Elected officials and community advocates took to the steps of New York City Hall on Monday to decry the “dehumanizing” conditions at New York City’s largest jail complex, including what they say is the excessive use of solitary confinement to punish inmates.
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Queens) said the New York City Council is expected to pass a bill on Thursday that will require the city’s correction department to submit quarterly reports to legislators about inmates placed in solitary confinement. The bill requires officials to be informed about the number of inmates, the length and reason behind the confinement and say whether they’re being treated for any mental illness. Dromm says the bill has the backing of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito.
Dromm said he recently toured Rikers Island and witnessed firsthand what he described as “dehumanizing” conditions. He said cells were too small, had rusted beds, inferior mattresses and smelled of urine. “Having gone there and witnessed the conditions that I saw in solitary was of major concern to me,” Dromm said at the Monday afternoon news conference.
A spokesman for the city’s correction department said their new commissioner Joseph Ponte is “committed to the safety and wellbeing” of all inmates. The agency is also installing more security cameras in the jail complex and is working with the city’s Department of Investigation to probe allegations of misconduct by correction officers, spokesman Eldin Villafane said. In addition, the department says there has also been a 39 percent decrease in the use of force against adolescent inmates.
Dromm said he had been involved in a verbal spat with correction officers’ union president Norman Seabrook during his visit to Rikers Island when Seabrook allegedly questioned why Dromm was there. “If he feels free enough to treat elected officials like that, the message filters down to other correction officers that it’s okay to treat inmates like that,” Dromm told reporters. “Norman Seabrook needs to step up and be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Advocates blamed the lack of reforms on union pushback and dwindling support from legislators. Seabrook had repeatedly maintained that correction officers are not to blame for the issues at Rikers, which have come into the public spotlight after a series of media reports and a recent federal probe about the conditions at Rikers. US Attorney Preet Bharara said a few weeks ago that there is a “culture of violence” in which officers often attacked teenage inmates and rarely were disciplined.
In a statement, Seabrook said he has a “fiduciary responsibility” as union president to ensure his members are safe at work. He said he has been calling on legislators and city officials to bring sweeping reform to the city’s jail complex for years, but his cries “fell on deaf ears.” He said he supports Dromm’s bill, but said he hoped “this is not just another photo-op.”