Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice Services
Keith Powers, Chair
Michael Tausek, Deputy Commissioner for Programming and Community Relationships
Acting Bureau Chief of Facility Operation Becky Scott
NYC Department of Correction
L. Patrick Dail, Deputy Commissioner for Training and Development
Oversight Hearing on Department of Correction Programming
February 26, 2019
Good morning Chair Powers and members of the Criminal Justice Committee. Thank you for this opportunity to discuss the Department of Correction’s approach to programming for inmates. My name is Michael Tausek and I am the Deputy Commissioner for Programming and Community Relationships at the NYC Department of Correction (DOC). Joining me is Becky Scott, Acting Bureau Chief of Facility Operations, who has over twenty-five years of service with the DOC and Deputy Commissioner Patrick Dail, who recently joined the Department and oversees Training and Development.
Today I will briefly walk you through the Department’s programming strategy, current reform efforts underway, and our plans for future improvement. I will also comment on Intro 261 and Intro 1184, the two bills being considered today.
DOC offers a wide variety of program options that promote the acquisition of life skills, vocational skills, internal growth and wellbeing, and assist with successful reentry. The Department utilizes a number of approaches and programs for those in our care including but not limited to: the designation of program staff focused on group facilitation, contract providers, individualized reentry planning, tablet-based educational offerings, and workforce development courses.
It is our job to ensure that people are better prepared to contribute to their communities on their way out of custody than they were when they came in. We acknowledge the vital role that programming plays in attaining that objective, and we do not take that responsibility lightly. The Department is dedicated to a programming vision that promotes prosocial behavior and provides individual services targeted to specific needs. For that reason, the Programs Division offers a vast array of programming that ranges from concrete skill building to supporting behavioral and emotional wellness. Program offerings also play a critical role in the Department’s violence reduction efforts. Engagement in program reduces idle time, which is critical in eliminating violence and other negative behaviors.
The Programs Division within the Department of Correction has undergone recent structural changes that standardize operational processes. Previously, programming was overseen by two separate divisions within DOC: one division oversaw programming for the adult population and another division oversaw programming for individuals twenty-one years old and younger. Today, with the adolescent population no longer on Rikers Island, the two divisions have been combined into one division responsible for the coordination and provision of programming to all individuals in Department custody. Provision of services is now incorporated into a single unified structure, our data collection is more uniform and centralized, and our processes for identifying programming gaps and programmatic needs are enhanced. By more easily identifying gaps and areas for improvement, we are better able to address individual needs and advocate for sensible housing placements that allow access to more targeted programming.
In recent years, with support from this Committee, the City Council, and the Mayor, the Department has made significant advances in growing its network of program providers, its range of program offerings, and its responsivity to the distinct needs of different populations. While our programming is now structured under one division, we remain more committed than ever to providing everyone in our custody comprehensive evidence-based programs based on correctional best practices that address the distinct needs of each population and individual.
As a component of the Department’s commitment to housing young adults in young-adult specific housing whenever possible, we are able to provide education and tailored programming accordingly. By developing creative solutions to safely house individuals with a history of violence, we created an opportunity to provide targeted programming designed to disrupt violent behavior and encourage pro-social behavior in its place. Further, we continue to provide and develop gender-responsive programming that addresses the unique needs of women and mothers in our custody. Our approach to programming is holistic, we leave no stone unturned, and we are always happy to meet with our programming partners to explore ways we can continuously improve our efforts.
The Programs Division is committed to providing all individuals in custody with individualized programming that addresses core needs, provides opportunities for prosocial skill development, and prepares individuals for successful reentry into their communities. Program services include but are not limited to: Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous Groups, Alternatives to Violence Training, culinary programs, horticulture programs, behavior management and group counseling, job readiness training, life skills courses, parenting courses, literacy assistance, vocational training, and transitional assistance. We also offer engaging programs that provide soft skills training, such as Rikers Rovers and PAWS, a program in which rescue dogs are cared for and training by incarcerated persons, helping participants to develop a greater sense of accountability and responsibility. Similarly, the horticulture program tasks participants with caring for gardens on the facility’s grounds, providing an opportunity to build soft skills while preparing for reentry into the workforce. Beginning in the spring of 2019, the Department will roll out a programs menu that will be given out during the intake process. The programs menu will be tailored to each facility and provide a comprehensive overview of the program and educational opportunities that are available as well as provide information on how to sign up for these offerings.
