Legal Aid Testifies That Commitment and Transparency Are Needed for Rikers Reforms

A year after New York City entered a landmark consent decree mandating overhauls to undo entrenched patterns of jail staff brutality against inmates, The Legal Aid Society told city lawmakers on Monday that there is still much progress to be made.

Mary Lynne Werlwas, Director of Legal Aid’s Prisoners' Rights Project, raised concerns about training resources in the wake of the Nunez v. City of New York consent decree, as well as continuing patterns of staff brutality and a portion of the Rikers Island facility that has effectively become a site for solitary confinement.

Legal Aid was counsel for the plaintiff class in Nunez, joined by co-counsel Ropes & Gray and Emery, Celli, Brinckerhoff & Abady. The reforms growing out of the October 2015 consent decree address “literally life and death matters for the thousands of New Yorkers who await their trial or serve their misdemeanor sentences at Rikers Island,” Werlwas said in testimony submitted to a New York City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services hearing about the Nunez settlement’s implementation.

“True reform of the culture of violence that gave rise to Nunez will take time,” Werlwas acknowledged. Yet Werlwas stressed the “ambitious yet achievable path” to ending longstanding prisoner abuse also demanded commitment from Department of Correction leadership and staff, as well as their transparency in order to spot challenges and confirm claims of success.

While there was some progress in the reduction of injury, Werlwas said there was “little evidence of change” in the pattern of staff brutality. Pointing to data from a court-ordered monitor, Werlwas said use of force rates are at a record high—even with a decreasing prisoner population. Moreover, the prevalence of injuries to staff and inmates climbed this year and are higher than when the consent judgment was filed. “More disturbingly,” said Werlwas, “the patterns of force that have long characterized brutality in the City jails appear unabated.”

Though encouraged by the Department of Correction effort to develop training programs, Werlwas said there was still deep concern about city willingness to devote the resources needed to roll out the “very promising” new programs. “If the training program is delayed or unduly drawn out, the pace of reform may falter, and even worse, the cultural shift that we seek to achieve through the training may fail to gain enough momentum to take hold,” she said.

Turning to a facility found last month to violate minimum standards for the treatment of inmates, Werlwas said the site has become the “rogue substitute for punitive segregation.”

“The Department has been wholly opaque in response to inquiries about its plans for this facility and the conditions under which inmates are held,” she said.