NYC Public Advocate Opposes Changes To Jails Oversight And Board Of Correction Operations At Public Meeting

March 14th, 2023

Press Release

Amid an ongoing crisis on Rikers Island and as the city indicates it will not meet the mandated timeline to close the facility by 2027, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams urged the Board of Correction to oppose both proposed changes to Department of Correction procedures in jails and changes to the Board's oversight and accountability role. At a public meeting today, he highlighted both the harm caused by the proposals and their ineffectiveness at meeting stated goals. Following his and others' public statements in opposition to the proposals, the Board declined to vote on the changes.

"The Board of Correction is intended to serve in a key oversight role – as Public Advocate, a position built on the need for oversight, I identify with that mission and mandate," opened Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams. "Today the Board is considering a number of troubling policy changes both the operations of the Department of Correction, which it is charged with overseeing, and to its own operations and procedures."

The Board today considered two requests from the Department of Correction related to incoming mail for incarcerated individuals. The Department is seeking to limit the source of packages, as well as a shift that would present detainees with a digital copy of any correspondence rather than the original physical document. Each of these requests was purportedly rooted in a desire to limit contraband - in opposing them, the Public Advocate noted not only that the changes would reduce the rights of incarcerated New Yorkers, but that they would not address the most pervasive sources of contraband, which comes through staff.

"If DOC is serious about reducing harm and shifting the culture on Rikers, they should focus on known points of entry and on reducing the population of overcrowded jails through producing individuals for court appearances, rather than fixating primarily on methods which do not address the bulk of incoming contraband and contribute to the dehumanization and reduction of rights of detained individuals..." the Public Advocate argued, later adding that "During the height of the pandemic, when visitors were not allowed on the island, drug seizures skyrocketed, and were blamed on incoming mail, but the data did not support that. The drugs found via mail wouldn’t account for even a third of the surge in seizures, and it was at this point that measures aside from limits of mail and packages should have been implemented. What is clear is that generally, the primary entry for drugs into facilities, nationwide, has been staff."

In addition, the Board considered proposals to reduce the number of annual public meetings and the number of members of the public able to speak at these meetings. In opposition to these changes which would limit the voices of incarcerated people, their families, and the broader city, the Public Advocate said "It can’t be further emphasized that limiting both the number of meetings and comments harms both the public and the Board. It limits the public’s trust in the Board as an oversight entity and eliminates a crucial knowledge base for the Board. The Board, and its role in overseeing operations in city jails, should be centered on the principles of access, transparency, and accountability. In both its guidelines for the Department and in its own procedures, it must exemplify those ideas."

The Public Advocate's full comments as delivered are below.

Good afternoon, and thank you for making space for me to speak today.

The Board of Correction is intended to serve in a key oversight role – as Public Advocate, a position built on the need for oversight, I identify with that mission and mandate. Today the Board is considering a number of troubling policy changes both the operations of the Department of Correction, which it is charged with overseeing, and to its own operations and procedures.

I want to acknowledge the backdrop of this hearing – a new announcement from the administration has pushed the timeline for the first borough-based facility, in Brooklyn, back to 2029. Our city has a moral and legal mandate to close Rikers by 2027, and this undercuts the timeline as well as the urgency of ending the crisis on the island. While we continue to push to expedite the closure, it is vital that we address the operations there today, and with that, I want to speak to three proposals before this Board.

First, the board is considering a variance to restrict packages as the DOC claims that changes are needed to confront the influx of fentanyl into the prison and a growing number of overdoses. However, this argument is contradicted by the fact that DOC is already empowered to open every single letter or package to people in custody for the explicit purpose of seizing any weapons, or drugs. Just last year, the Department of Investigation (DOI) stated that “the mail and visits are not significant entry points for contraband.” Furthermore, recent reports from the Department of Investigation found that officers exploit weakened security checkpoints in order to smuggle contraband. If DOC is serious about reducing harm and shifting the culture on Rikers, they should focus on known points of entry and on reducing the population of overcrowded jails through producing individuals for court appearances, rather than fixating primarily on methods which do not address the bulk of incoming contraband and contribute to the dehumanization and reduction of rights of detained individuals.

