NYC Jail Watchdog Board Lacks Minorities
Vacancies on Board of Correction offer opportunity, say advocates
At a time when New York City jail officials are struggling to quell rising levels of violence and better care for a growing number of mentally ill inmates, a civilian oversight board is being criticized for having no minorities or experts in mental illness.
But inmate advocates say three current vacancies on the nine-member New York City Board of Correction offer a chance to address those shortfalls and build a panel that more closely reflects an overwhelmingly black and Hispanic inmate population. They also say it would help if the panel had at least one member who has actually experienced what it's like to have been incarcerated.
"Until we have a real civilian oversight board we're not going to have any real change," said Five Mualimm-Ak, a member of the Jails Action Coalition, an inmate advocacy group which has offered up the names of formerly incarcerated people working in advocacy or academia who could be potential candidates.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose administration has made a priority of reforming the nation's second-largest jail system, especially its biggest lockup, Rikers Island, is expected to appoint two members to the board this fall. State judges appoint the third.
Former watchdogs say they would do well to pick aggressive, independent members who will invoke the board's power to hold hearings, compel documents and maintain a healthy tension with the Department of Correction.
"The more trouble a jail system is in, the stronger you need a board," said David Lenefsky, 76, a lawyer and former board member who served under three mayors beginning in the 1980s. "And the system is in trouble. Big time."
New York's jails have come under increasing scrutiny since The Associated Press first exposed the horrific deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates earlier this year - one who an official said "basically baked to death" in a 101-degree cell and another diabetic inmate who sexually mutilated himself while locked alone for seven days inside a cell last fall. Nearly 40 percent of the roughly 11,500 daily inmates have a mental health diagnosis.
And last month, the Department of Justice issued a scathing review of the jails holding adolescent inmates, finding a pervasive culture of violence existed in which guards routinely use excessive force against inmates.
The Board of Correction is one of just handful of agencies nationwide like it - a civilian board armed with subpoena power and unfettered access to city jails.
It assumed significant powers in the 1970s after inmate riots at Rikers and other jails, when by referendum it attained the power to enact minimum standards and draft rules that carry the power of law.
Since then, it has utilized that power to varying degrees - and has been both a boon and bane to mayors and corrections commissioners alike. More than once, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani eliminated the board's funding from the executive budget, which the City Council later restored.
The board is currently a mix of people who have experience working in the justice system and elsewhere.
Two of its most active members - a physician who used to head health services on Rikers and a former family court judge - visit lockups regularly and ask probing questions at public meetings. But the vice chairman, a Ukrainian-born billionaire who made his fortune in the fertilizer business, missed five of nine public meetings between January 2013 and this March. One member heads a criminal justice nonprofit and another is a former top official in the Fire Department who is now a managing director at JPMorgan Chase.
They hold public meetings about six times a year, have a $1 million budget and employ a staff of 20, including jail investigators who inspect jail conditions on Rikers. The board is augmented by the Department of Investigation's inspector general, whose criminal investigations this year alone have led to charges against 10 jail guards and supervisors, plus 30 inmates.
In Los Angeles County, home to the nation's largest jail system, calls for a similar civilian oversight commission have increased in recent months and the leading candidate to run the sheriff's department has said he supports the idea.
But many other cities, like Chicago, have no such body. And in Texas, a nine-member board with 16 staff is responsible for overseeing about 68,000 inmates in 244 county lockups statewide.
A mayoral spokeswoman said in a statement that the board plays a "crucial oversight role" and that administration officials were looking for appointees who would push reforms and "implement sound progressive policies that have been proven effective in other jurisdictions."