A day after Commissioner of Correction Joseph Ponte announced the sudden resignation of his department chief, William Clemons, Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed three new members to the Board of Corrections to provide an independent oversight role over the Department of Correction amid growing criticisms and concerns over how inmates are treated at Rikers Island.
De Blasio announced the selection of Steven Safyer, president and CEO of Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Jennifer Austin, former deputy commissioner for the Administration for Children’s Services, and Derrick Cephas, a corporate lawyer at Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP. The nine-member board is tasked with establishing and ensuring that the DOC is in compliance with minimum standards in the regulation of correctional and mental health care in city correctional facilities. Austin and Cephas are the first African-Americans to serve on the board.
“This board has been the driver of reforms like improving the quality and availability of mental health care for inmates, ensuring non-discriminatory treatment of inmates and ensuring access to recreation and free practice of religion,” de Blasio said in his announcement. “It plays a critical regulatory and oversight role … and these new leaders will serve to promote safe, secure and humane correctional settings and jails for staff and inmates alike.”
Three board members are appointed directly by the mayor, three are appointed by state judges and three are appointed by the City Council. Safyer was appointed by the mayor. Austin and Cephas were appointed by state judges. The board has a $1 million budget and is responsible for hiring staff such as jail investigators, who will inspect conditions and the operation of city correctional facilities.
The DOC’s operation of Rikers Island, the country’s second largest correctional facility, has been under intense criticism after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara sent a scathing report to de Blasio in August. It claimed that jail officers violate teen inmates’ constitutional rights by routinely abusing them. Bharara vowed to take legal action against the city if de Blasio failed to enact reform measures.
Clemons’ sudden resignation came three weeks after Ponte faced tough questioning from city lawmakers for promoting him to chief and Turhan Gumusdere as the warden of Rikers Island. Council members cited an internal audit conducted by the DOC and Department of Investigation last year, which stated that both declined to examine the abuse cases. In the report, the DOI also recommended that Clemons and Gumusdere be demoted from their positions “because of their lack of attention to critical duties to jail management.” Ponte said he didn’t know about that version of the report.
Lawmakers acknowledged that Ponte is not responsible for what a U.S. Department of Justice report called a “deep-seated culture of violence” and use of unnecessary excessive force that violates adolescent inmates’ civil rights at the facility. However, they wondered how Ponte stood by his decision to promote the two. Ponte defended his move, saying, “I think they’re competent individuals,” adding, “Clemons has 30 years of experience and a long history of doing good work in the agency.”
In a statement last week, Ponte said Clemons’ resignation is effective Dec. 1. Ponte, who took office in April, called Clemons a proven leader, which is why he appointed him to DOC’s highest uniform position.
“Under Chief Clemons’ guidance, the department undertook and realized many substantial reforms, including implementing an early lock-in at all of our facilities, creating a management plan for a new category of Young Adult inmates ages 18 to 21 and rolling out specialized housing for high-custody and mentally ill inmates, which will almost certainly result in safer jails and better long-term outcomes for inmates,” the statement reads.
Ponte said he will name an acting chief of department before Clemons’ last day. Clemons served at the DOC for more than 29 years.
In a joint statement, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Council Member Elizabeth Crowley said de Blasio and Ponte should appoint new leadership that will be committed to reforming the troubled facility.
“For too long, the Department of Correction has been rife with the mismanagement and mistreatment of inmates, and the council’s oversight has only served to further shed light on the deep-seated issues plaguing the DOC,” the statement reads.
Since he took the helm of Rikers Island, Ponte has enacted reform measures. In September, he said that by Dec. 31, 16- and 17-year-olds would no longer be placed in solitary confinement, a form of punishment where inmates who break jail rules are locked up in a cell for more than 23 hours a day without any human contact. Ponte said he will focus more on prevention and programs that will prepare inmates for society after they are released.