NYC mayor unveils plan to curb violence at Rikers jail
Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday unveiled additional details of his plan to curb violence at the problem-plagued Rikers Island jail complex
By Jake Pearson
NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday unveiled additional details of his plan to curb violence at the problem-plagued Rikers Island jail complex after touring a highly restrictive housing unit for troublesome New York City inmates.
Speaking in a recently renovated area that houses the 7 percent of inmates officials say drive most jail violence, de Blasio touted reforms that include installing video cameras, restricting inmate visits and beefing up security screenings.
"It's about launching a new era here on this island where violence will decrease steadily," he said. "It's about changing the culture of this place and it's about addressing, bluntly, years of neglect."
Violence has continued to surge at Rikers in the past year even as the media, regulators and federal attorneys have stepped up their scrutiny of the 11,000-inmate jail system. Statistics show there have been nearly 30 stabbings or slashings since Jan. 1 — about twice as many as there were during the same time span last year. Guards' use of force also has risen.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that five inmates have been stabbed or slashed since officials locked down four Rikers facilities for 34 hours last week.
Reducing inmate-on-inmate violence, the mayor said, depends on stemming the flow of drugs and weapons that find their way into the jails. The mayor and his jails commissioner, Joe Ponte, say they are preparing new visitation policies to help accomplish that.
The policies would reduce the number of visits allowed, require criminal background checks of visitors and bar some gang members or felons from visiting non-family members.
"You cut off the weapons and you cut off the drugs," the mayor said, noting recent discoveries of drugs and weapons on visitors.
But inmate advocates and others disputed that visitors are the driving source of jail contraband, questioning whether the department is doing enough to curb the involvement of jail staff in smuggling. Last year, an undercover city investigator posing as a jail guard highlighted lax security screening by smuggling in drugs, alcohol and even a razor blade undetected.
"What's needed is strong security at the front gate so that drugs and other contraband don't come in by anybody," said JoAnne Page, who heads The Fortune Society, a nonprofit group that works with those formerly incarcerated. "There are ways to do that that don't mean restricting people in a specific way."
Leah Gitter, a member of an inmate advocacy group, said visiting her godson regularly while he was jailed at Rikers awaiting the adjudication of his criminal case was the only thing that kept him connected to the outside world.
"If they're isolated and alone and feel like no one's looking after them then they'll feel like their lives are totally worthless," she said.
The Board of Correction, the agency charged with overseeing the jails, will need to approve any proposed visitor change. Both the mayor and Ponte said they believed family contact is important for inmates' peace-of-mind but urged the board to allow some restrictions.
Other efforts to curb the violence include adding more drug-sniffing dogs to the investigation division and at security checkpoints by June 2016, building improved security entrances in the next three years and upgrading security screening by December to mirror Transportation Security Administration standards.
"We are acting decisively to reduce violence," the mayor said. "We are fundamentally dissatisfied with a culture of violence and will not allow it to continue."
But violence has proven especially stubborn to eliminate.
Just hours before the mayor's visit, a female correction officer was wheeled out of a Rikers jail in a gurney and put into an ambulance. Minutes later, an inmate who had just been pepper sprayed was escorted by another correction officer, covering his eyes.