Second, DOC is seeking a variance to allow the department to open and electronically deliver mail to incarcerated people, rather than providing physical letters. This reduces the ability for loved ones to connect with those isolated by incarceration and has been shown to decrease the volume of correspondence. The proposed variance also represents a large-scale violation of the privacy and civil rights of people in DOC custody. 

Digitization is often cited for the lack of intimacy, privacy and connection. Not only is this distressing from a human standpoint, we've yet to see concrete evidence that incoming mail is solely responsible for the rash of overdoses. During the height of the pandemic, when visitors were not allowed on the island, drug seizures skyrocketed, and were blamed on incoming mail, but the data did not support that. The drugs found via mail wouldn’t account for even a third of the surge in seizures, and it was at this point that measures aside from limits of mail and packages should have been implemented. What is clear is that generally, the primary entry for drugs into facilities, nationwide, has been staff. At this juncture, I know the commissioner has begun a pilot program at one facility to scan staff. Investigators were easily able to smuggle contraband in through cargo pants and limited security protocol for staff. One of the first moves by the new administration at DOC was to reverse a rule that was put in place to limit their usage. Former corrections officers have testified about the ease of which drugs are smuggled in using cargo pants and about the complicity of leadership in this culture. Many jurisdictions have found themselves in litigation questioning the ability to safely and securely handle mail digitization including the vendor chosen by the Department of Corrections.

Lastly, the board is considering a change that strikes at my very ability to have input in these changes, or for the public to observe and weigh in on critical issues. This board seeks to reduce its mandate from 12 public meetings each year to 6, with three happening virtually, and to limit time and the number of participants for public comment. By decreasing the number of annual meetings to six meetings per year, this resolution would drastically impede the free-flowing exchange of current information from people incarcerated to this oversight body. Although the Board suggests that this Resolution is needed to “achieve enhanced results more efficiently,” any alleged efficiency gains would come at a great cost to incarcerated New Yorkers and to the general public. Frequent, open meetings give incarcerated New Yorkers and their loved ones a chance to have their voices fully heard. Also, these meetings play a critical role in educating the public and the Board itself on current issues in New York City Jails. The information relayed in these meetings, however, can only be as current as the meeting schedule allows and if this schedule is limited it would delay the transfer of critical, life saving information. 

I also oppose the Board’s new policy of limiting public comments to only elected officials and the first six people to sign up for each comment period. Both measures undermine the Board’s oversight authority and its accountability to the public. The best way for the public to voice their concerns is to testify in real time, before any vote is taken–the Board should allow all registered individuals to do so. To refer the general public to written comments is not an adequate substitute for real time verbal testimony. During a typical Board of Correction meeting, votes on proposed measures are taken in the very same meeting at which the measure is presented making written testimony less impactful, if at all.

Moreover, both of these proposed changes are indicative of a troubling larger trend. I want to say, any one of them could make some argument, but all of them combined give me some great concern. The Board of Correction seems to be moving away from a model of transparency and toward secrecy. This is troubling, as the Board’s purpose is to be an independent oversight body. Recently, the Department of Correction revoked the Board of Corrections staff access “to independently view Genetec, the Body worn Camera System, and handheld video at any time.” DOC also “forbade the recording and use of such video in [the Board’s] work”. With this resistance from the Department of Correction, the Board should be applying more pressure—not less. It can’t be further emphasized that limiting both the number of meetings and comments harms both the public and the Board. It limits the public’s trust in the Board as an oversight entity and eliminates a crucial knowledge base for the Board.

The Board, and its role in overseeing operations in city jails, should be centered on the principles of access, transparency, and accountability. In both its guidelines for the Department and in its own procedures, it must exemplify those ideas. 

I urge the Board to reject these changes and stay true to the mission and mandate of transparency and oversight and find some other ways to get at what you’re trying to get at – both providing and being subject to that transparency and oversight. Thank you.

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