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NYC Moves Forward With Plans to Build Housing for Most Dangerous Inmates

NYC Moves Forward With Plans to Build Housing for Most Dangerous Inmates
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After facing contention from some board members, the jails oversight committee's moving forwards with plans to create restrictive housing for dangerous inmates.
New York City's jail oversight board moved Tuesday to initiate the lengthy process of creating a 250-bed restrictive housing dorm for inmates responsible for the majority of violence on Rikers Island.
 
Jails Commissioner Joseph Ponte, appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio to reform the troubled correction department, said at the board's public meeting the proposed $14.8 million "enhanced supervision housing" was necessary as an alternative to solitary confinement for violent inmates because the current system "functionally just doesn't work to keep our staff and inmates safe."
 
While total assaults are up 58 percent from fiscal year 2010 to 2014, Ponte said, particular groups of inmates - such as the mentally ill, adolescents and those deemed high-custody- are responsible for the vast majority of violent incidents.
 
Gang members, for example, make up just 10 percent of the roughly 11,400 daily inmate population but they're responsible for 25 percent of the violence, Ponte said.
 
The proposed plan would allow jailers to lock inmates in their cells for up to 17 hours daily, instead of eight, restrict their access to the law library, monitor their mail without warrants and limit their visits.
 
Advocates have argued Ponte's plan is overly broad, punitive and elements of it could violate inmate rights. They are also concerned the proposal doesn't include an exemption for mentally ill inmates and question the department's screening criteria for inmates in the unit. They say the inmates could be deemed violent based not on their actions while in custody but on past behavior and information gleaned by gang intelligence officers.
 
Ponte has said his other proposed solitary reforms, such as eliminating 23-hour confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates by Dec. 31, expunging historical time owed in solitary from previous stints and capping solitary sentences to 30 days, are contingent on building the restrictive housing unit.
 
Work on that front was underway and there are currently 11 adolescents in solitary, down from more than 60 a few months ago, Ponte said.
 
The department initially sought a variance from current city rules to create the unit but at the last minute, it was proposed as a formal rule change by the board's chairman.
 
Some board members argued during the at times contentious meeting that surging levels of violence on Rikers required urgent action. A union official handed out graphic flyers depicting slashing and beating victims while one board member spoke.
 
And two members, echoing the advocates' concerns, argued against adopting the department's plan as the board's own rule  - an approach board member Bryanne Hamill likened to "nothing short of sandbagging" the board's role as an independent watchdog.
 
There will be a 30-day comment period and a public hearing before the rule is adopted and the language could change before it becomes law, officials said.
 
De Blasio has come under increased pressure to reform the jails in the wake of revelations about surging violence and the maltreatment of mentally ill inmates. In a statement, he said Ponte's plans "move the system in the right direction."