As Prepared for delivery
Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Keith Powers
Cynthia Brann, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
December 11, 2020
Good Morning, Chair Powers and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice. I am Commissioner Brann and I am joined by my colleagues Chief of Department, Hazel Jennings, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters, Heidi Grossman, and Chief of Staff Brenda Cooke. Thank you for the opportunity to testify about the Department’s role in eliminating punitive segregation for all individuals within New York City correctional facilities.
Over the past six years, the Department has been a national trailblazer in its pursuit and implementation of profound changes in the management of individuals in our custody that balance the need for safety and security in an environment that fosters engagement rather than isolation. We remain committed to continually assessing our practices and instituting further changes in the promotion of safety, engagement, and rehabilitation for those in our custody. Rooted in understanding that age and health are important considerations in the disciplinary housing placement process, the Department developed housing strategies that provided meaningful disciplinary consequences for young adults and people with serious mental illness who have infracted without placement in punitive segregation. Our commitment to reforming this disciplinary practice resulted in unprecedented changes to punitive segregation in both the application and duration of sentences imposed, including the development of a tiered system of infractions and reducing the maximum length of punitive segregation to 30 days for nearly all infractions.
In evaluating further changes to the Department’s disciplinary housing system, we cannot forget how far this Department has come. Just six years ago, punitive segregation was essentially the Department’s primary response to infractions, with 90-day sentences often imposed for infractions. Today, punitive segregation sentences are focused mostly on violent offenses, with penalties that are directly proportional to the offense committed. The transformation to punitive segregation alternatives was not made overnight but was the result of several years of careful planning both internally and through conversations with the Board of Correction, Correctional Health Services, and the State Commission on Correction, and in recognition of the crucial need to gain trust and acceptance from Department staff who work on the front line to keep everyone who works and lives in our facilities safe.
Instead of relying upon punitive segregation, the Department thoughtfully addressed the needs of this population and created several different alternative approaches. This includes establishing the Secure Unit (SU) and the Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) which are designed to focus on rehabilitating individual’s violent behavior, addressing root causes of violence, and minimizing idleness. Similarly, the Department created the Transitional Restorative Unit (TRU) aimed at managing adolescents and young adults involved in violent acts. TRU provides close supervision with individualized support plans, treatment, and incentives to encourage positive behavior. In addition, the Department established the Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) to foster collaboration between clinical and correctional staff in treating the needs of those with a serious mental illness who engage in violent behavior. The Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness (PACE) was also established to support the needs of those with serious mental illness who have not engaged in violent behavior but who can benefit from a more therapeutic mental health setting.
Our commitment to reform has continued in recent years. In June 2019, the Department increased out of cell time in punitive segregation from 1 hour to 4 hours, affording individuals in this setting additional opportunities for recreation and instituting a congregate television hour. In August 2020, the Department partnered with CHS to ensure that individuals with certain health conditions are no longer placed in highly restrictive settings.
As a result of these reforms, there has been a dramatic reduction in the use of punitive segregation.
The creation of alternative and supportive housing units has enabled the Department to successfully divert hundreds of individuals from punitive segregation placement. As of December 2nd, there were just 72 individuals serving sentences in punitive segregation and 22 individuals placed in the Restrictive Housing Unit, also known as RHU. These numbers stand in stark contrast to the average range of between 500 and 600 people per day in punitive segregation at the time we began instituting reforms in 2014. This reduction of over 80% in disciplinary housing placements is a clear indication of this Department’s commitment to reform and our dedication to the reduction of punitive segregation whenever possible.
In furtherance of this commitment, since June of this year, the Department has worked hand in hand with other members of the Mayor’s working group to develop a proposal on how we can safely end punitive segregation in New York City’s jails. After months of thoughtful consideration, the working group is in the process of finalizing our recommendations, which will carefully balance the creation of a more humane system with the very real need to keep everyone, including our staff, safe from harm while in our facilities. While I do not have specific details to share at this time, I look forward to sharing more information with you on these recommendations soon.
With regards to the pre-reconsidered legislation attached to today’s hearing, we share the Council’s goals to using the least restrictive means when applying disciplinary actions towards violent offenders in custody. However, the reduction and elimination of punitive segregation requires careful and considerate balancing to ensure the safety of staff and people in custody. Any policy changes to this practice must be informed by correctional experts in order to ensure any decisions made do not result in dangerous and unintended consequences. We believe the best results will come from allowing the working group, which includes critical representation from our partners at the Board, the formerly incarcerated community, and the labor and advocacy realm, to finalize its recommendations and for those to be reflected in forthcoming Board rules.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you this morning. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions you may have.