Today, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced the appointment of a new team at the helm of the city's criminal justice management. Joseph Ponte, a former commissioner of corrections in Maine, will lead the New York City Department of Correction. Ana Bermudez will lead the city's Department of Probation, Elizabeth Glazer will lead the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, and Vincent Schiraldi will be the senior adviser to the Office of Criminal Justice.
In a press release, De Blasio said, "These leaders have the depth of experience and knowledge necessary to reduce recidivism, increase public safety and lower incarceration rates – and I’m confident that under their leadership, we will reform outdated practices and guide these city agencies into a new era."
Ponte has a good track record in regards to justice reform; while working as Maine's corrections commissioner, he reduced the use of solitary confinement by two-thirds and eliminated the placement of mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement. In the same press release, Ponte said, "Every resident of this city deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. From schools to hospitals to prisons, we cannot let our commitment to safety and fair resources falter for a single member of our society. We need to end the culture of excessive solitary confinement and unnecessary force, and bring a new mentality of respect and safety to our wardens, officers and inmates alike."
Currently, Riker's Island has 990 cells for isolated confinement, which is equivalent to two-fifths of the entire prison population in Maine, so clearly Ponte has his work cut out for him. Hopefully, though, under Ponte's guidance, at least one small portion of the country can work toward aligning itself with international sentiment regarding the cruelty of solitary confinement. In 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment called for a complete ban on the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days. Although it might be a bit much to hope for that at this juncture, it seems reasonable to hope that Ponte will do his part to reduce the total number of inmates in solitary confinement in this county -- a number which, by the way, is currently over 80,000. That's like putting the entire city of Ithaca and the entire city of Binghamton in solitary confinement and still having room left over for some of the surrounding towns and villages.
Keri Blakinger is a freelance writer and prison reform activist. Follow her on Twitter @keribla or visit her blog for a steady stream of prison reform stories.