In recent months, the Programs Division has undertaken several reform efforts to improve the Department’s ability to meet individuals’ critically important educational, vocational, and therapeutic needs while in custody.
In an effort to incentivize positive behavior, the Department recently piloted an innovative incentive-based housing structure. This four-tiered pilot affords participants targeted programming and rewards sustained positive behavior with desirable privileges. For example, individuals in the lowest level received programming that addresses criminogenic thinking and promotes pro-social behavior. As individuals progress through the levels, they attain additional privileges, including access to tablets with educational content and entertainment. Individuals in higher levels, who have demonstrated positive behavior, gain access to vocational training and associated certifications to help facilitate outcomes such as meaningful and long-lasting employment upon release from custody. The pilot not only rewards positive behavior, but in doing so, it creates an incentive for otherwise disruptive individuals to pursue constructive engagement with programming that will better prepare them for re-entry into the community.
The Department has also undertaken a number of efforts aimed specifically at improving services for women in custody. Recognizing the unique needs of women in our care, the Department recently created and filled the position of Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives. This role is tasked with gaining a holistic understanding of the needs of the women in the Department’s custody and working with providers to tailor programs that meet their unique needs. Further, the Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives works with the population to identify and remove barriers to family visitation. The Department is proud to partner with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan to offer off-island visits for incarcerated mothers who have at least 1 child under the age of 16. Originally, the Children’s Museum visits were only available to sentenced women but two months ago, we were able to successfully expand the program to detained women as well. This visitation program, which was the first of its kind, is now being replicated by Departments across the country. The Department has also initiated efforts to improve family engagement, including expanding opportunities for children in foster care to visit their mothers outside of regular visit hours and without going through the regular visitor intake process.
In addition to those initiatives, we are very encouraged by our growing partnership with the Department of Education regarding the provision of educational services to individuals in our custody. Through a coordinated effort, DOC and DOE work directly with young people upon admission to DOC custody to encourage involvement in educational services. We recognize the value of focusing efforts on our shared goal of engaging people in educational and vocational services. The Department will continue to work with DOE and various providers to ensure similar opportunities are expanded and further developed.
Further, the Department is encouraged by the success of the Jails to Jobs initiative, which is supported in conjunction with MOCJ and offers intentional linkages with ICAN and SMART programs, provides access to employment and educational programs in our facilities and upon an individual’s return to the community. The ICAN and SMART programs provide reentry planning, support individuals in procuring necessary identification documents, and connect individuals to services once they return to the community. By addressing educational, vocational, therapeutic and other needs in an individualized way, time inside jail can be used productively to lay a foundation that can prevent future interaction with the criminal justice system. These efforts improve lives, make our jails safer and more restorative, and ultimately lead to safer and stronger communities.
While the Department is encouraged by the success of recent efforts to engage various populations in meaningful programming, we acknowledge that we must address operational challenges and improve service provision to individuals in custody. The Department is committed to providing more transparent communications regarding the availability of programming in each facility and housing area. We are currently considering opportunities to advertise programming options, including through the use of newly installed video monitors in intake areas. We are considering solutions that better capture data pertaining to programming, which will provide us with the information necessary to most effectively roll out new programs and tailor existing program provision across our facilities. We are committed to building partnerships with service providers in order to better capture data regarding service provision and attendance, in order to better match programs with distinct populations. We will continue to engage people and seek innovative ways to further increase participation.
Additionally, the Department will continue to improve and grow its volunteer services. We are always looking for new volunteer partners and encourage anyone interested in volunteering their time or interested in partnering with the Department to provide a program to contact the Department’s office of volunteer services or the office of community partnerships. Contact information for both offices, and an application to obtain volunteer clearance, are available on our website. We are taking steps to improve the organizational structure of the office to better serve the incarcerated population and the incredible people who selflessly dedicate their time and energy to engaging our population. We celebrate all of our volunteers’ initiative and thank them for their service to our population and to the City.
