Remaking Rikers

He’s a reformer but not a New Yorker.

Joseph Ponte, the city’s Correction Department commissioner, is a tough ex-Marine with 40-plus years of experience working in the nation’s jail and prison systems, with a no-nonsense approach to the criminals who occupy those cells. But he also understands what has driven many of these inmates to the underside and has instituted changes to prepare them to re-enter society with a better chance of avoiding more jail time.

A New Englander with a heavy Downeast accent, Ponte took the challenge two years ago when Mayor Bill de Blasio offered him the job to remake Rikers Island, known as the largest penal colony in the world, and five other city jails.

Ponte is now tracking the reforms he has championed at Rikers, where the population ranges from 8,500 to 10,000 inmates awaiting trial or other legal action. His 14-point plan to reduce the violence that has plagued the complex and ranked it as of the 10 worst prison system in the United States is working.

Serious incidents involving officers using force dropped significantly in 2015 as well as the number of serious injuries suffered by uniformed officers at the hands of inmates, Ponte told the TimesLedger editorial board last month. He attributed the decline in violence to better officer training, overhauling the way younger inmates are handled and using many different clinical therapies.

Rikers operated for years with no overall plan and was a mill where prisoners were locked up, then let out in an unending cycle. In the city-owned system, 66 percent of the jails are now past their lifetimes.

But Rikers’ problems went far beyond the aging physical plant. Ponte was surprised to find New York is one of just two states to treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Before he arrived, Rikers had not adopted any of the federal programs recommended for juveniles.

In December 2014 he ended solitary confinement for juveniles as an ineffective tool and will halt this punishment for 18- to 21-year-olds in July. The young adults, who account for about 30 percent of the violence at Rikers, are his prime focus. About 400 are housed in 11 separate units where they attend school and work together as a team to earn incentives.

The results speak for themselves: zero stabbings and slashings. Tensions have also been reduced among the high security inmates who have been given FM receivers to choose their own TV programs.

It’s taken a 69-year-old outsider to rewrite the culture of Rikers in just two years against all odds and to begin to reverse years of neglect with long-overdue, humane reforms.

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