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Mayor Claims Progress Reforming Troubled NYC Jails

Mayor Claims Progress Reforming Troubled NYC Jails
Mayor touts reforms being made at Rikers Island jail complex.

Acknowledging that not even he appreciated the depth of problems at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday told reporters "deep-seated" cultural change in city lockups was one of his administration's top priorities.

   De Blasio and his reform-minded commissioner, Joseph Ponte, touted changes already underway while also publicly detailing just how bad it has become, referencing surging levels of violence and the maltreatment of mentally ill inmates, who now account for about 40 percent of the roughly 11,000-inmate system.

   "I knew there were problems but I didn't know that there was this level of neglect," De Blasio said. "And I didn't know that so many failed policies had gone unchanged and I didn't know that so much failed leadership had been left in place."

   The Associated Press has reported extensively this year on problems plaguing Rikers, a 10-facility lockup on a 400-acre island near LaGuardia Airport, where the vast majority of inmates in the nation's second-largest jail system are held.

   Those revelations - including the gruesome deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates, one who sexually mutilated himself while locked alone in a cell and another who an official said "baked to death" in a 101-degree cell  - have prompted oversight hearings and calls for reform.

   De Blasio and Ponte said months of work were showing signs of progress, including $15 million secured for installing almost 8,000 security cameras in the next 18 months to cover the island, $32 million from the last budget for mental health services and housing and a management restructuring that replaced 90 percent of the Corrections Department's top staff.

   "The more I learn, the more I want to focus on more change, the more I want to invest, the faster I want to go," said de Blasio, who plans to visit Rikers next month. "Because it is, of all of our agencies, the one I think that suffered the most neglect before we came along and needs the most support."

   But both officials insisted security was needed before true reform could take place.

   Earlier this week, the city's jails watchdog agency voted to begin the rulemaking process to create a $14 million enhanced security housing unit for the 2.2 percent of inmates the department says is responsible for a disproportionate amount of jail violence.

   And the use of solitary confinement - locking inmates who break jailhouse rules in their cells for 23-hours a day - isn't a practice that will be eliminated, though it will be relied upon less heavily, said Ponte. He has vowed to expunge historical time owed in what's called "The Bing" and to cap stints in solitary to 30 days, from 90.

   He's also promised to end the practice entirely for 16- and 17-year-old inmates, a change prompted in part by a blistering August report by federal prosecutors that found the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates were routinely violated by jail guards who excessively used force against them.

   The mayor said his overhaul has begun by trying to change peoples' outlook on inmates, who by design are out of view when they go to Rikers and are bussed to courthouses in every borough.

   "They're still human beings," de Blasio said during the hour-long news conference. "It really comes down to a real human equation."

   Norman Seabrook, the powerful head of the correction officers' union, said he was encouraged that City Hall appeared to be investing in the jails and insisted that his members were more empathetic than the public tales of guard misconduct and neglect implied.

   "We do see inmates as human. Some of them are our children, some of them are our relatives," he said. "But we do also have those who we see as humans but they don't act like humans."

   Ponte, a longtime corrections official who is credited with turning around troubled jail systems from Massachusetts to Memphis, said he never thought he'd be "running a mental health hospital," adding that training for guards on how to deal with the mentally ill - a new concept in New York - had just recently begun.

   "Much of the responsibility, in my opinion, is on the leadership - that we have to do a better job getting our staff ready for the enormous challenges that they face," he said.