New York City Department of Correction
Fire and Criminal Justice Services and Public Safety
Prosecuting Violence in the City’s Jails
January 17, 2017
Good morning Chair Crowley, Chair Gibson, and members of the City Council committees on Fire and Criminal Justice Services and Public Safety. I am Joseph Ponte, Commissioner of the Department of Correction (DOC). Thank you for the opportunity to testify today about prosecuting violence in the city’s jails. I am pleased to be testifying alongside the Bronx District Attorney (DA), Darcel Clark, who has been vocal about her commitment to prosecuting violence in our jails. DA Clark and her staff have been exceptional and engaged partners. Overall, the partnership and communication between our teams has improved dramatically.
The vast majority of our inmate population is located within the Bronx – either on Rikers Island or our Bronx borough house, VCBC – so the Bronx District Attorney prosecutes the majority of the jail violence cases. Incidents that take place in the other borough facilities or in the courts are prosecuted by the District Attorney of that county.
We take the issue of violence in our jails very seriously and have taken significant steps, as part of our 14-Point Anti-Violence Reform Agenda, to address the root causes of violence in our jails. These steps have included:
As a result of these efforts, DOC has been able to drive down many measures of violence. In 2016, DOC reduced total assaults on staff by 11% and serious assaults by 31%. We reduced our uses of force by 3% and uses of force involving serious injury by 35%.
The Department has significantly improved efforts to find contraband. We have increased the number of canine search units and now have them in the facilities. We have installed Cell Sense machines to pick up on cell phones and metal that might not be picked up by traditional metal detectors, have increased front gate procedures to meet TSA search standards, and are purchasing new TSA-style scanners to look for additional non-metal contraband. As the Council is aware, we are currently not able to use the ionizing radiation body scanners, but we will work again this year to amend state law to allow these critical tools to be used.
Our new approaches to searches have yielded notable results; from 2015 to 2016, contraband finds increased by:
At the central visit house on Rikers Island, we have increased canine searches and are installing TSA- style scanners. From 2015 to 2016, drug contraband finds at visits increased by 45% and weapon contraband finds increased by 538%. A significant number of these finds are made because of our amnesty program, which allows people to drop their contraband without ramification, before coming into the visit house. DA Clark’s dedication to consistently and immediately prosecuting visitors who attempt to smuggle in dangerous items is a critical factor to the success of this amnesty program, because visitors know that their actions will have repercussions. This is one of the many areas in which our partnership has yielded real results.
Because inmate fights and stabbings and slashings continue to be issues of concern for the Department, we continue to aggressively pursue additional strategies to reduce violence. We are expanding the new housing model that we piloted, because it has been successful in reducing violence. Our “Restart Units,” newly revamped housing areas that feature physical upgrades, our new classification system, steady staffing and expanded programming, have much lower rates of violence than traditional general population units. In these units, rates of slashing/stabbings, assaults on staff, uses of force and inmates fights are very low. Since the first unit opened in September 2015, there have only been three uses of force involve serious injury, seven serious injuries stemming from fights, and nine assaults on staff. Today, there are thirty-four restarted units, housing approximately 1,000 inmates.
These efforts have shown results, but reducing violence is not something the Department does alone. The District Attorneys are critical partners in addressing violence in the jails. DOC is committed
to working with all of the District Attorneys, and particularly the Bronx DA, given that most incidents in the jails fall within her jurisdiction. With additional funding and support from the City, DOC has been able to strengthen the partnership with DA Clark. Most significantly, we have supported the Bronx DA’s office creation of a new Rikers Island Prosecution Bureau. DOC identified office space on Rikers Island for the new bureau, which opened in September 2016, and the Bronx DA now has staff assigned to the office who can respond immediately after violent incidents in our jails. The new Rikers Island bureau has been instrumental in increasing communication at all levels which is key to facilitating the investigation, arrest, and prosecution process.
DOC provides important support to the prosecutors. When an inmate or visitor violates the law, our Correction Intelligence Bureau Arrest Unit works with the District Attorney’s office to investigate, collect evidence, and carry out the arrest. Incidents of particular focus include stabbings, slashings, serious assaults on staff or another inmate, arson, possession of contraband and dangerous article, and escape, though arrests are not limited to these crimes.
We have also been improving our collection evidence protocols, and continue to raise our standards. DOC established its first Evidence Control Section (ECS) in September 2015 in order to improve the collection of evidence and help expedite the prosecution of crimes on Rikers. The ECS is housed in its own climate-controlled sprung, replacing old facility storage areas that were not designed for proper evidence storage. This new ECS brings DOC evidence collection into the 21st century and enables DOC to meet the Bronx DA's evidence requirements. Working with the ECS, DOC's Crime Scene Investigation Unit was also created to respond to each serious incident and professionally collect the evidence at the crime scene. The ECS has been evaluated for accreditation by the International Association for Property and Evidence, Inc. (IAPE), which provides accreditation only to those that meet IAPE professional standards. If accredited, DOC will be the first correctional facility in the country to have this accreditation.
The Department is pleased to have such a strong partnership with the Bronx District Attorney, particularly with the Rikers Island Prosecution Bureau. We look forward to continuing to work well together to address violence in the jails.