Riker reforms setback by recent violence

By Bill Parry

After a spate of violent episodes involving teenage inmates on Rikers Island, the head of the city’s Department of Correction sought a delay in iplementing one of his integral reforms. Commissioner Joseph Ponte sent a letter to the chairman of the Board of Correction last Friday that seeks a six-month delay to ending isolation for young adults ages 18 to 21 until June when his staff would be better prepared.

Ponte fired off the request two days after five officers were hospitalized, one with a fractured nose and another with severe bruises on his face, after they were attacked by a group of teen inmates when they refused to follow orders, according to union and DOC officials. Two months ago, Correction Officer Ray Calderon required more than 20 stitches to his face and arm after he was brutally slashed in an ambush by teen inmates.

In his letter, Ponte said the DOC needed more time before it could safely implement its Young Adult Plan, including necessary infrastructure repairs, staff training, expansion of programming targeting the young adult population and the creation of a new admission center. The goal of the plan is to separately house young adults and eliminate solitary confinement for the 18- to 21-year- old inmates.

Ponte told The New York Times that after the recent attacks on officers the “confidence of the staff to move this project forward was a bit shaken.”

On Tuesday the Board of Correction agreed, voting unanimously to grant the six-month delay in implementing the Young Adult Plan.

Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, has argued that solitary is an important disciplinary tool, especially with inmates ages 18 to 21, who make up just 12 percent of the Rikers population but are responsible for a third of the violence.

“We’ve been saying all along that the department’s plan to end punitive segregation for young adults was never well thought out and lacked serious input from our members,” Seabrook said. “We told them they needed to rethink this. We’ve been asking for a seat at the table for months, and the recent vicious attacks on officers seems to be forcing people who think they know better than our members to reconsider this plan and to keep an open mind. We welcome the delay and the opportunity for a more informed conversation.”

The delay will not affect 16- and 17-year-old inmates, who were exempted from solitary confinement last year.

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

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