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Council takes step to end Rikers culture of violence

By Bill Parry

The City Council has moved to end the culture of brutality that exists at Rikers Island as well as other New York City jails.

By a unanimous 47-0 vote, the Council passed legislation that would require correction officials to release quarterly reports documenting information about inmates being held in solitary confinement.

“Brutality at Rikers Island has been well-documented,” the bill’s sponsor, Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), said. “This sends a message that we will not tolerate the violation of anyone’s constitutional rights, be they incarcerated or not.”

Dromm spent 2 1/2 years fighting for the quarterly reports that will detail the number of people who have been placed in solitary, the reason for their confinement, the length of their stay and their mental health status.

“I don’t think that I want to eliminate it altogether. I want to reform it and limit its use. The information will shed some light on the abuses,” Dromm said.

The move comes on the heels of a U.S. Justice Department, secret three-year investigation that exposed brutality, violence and excessive use of solitary confinement, especially against teenagers and the mentally ill, at Rikers Island, the nation’s second largest jail.

The investigation’s findings were presented in a graphic 79-page report by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara Aug. 4. The report said the city Department of Correction “relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates — many of whom are mentally ill — in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate for excessive periods of time.”

New York state recently placed strict limits on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, but the reform does not apply to city jails. Dromm thinks his bill will change the way the DOC operates by forcing transparency.

“I couldn’t move the legislation forward under the former mayor because I believe his administration was responsible for the mess we’re cleaning up now,” Dromm said.

He also singled out the president of the correction officers union, Norman Seabrook, for stonewalling reforms at Rikers Island.

“I’ve done four tours of Rikers and at the last one Seabrook interjected during my Q&A,” Dromm said. “He began to shout, ‘This jail belongs to us, it does not belong to the Department of Mental Health.’ It’s a pattern of his and it sets a tone for his members. If he feels free enough to treat elected officials like that; the message works its way down to the officers that it’s OK to treat inmates like that as well.”

Seabrook was away at a convention along with his senior staff and was unavailable for comment, but he did send word through a spokesman Wednesday that there had been 14 fights broken up on Rikers Island during the previous 24 hours.

Last week city Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a separate report, called a ClaimStat Alert, that showed that 2,245 personal injury claims were filed against the DOC in fiscal year 2014, an increase of 37 percent from the same time a year earlier, and 114 percent higher since fiscal year 2009.

“The culture of violence detailed in recent reports on Rikers Island has made it clear that we are potentially facing a humanitarian crisis in our city’s largest jail,” Stringer said. “Reducing violence in our jails is critically important, not only for the inmates and correction employees, but for taxpayers who are on the hook for millions of dollars in settlements and judgments every year.”

The head of internal investigations at Rikers Island, Deputy Commissioner Florence Finkle, resigned Aug. 22. No explanation was given.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr‌y@cng‌local.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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