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City correction officers would be required to call detainees by their names instead of referring to them as a number or a “body,” if a City Council bill proposed Wednesday passes.
The bill, attached to the approval process for the four new jails set to replace Rikers Island, includes measures aimed at changing the notoriously dehumanizing culture behind bars.
Among the proposed changes: allowing detainees to decorate their cells and requiring the city to keep housing units air conditioned when temperatures soar.
“This is about treating people like human beings,” said Councilmember Keith Powers (D-Manhattan), the bill’s sponsor. “And this is one amongst many requirements we’re putting forward that will start treating people like human beings and start making these new facilities feel much different than what we’re leaving behind with Rikers Island.”
Correction Officers Give Thumbs Down
The union representing city jail officers scoffed at the bill, noting that attacks on staff went up by 37% last year. Meanwhile, the number of alleged “uses of force” by officers against detainees increased by 26% last year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.
“These latest disingenuous proposals are just more evidence of the inmate advocates’ stranglehold on our elected officials,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Warden/Deputy Wardens Association, agreed.
“We are affording [inmates] this great respect that’s not earned,” Russo said. “We are bending over backwards to give them concessions. I think it’s unnecessary and a nuisance.”
He noted that correction officers frequently rotate through various areas of a jail and are constantly watching different detainees — implying they wouldn’t have time to learn everyone’s name.
The union leaders also are against allowing inmates to decorate their cells, saying they can use posters to hide drugs or razor blades.
Meanwhile, some advocates for inmates shot down the suggested changes as insufficient for changing the culture of city jails.
“They haven’t gone far enough and they know they haven’t. They’re trying to do the bare minimum to pass these jails,” said Brittany Williams, a No New Jails member.
“If they were really concerned about currently incarcerated people in all this, they would have legislated accountability” for the city Department of Correction, Williams added.
Protecting Current Goals
Powers’ bill lays out a number of design requirements that are already in the de Blasio administration’s current plans for the borough jails.
The point, he said, is to enshrine those plans so a future mayor couldn’t change them — or at least make it very difficult to do so.
The bill mandates that individual cells have an area of 75 square feet, contain windows with access to natural light and just one bed. Dormitories that house multiple people must have windows at least one-tenth of the floor space of the total room.
The jail designers should “prioritize the use of natural and aesthetically appealing materials, such as wood, fabric, ceramics, and plastic, and deprioritize the use of metal,” the bill says.
‘It’s Right in Your Face’
The Council’s criminal justice committee also will consider on Wednesday two other bills related to the Rikers closure.
One proposed measure would establish an 18-member commission to advise the mayor on ways the city can invest in communities “to address the drivers of mass incarceration.” A dozen of the commission members would be chosen by the mayor or city agencies, five by the City Council speaker, and one by the city comptroller.
Another bill would require the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice to issue quarterly reports on progress toward closing Rikers Island.
The bills do not specifically address top issues around the treatment of detainees that advocates have long highlighted — including the use of force by correction officers or solitary confinement practices.
Council legislative staff said that they were waiting on the Board of Correction to come out with new rules for isolation practices next month.
The board is seriously considering changes that likely would limit solitary to 15 days and restrict the use of “restraint desks” to just a few hours a day, according to sources close to the board.
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