As Prepared for Delivery
May 19 2020
Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Committee on the Justice System
Keith Powers, Chair
Rory Lancman, Chair
Cynthia Brann, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
Tuesday, May 19th
Good morning Chair Powers, Chair Lancman, and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice and the Committee on the Justice System. I am glad to see that you all are healthy and well. I am pleased to be joined today by the dedicated members of my leadership team and our valuable partners from across our city’s criminal justice agencies. Since the pandemic began, this Department has worked around the clock to keep those living and working in our facilities safe, and I thank you for the opportunity to discuss our response to this unprecedented crisis.
Before I begin, I would like to take a moment and thank the dedicated and hard-working employees of the Department of Correction and Correctional Health Services for their incredible service during this difficult time. They have remained committed to protecting the safety and wellbeing of those entrusted to their care, at a great personal sacrifice. As Commissioner, I am proud to work beside them and want them to know their heroic efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Throughout this crisis, the Department has worked tirelessly with our partners at CHS to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep those under our care safe. As a result of the Department’s longstanding emergency preparedness protocols, our considerable experience in contagious disease management, adherence to CDC and DOHMH guidelines, and innovative problem-solving, we are seeing success. The number of new positive cases and quarantined housing units across the facilities is steadily declining, a clear indication that our containment strategies are working.
PPE and Sanitation:
Over the past two months, there have been many concerns raised about sanitation procedures, the availability of soap, and the provision of PPE. Here are the facts: First, the Department has established robust sanitation procedures where housing units, dayrooms, transport vehicles, and other congregate spaces are sanitized on a daily basis, high-touch areas are sanitized every two hours, and showers are sanitized three times per day. Supervisors check these processes nine times a day and the Quality Assurance and Integrity Division and staff from the Bureau Chief of Facility Operations perform an additional audit. Second, All individuals in custody have access to soap and cleaning supplies free of charge. And lastly, at every stage of this pandemic, the Department has provided all staff and everyone in custody with ample PPE. We first began providing masks on March 11th and, as our understanding of the situation progressed, on April 3rd, we made face coverings a requirement for all staff and those in custody, nearly two weeks before the State ordered it. Our supply of PPE is sufficient and all staff and people in custody have direct access to replacement PPE as frequently as desired. As a further protection mechanism, all staff entering the facilities must submit to a temperature and COVID-like symptoms screening prior to entry.
Housing Density, Social Distancing, and Releases:
Since the beginning of this crisis, the Department has worked closely with our partners to identify individuals eligible for release. As a result of this action, the number of New Yorkers held in NYC jails has plummeted, shrinking by nearly 30% in just over one month. The Department is currently operating at an overall occupancy rate of 49%, with more than half of the beds empty in open units. Significantly, the overwhelming majority of dorm units are less than half full.
Additionally, we have been in constant communication with staff and people in custody to raise awareness and educate them on prevention practices, including painting cues on chairs and benches that support appropriate social distancing. The Department’s multilingual COVID-19 awareness campaign includes conspicuously placed posters, informational one pager, and an informational slide show displayed in intake.
Safety and Security
Despite the challenges we faced due to COIVD-19’s impact on our staff sick rate and the temporary suspension of congregate programming, in-person visitation and most in-person court appearances, April 2020 has been one of the safest months in recent history. Use of Force has decreased by 47% as compared to March 2020 and by 37% as compared to April 2019. Fights among people in custody also decreased by 47% as compared to March 2020 and by 48% as compared to the same time last year. Further, in April 2020, the Department saw nearly 50% fewer slashings and stabbings as compared to the previous month and a 21% reduction in the total number of assaults on staff in the same time period. These are significant reductions and we are sustaining this progress in May.
Programming and Community Connections:
The pandemic has forced many of us to significantly restrict our contact with others. As Commissioner, I understand how important connections with friends, family, and legal support are to those in our custody and the Department has made every effort to afford visits remotely. For critical communication with attorneys and the court system, the Department has expanded its Skype teleconference booths. To ensure contact with loved ones, over a matter of days in March the Department has created a brand new family televisit initiative enabling video visitation from a personal electronic device. The Department has continued to provide free telephone calls, and is offering three free stamps or pre-stamped envelopes to persons in custody on a weekly basis. For spiritual care and guidance, the Department established a hotline for chaplaincy services. In addition, to support continued program delivery, the Department has worked with our contract service providers to create activity packets with program-specific material, established a discharge planning hotline to assist with reentry, and is providing tablets with educational resources to all people in custody.
Throughout this pandemic, we have endeavored to be as transparent as possible to ensure that the public and our oversight bodies are aware of our approach and our outcomes. Since March 17, we have provided detailed data to the Board of Correction, who began posting information publically as of April 1. We are in regular communication with elected officials, defender organizations and other advocacy groups and we plan to continue this collaboration. Our Office of Public Information has responded to more than 600 media inquiries from across the globe since the pandemic began.
Regarding the preconsidered legislation that requires the reporting of certain information during public health emergencies, the Department is committed to transparency and stands ready to discuss the ways we can improve in this effort. The bill as drafted presents administrative challenges, however, and we look forward to continuing to discuss this bill with the Council.
Regarding the preconsidered legislation regarding fees related to adding money to commissary funds, the Department supports the intent of the bill. We are continuing to analyze the impact of this legislation and look forward to continuing to discuss this matter with the Council.
Despite this unprecedented crisis and its many challenges, the Department remains committed to protecting all those living and working within our facilities. We will continue to collaborate with our partners to develop creative practices and policies to effectively manage this public health emergency, and we will come out stronger and bolder as a result.