By Bill Parry
Joseph Ponte will leave his post as commissioner of the Department of Correction next month and he is assisting in a national search to select his successor.
Ponte announced he was stepping down last Friday after he drove his official vehicle to Maine on numerous occasions and failed to report his employees had listened in on city investigators’ calls to Rikers inmates.
He and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who defended his embattled commissioner amid the growing scandals, issued statements announcing Ponte’s retirement.
Ponte, who had a national reputation as a prison reformer before being appointed by de Blasio in 2014, thanked the department “for the tremendous job they have done over the past three years to bring out meaningful reform and build a culture of safety.”
Under Ponte’s tenure solitary confinement ended for adolescents and 3,700 new Correction officers were hired, but violence continued to fester at Rikers Island, where some 9,000 inmates are held, and pressure mounted to shutter the notorious jail.
“New York City owes a debt of gratitude to Commissioner Ponte for his tireless efforts to change the culture and improve the effectiveness of one of the nation’s most challenging jail systems,” the mayor said in his statement.
“While much work remains, there is no doubt that our city’s jails are safer, more rehabilitative and more humane as a result of Commissioner Ponte’s work.”
Violence on Rikers Island during Ponte’s tenure fell in numerous categories, according to City Hall. Between calendar year 2014 to 2016, assaults on staff with serious injuries decreased 38 percent while serious use of force decreased 51 percent, but union leaders say otherwise.
“He created a mess. It’s not a retirement, it’s a resignation in lieu of a firing,” Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Elias Husmudeen said. “What’s more disheartening is they’re acting like the last two weeks never happened, like the last three years never happened.”
Ponte’s fate may have been sealed when City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (D-Manhattan) broke with the mayor May 10 asking Ponte to turn in his resignation.
“There seems to be a lack of leadership and a lack of confidence within the agency,” Mark-Viverito said. “Those are real, genuine concerns. For me, those are things that led me to this point.”
Councilman Rory Lancman, chairman of the Committee on Courts & Legal Services, said, “Joe Ponte is a decent man and I wish him well, but Correction commissioners come and go, while the nightmare that is Rikers Island is eternal.”
Ponte first ran into strong headwinds April 28 when the city Department of Investigation reported he had driven his city-issued SUV to Maine and spent 90 days out of state, including 35 work days. The commissioner said he would repay the fuel costs and tolls. Several other Correction officials were also cited for violating city policy in the report.
In a New York Times article last week, Ponte implied he was the victim of a DOI vendetta after crossing the agency early in his tenure. Ponte promoted William Clemons to chief of department after DOI recommended against the move.
“It’s funny here, they just want to hammer somebody forever and ever about whatever that is,” Ponte told The Times. “Doesn’t anybody get to make a mistake and say, ‘O.K., I’ve got it now, and isn’t that what that’s about?”
DOI declined comment.
Meanwhile, Gregory Kuczinski, the Correction Department’s deputy commissioner of investigations, was fired Tuesday by Ponte, one week after he was demoted for allegedly eavesdropping on telephone calls made by DOI investigators.
“Following several days of careful evaluation, Commissioner Ponte determined termination was appropriate,” DOC spokesman Peter Thorne said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr