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Testimony Regarding the City Council’s Examination of Violence in NYC’s Jails

Statement of the New York Civil Liberties Union before The New York City Council Oversight Hearing: Examining Violence in New York City’s Jails and the City’s Response

May 6, 2015

The New York Civil Liberties Union respectfully submits the following testimony regarding the City Council’s examination of violence in New York City’s jails.

With 80,000 members and supporters, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is the foremost defender of civil liberties and civil rights in New York State. Our mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles and values embodied in the Constitution, New York laws, and international human rights law, on behalf of all New Yorkers, including those incarcerated in jails and prisons. The NYCLU is an outspoken advocate for evidence-based corrections practices that improve public safety and respect fundamental human dignity.

In the past year, the City Council has hosted at least three oversight hearings investigating conditions at Rikers Island, the City’s largest jail complex. Rikers houses nearly 12,000 individuals daily, many of whom are subject to a well-documented culture of brutality in the facilities.1 The long list of proposed legislation on today’s agenda reflects a much-needed enthusiasm and energy for reforming transparency and accountability on Rikers. Seeking transparency regarding population demographics, bail amounts, use of force incidents, grievances, and the use and impact of segregated housing, these bills reflect the Council’s commitment to shedding light on conditions at Rikers, and we applaud the members for this vigilance.

But with 11 bills on the table, amending five sections of the New York City Code and Charter, today’s hearing runs the risk of creating confusion where the City needs focus. Reliable, data-driven transparency on Rikers Island will help the city identify the source of problems in the jails and develop appropriate, deliberate solutions. If all 11 of today’s bills were to become law, the Department of Correction and Department of Mental Health and Hygiene would be saddled with an untenable reporting burden, and even if all 11 laws were fully implemented, the resulting overlapping reports would have limited benefit. Each of today’s bills has its unique merits, but these critical reporting requirements will be more powerful and less burdensome if carefully reconciled with either existing laws or with concurrent bills on the same topic.2 Further, it is impossible for advocates, experts, or even members of the Council to engage in an informed discussion of 11 bills concurrently, on just a week’s notice. Attempting to hear testimony on 11 bills in the same hearing means we all miss out on that valuable conversation.

Many of the bills up for discussion today overlap, and would be more effective if combined or reorganized. For example, three bills require demographic reporting for individuals in different housing units on Rikers;3 four other bills focus on use-of-force and injury reporting.4 We urge the Council to work together to pass reporting requirements that are results-oriented, that work together as a whole, and that are practicable on the ground.

Ultimately, achieving the oversight and accountability we need if we are to mitigate the harms individuals experience while in New York City jails requires more than hearings; it demands a sustained commitment to examining all aspects of incarceration with a focused goal of reducing the Rikers population. From the NYPD’s “broken windows” policing, to punitive bail practices, to harmful jail conditions that increase the likelihood of recidivism, the City Council must change existing policies that lead New Yorkers into the criminal justice system, and the ones that make it so difficult to get out. Given that 75% of the people held on Rikers Island are pre-trial, and 40% of the population has a mental illness, it is clear that some individuals should not be incarcerated on Rikers Island at all.5 Further, prisoners are too often subject to excessive force while in custody, and lack access to programs, services, and visits that would help them permanently leave the criminal justice system. Without a robust understanding of possible opportunities for diversion pre- and post-incarceration, and a serious commitment to increasing accountability for misconduct by correction staff, the cycles of violence and institutionalization will continue.

We urge the Council to pass results-oriented, data-driven transparency laws, and to use those public reports to inform system-wide changes that will actually make our jails and communities safer. Rikers Island has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, but with the current administration’s reform efforts, along with greater transparency and accountability driven by the oversight of the Council and the public, New York City can become a model for an open, accountable, and safe urban jail system. We look forward to working with the Council to make this a reality.

The NYCLU recommends the Council take the following steps to make Rikers reform a reality:
1) Work with the Mayor and the NYPD to reduce enforcement of non-dangerous, noncriminal violations, such as possession of an open container, jumping a subway turnstile, and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Amend the Administrative Code to require that these offenses result in civil hearings, fines, or alternatives such as community service, rather than criminal consequences.

2) Eliminate the practice of issuing bench warrants for people who miss a court date on a noncriminal violation.

3) Hold an oversight hearing to examine New York City’s broken bail system and to better understand its impact on poor New Yorkers and our overcrowded jails.

4) Critically re-examine the City’s mechanisms for medical and mental health care of prisoners, investigating whether there are better feasible options for providing care than contracting with the for-profit company Corizon.

5) Collect meaningful data on conditions of confinement (which many of today’s bills propose), including but not limited to demographics of incarcerated people, including bail status; number, type and outcomes of prisoner complaints; use and impact of segregated housing; and data on special populations including adolescents, young adults, and individuals with mental illness, and ensure that information is accessible to the public.

1 See: U.S. Department of Justice, CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, 4 Aug. 2014; and Michael Winerip & Michael Schwirtz, “Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail.” New York Times, 14 July 2014. Available at: and Michael Winerip & Michael Schwirtz. “Even As Many Eyes Watch, Brutality at Rikers Island Persists.” New York Times, 21 Feb. 2015. Available at: and New York State Commission of Correction. Final Report in the Matter of the Death of Bradley Ballard, p. 2. (December 16, 2014).

2 For example, New York City’s Open Data Law (2012/011) requires that city agencies make their data available online using open standards, stating this “will make the operation of city government more transparent, effective and accountable to the public. It will streamline intra-governmental and inter-governmental communication and interoperability, permit the public to assist in identifying efficient solutions for government, promote innovative strategies for social progress, and create economic opportunities.” Available at:

3 Int. 643 (requiring the Department of Correction to provide a monthly report regarding the number of inmates who are on a waiting list for housing in restrictive housing and clinical alternative to punitive segregation units); Int. 766 (requiring the department of correction to post a quarterly report on the population demographics of the city’s jails); and Int. 768 (requiring the department of correction to report on enhanced supervision housing)

4 Int. 767 (requiring the publication of the Department of Corrections’ policies on the use of force); Int. 778 (requiring the board of correction and the commissioners of the department of correction and department of investigation to submit quarterly reports regarding the investigations of excessive use of force by correction officers on inmates) and Int. 759 (requiring the departments of correction and health and mental hygiene to report on cases of injuries to inmates and staff in city jails, and to refer such cases to investigative agencies); Int. 763 (requiring the Commissioner of the department of correction to report on security indicators in city jails)

5 Data on the bail status of New Yorkers held on Rikers, as proposed by Int. 753, would help the City identify those individuals better suited for alternative to incarceration/pre-trial supervision programs due to their low risk charges and histories, and decrease the population on Rikers.

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