Tragedy, discussion and change with Rikers Island

Stephon Johnson | 10/13/2016, 9:47 a.m.
New York City’s notorious correctional facility has been in the news a lot recently.
Rikers Islands, New York.

New York City’s notorious correctional facility has been in the news a lot recently.

Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York City Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced that the Department of Corrections ended the practice of punitive segregation for inmates 21-years-old and younger. According to the city, the DOC has created alternative, rehabilitative approaches for managing the behavior of young inmates that have paved a way to end this practice.

City officials state that since Ponte became commissioner in April 2014, the number of inmates serving punitive segregation sentences has dropped 80 percent. According to the city, young inmates are responsible for a disproportionate amount of jail violence.

“Today’s announcement shows that New York City is leading the nation down a new path toward rehabilitation and safety,” stated de Blasio. “Commissioner Ponte has established viable options for managing and disciplining young inmates that can bring about better outcomes while reducing violence —and has done so years ahead of other jurisdictions. New Yorkers can be proud that their correctional facilities are pioneering these smarter, more humane approaches.”

“This accomplishment culminates much hard work on the part of our dedicated staff,” added Ponte in a statement. “During the last two years, the department created and tested a number of models for safely managing our youngest inmates. Each step of the way, we assessed our progress and setbacks with safety for staff and inmates foremost in mind.”

Ponte concluded, “Our ending of punitive segregation today is founded upon thoughtful evaluation, flexibility and adjustments with the needs and safety concerns of staff and young adults front and center.”

While de Blasio and Ponte were celebrating that development, the Independent Commission on New York Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform held its first public event to discuss how to improve the city’s jail system. Moderated by American Civil Liberties Union writer-in-residence Ellis Cose, the talk featured members from the commission as well as members of advocacy groups such as VOCAL-NY, Save Our Streets, Make the Road New York, NuLeadership on Urban Solutions and the Brownsville Community Center.

“People who have suffered through our criminal justice system are not strangers,” stated Make the Road New York’s Director of Organizing Jose Lopez. “On the contrary, they are our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. For every individual who is incarcerated, there are many more people who are profoundly impacted by the injustices of our current system.”

VOCAL-NY’s Co-Executive Director Alyssa Aguilera hopes this meeting is the beginning of more discussions.

“Mass incarceration critically impacts communities across New York, especially low-income people who are oftentimes penalized simply for being too poor to afford bail or subsequent fines,” said Aguilera in a statement. “Through these public engagement events, the Independent Commission is providing opportunities for experts across the criminal justice system to join with grassroots activists and everyday New Yorkers in creating the reforms needed to make our system more just for people of every color, creed, race and socioeconomic background.”

The event covered multiple topics, including strategies to reduce recidivism, how incarceration affects families and communities, alternative strategies for coping with drug addiction outside of incarceration and how non-English speakers deal with the criminal justice system.