The Department is excited by the incredible progress we have made in recent years to grow, develop, and improve our program provision across our eleven operational facilities. As we continue to improve our program provision, we must continue to be responsive to our community partners and the volunteers who dedicate their time toward our shared goal of improving programming provision and impacting lives. Their input is invaluable to us and we look forward to creating a sustained dialogue moving forward in order to continue engaging our partners. In recent weeks, the Department piloted a revised security training based on the comments we had received from several provider organizations. The updated training focuses on security and situational awareness in a manner more appropriate for non-uniform staff. We’ve received positive feedback on the new training and will continue to be responsive to feedback that improves our training courses.
In addition, I am proud to announce the Department will be creating a program provider working group that will meet quarterly. This working group will enable the Department to get direct feedback from our programming partners and enable us to react to suggestions and concerns in real time. We will also be assigning providers with a point of contact in each facility who will assist them in getting escorted to their assigned classroom or housing unit in a timely manner. The Department has also been heavily involved in the Programming Subcommittee as a part of the Rikers Implementation Task Force and the Culture Change Working Group, and we look forward to the continued and productive engagement with community based organizations and program service providers.
With these partnerships, I am confident that the Department will continue to develop innovative solutions and improvements toward the imperative of providing individuals in our custody with the critical educational, vocational, and therapeutic opportunities to improve their lives and our communities upon their reentry.
Int. 261 would require the Department to provide all people in custody with an annual survey regarding their experiences in City jails. Although we appreciate the goals behind this bill, we believe that this sort of undertaking requires careful planning in order to create a methodologically sound survey that most accurately represents the experiences of those detained in New York City jails. Moreover, in our view, the results of this survey should produce information that can be acted upon. In order to create a survey that produces valuable and useful information, it is critical that the Department have a reasonable amount of time to investigate how to best conceptualize, rollout, compile, and evaluate this type of survey. We are determining what steps are needed to plan, create and implement this survey and look forward to working with the Council as our discussions progress.
The Department believes all individuals in its custody should have access to a wide variety of reading materials. The intellectual engagement that is facilitated by reading cannot be overstated. The Department currently contracts with the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library, and the Brooklyn Public Library, which provide library services to all 11 of DOC’s facilities. Through these partnerships, individuals in our custody have regular access to books through mobile library services. Our library partners keep their shelves updated a variety of genres, including new releases, and ensure books are in good condition. These library services are available to people in custody weekly or bi-weekly, depending on the facility. Books and periodicals are available in English and Spanish and additional languages are available upon request. Many of the individuals in our care also have access to electronic tablets which contain reading materials in addition to educational programming.
The Department of Correction is committed to meeting the need for library access, and is open to expanding current efforts. The current library partnerships, which bring books directly to housing areas, are working well and it is unclear how creating dedicated library spaces would improve access. Mobile libraries and rolling book carts offer library services directly and safely. The Department already operates law libraries in each facility and is open to reimagining these spaces as joint library / law library spaces, but would need to investigate the logistics further.
While the Department supports the spirit of Int. 1184 and is committed to working with library partners and the Council to improve existing library services, we do not believe that this bill would have the desired outcome of actually increasing the level of access to reading materials.
Although the Department has made substantial strides in improving our programming services, there is always more that can be done. The Programs Division continues to deploy innovative solutions to programming, and we recognize the opportunity to further expand our reach and impact. We are committed to working with our program providers, community partners, training staff, and uniform staff, to attain this goal. While the Department and our Programs Division is excited about the prospect of smaller, safer, and fairer facilities that meet our dynamic programmatic needs, we have no intention of waiting to initiate the important work of improving programming provision and the lives of individuals in Department custody. We find ourselves in a moment of unprecedented support from this Committee, the City Council, and the Mayor to achieve that vision, and we fully intend to attain it.
The Department appreciates the Council’s interest and support in this very important work. We look forward to continue working with the Council to improve our program provision and programmatic resources. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today and we are happy to answer any questions.