact visit list for the time being. Nonetheless, Commissioner Ponte wrote “many” of the non-contact visit determinations were the result of the discovery of contraband “with a direct and immediate nexus to a visit.”

Another large portion of those on the list were found with non-facility contrived weapons in their possession. Others were placed on the list for their participation in slashing and stabbing incidents, in which an investigation determined a non-facility contrived weapon had been used. A “small portion” of the non-contact visit placement decisions required a more-detailed review to determine if they are in compliance. The department did not provide any hard data to substantiate or explain any of these claims.

Notably, the department announced it created a spreadsheet with “specific information about the reasons for the designation” so that it may track people placed on the non-contact visitation list.

As the city moves forward with plans to clamp down on inmates to fight its contraband problem, officials have determined a guard likely took the missing ecstasy pills meant to train drug-sniffing dogs, and they will probably never be found:

The missing ecstasy pills used to train police dogs on Rikers Island are likely lost forever, city jail commissioner Joseph Ponte said Tuesday.

“We have not found them … probably not going to find them,” he told reporters. “But the investigation should give us what happened.”

The drugs were discovered missing from a large safe in the back of the Otis Bantum Correctional Facility on Nov. 24. The captain in charge of the safe apparently gave the combination to a subordinate before he went on vacation.

Since 2012, New York City’s Department of Investigation recommended changes to stop the flow of contraband into the jail, but the department failed to implement them. Meanwhile, correction officers were making thousands of dollars [PDF] running contraband rings and investigators went six for six, successfully smuggling contraband past checkpoints at every single facility they attempted to enter on Rikers.

The department did not have a recruiting unit for hiring officers for over six years and routinely failed to conduct background checks for new staff. From September to November 2015, three Rikers correction officers were arrested for their role in the movement of contraband, including weapons, into the jail.

The contraband problem on Rikers Island is a product of the department’s dysfunction and  corruption. Placing cruel restrictions on something as important to inmates as visitation is not going to make this problem go away.

File: Razor wire outside a prison in Maryland. (Flickr / Fred Dunn)
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.