As prepared for delivery
REMARKS OF DOC DIRECTOR OF POLICY & REFORM INITIATIVES STEVEN KAISER
BOARD OF CORRECTION
MAY 14, 2019
DOC Visit Reforms
Good morning Chair Cephas and Members of the Board. My name is Steven Kaiser and I’m the Director of Policy & Reform Initiatives at the New York City Department of Correction. Thank you for having me here today to discuss some of the Department’s recent work related to improving the visit process and visit experience for visitors. Our goal is to encourage visits by removing barriers that visitors may face to visiting and by implementing policies and programs that ensure visits are as meaningful as possible.
As I begin this presentation, it is important to provide some context for the work we’re doing here in New York City. The experience of visiting a correctional facility is very different across the country. Many comparable correction systems, like those in Cook County and Los Angeles, do not afford contact visits. In these places, visitors and detainees are unable to physically touch and communicate without a screen barrier. In other places, all visits are done through video teleconferencing. In New York City, however, video teleconferencing is a supplemental resource and no visit restrictions exist without a prior visit-related violation. This is a hugely important difference and it is one that we are very proud of at the Department.
Research on visits in this context is limited, but the research that does exist makes it clear that meaningful visit experiences are particularly important for maintaining family and community connections during one’s incarceration. Visits can improve institutional conduct and re-entry outcomes upon release. Further, parent-child visits can be incredibly important and may impact the development and well-being of both the parent and the child or children involved.
I mention the research limitations because they’ve pushed the Department to engage directly with visitors, the incarcerated population, and our staff to inform our visit policies and reform efforts. The Department is very grateful to the members of our Visit Working Group and the thoughtful feedback they’ve provided over the years, including the insight and participation of Vice-Chair Richards. Further, all visit-related feedback we receive from visitors is referred directly to the appropriate wardens and deputy wardens for further action where necessary.
Women’s Visit Efforts:
As Anne Penson, the Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives, spoke about at a recent meeting, women historically receive fewer visits than men in custody. Further, women receive fewer visits from their children than men. In an effort to overcome these barriers, the Department has taken a holistic approach to facilitating and encouraging visits for women. To this end, the Department created an additional staffing post on the visit floor of the Rose M. Singer Center. Previously, children were only able to enter the area to retrieve a toy or two before returning to the visit floor. The additional staff post now allows mothers to play in the children’s area with their children during their visit.
Additionally, the Department recently received approval from the SCOC to begin construction on a family visiting area at Rosies. This area will be located adjacent to the children’s area on the visit floor and will include more family-friendly tables and chairs to provide a less institutional environment for families to engage and interact.
The Department has also worked with our partners at ACS to expand CHIPP (or the Children of Incarcerated Parents Program) to include visits every Saturday in addition to every other Tuesday at Rosies. CHIPP visits are special visits for parents with children in the foster care system, where the children join their parents for less formal two-hour visits where snacks and refreshments are provided.
The Department is also engaged with another City partner, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, to evaluate visitor flow at Rosies in order to identify opportunities to expand visits for women without increasing visitor wait times.
In 2018, the Department partnered with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan to offer the first-of-its-kind Crafting Family Connections program, which provides monthly off-island visits with arts and crafts programming and activities. We recently expanded the one-year pilot with a two-year contract extension and we’re working with correction departments across the country to implement similar programs based on our model here in New York City.
It’s very exciting to see much of this work coming into fruition and to hear positive feedback from the women and their families. We’re excited to continue these efforts and we’re constantly looking for measures to evaluate program impact. In addition to the work happening at Rosies, the Department has undertaken a comprehensive effort to address barriers to visits at all facilities across the Department. This work has focused on beautifying visit areas, ensuring visitors have access to relevant information during the visit process, and reducing the time it takes to visit.
The Department completed renovations of Central Visits on Rikers Island, which included repainting, procuring new furniture, and installing informational kiosks as well as video monitors that play slides with pertinent visitor information. The Department also created a visit greeter staff position and currently has two full-time visit greeters at Central Visits, one of whom is bilingual, to assist visitors with the visit process and answer any questions they may have. In addition to the video monitors at Central Visits, we’ve installed similar informational monitors at all of the facility visit houses that play revolving PowerPoint slides with facility-specific visitor information. We’ve also installed landline telephones in all of the visit areas that visitors may use to call constituent services, City information, the Board of Correction, and other useful resources.
The Department recently contracted with a professional muralist who is in the process of painting large murals in all of the Department’s visit areas in order to help beautify our visit spaces and encourage positive visit experiences for everyone involved. And to encourage visitors to bring children along on their visits, the Department procured coloring books and crayons for children to use while waiting for visits and take home with them following their visits.
We acknowledge the inherent inconvenience of visiting Rikers Island due to its geographic location within the City. In April 2018, the Department launched the DOC Visitor Shuttle Bus to provide round-trip transportation from two locations in the community to Rikers Island free of charge to visitors. The two locations, one in Harlem and one in downtown Brooklyn, were chosen as locations with high transit-connectivity based on an analysis of visitor data. We are very excited to announce that the Department provided approximately 75,000 free rides in its first year of operating the visitor shuttle buses. We’ve seen a fairly steady rise in ridership over the course of the year and we’re hopeful that we’ll see a continued increase in visitors taking advantage of the service. This service was created specifically for visitors and we’ve been responsive to the feedback we’ve received from visitors who use the service. For example, we replaced the original bus decals with more discreet decals and, since the program launched, we’ve doubled the buses in circulation on both routes.
Another critical component of visits at DOC, in addition to the services, the physical environment, and the transportation, is the staff. The Department is currently engaged in a collaboration with Osborne Association to deliver a full-day training on customer service and visitor sensitivity principles for all visits officers, shuttle bus drivers, and bail window staff across the Department. We successfully rolled out the first training on May 10th and look forward to completing the trainings and using the curriculum for trainings of future visits staff. To accompany the training, the Department’s Training and Development Division is simultaneously working on an additional refresher training for visits officers, which will cover the Department’s visit policies and procedures.
Ongoing and Future Efforts:
We are committed to building upon these efforts and continuing to improve our visit process at DOC. In October 2018, the Department was awarded as a recipient of a training and technical assistance grant from the Urban Institute and the National Institute of Corrections. We’ve been working with our Urban and NIC partners to develop further recommendations regarding improvements to the visit process and we will keep the Board updated on our progress.
The work I’ve described this morning has been a group effort and it wouldn’t have been possible without the collaboration of our many City and community partners, as well the incredible work of uniform leadership and staff. We are very grateful for the expertise and insight of our partners and look forward to the work ahead. A meaningful visit has the potential to change an individual’s life and it is with that understanding and appreciation that we will continue to further this important work. I thank you for your time and attention to this work and I look forward to future opportunities to work together and further our collective impact.