Mayor's Proposals Would Limit Visitation at Rikers; Advocates Will Monitor
FRIDAY, MARCH 13, 2015

Mayor de Blasio yesterday proposed limiting physical contact inmates at Rikers can have with visitors, causing concern among advocates. “Visiting with family and friends is one of the ways that people remain sane when they’re put in jail,” John Boston, Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project, told the Wall Street Journal.

“It’s one of the ways that they keep plugged into ordinary society and are less likely to recidivate once they’re released, ” Boston said. The “devil is in the details”. Boston said that he and others would be closely monitoring the specifics of what the city ultimately proposes.




The Wall Street Journal
De Blasio Seeks New Restrictions on Rikers Island Visits
By Michael Howard Saul
March 12, 2015

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday proposed limiting the amount of physical contact prisoners can have with visitors in New York City jails and barring some people with a criminal history from visiting altogether.

The changes, aimed at reducing violence in the city’s troubled jail system, sparked criticism from some prisoner-rights advocates who called the policy changes unfair and counterproductive.

Mr. de Blasio and Joe Ponte, commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction, outlined a series of proposals, including bolstering security camera coverage and developing inmate education programs.

“We are fundamentally dissatisfied with a culture of violence and will not allow it to continue,” Mr. de Blasio said during a visit to Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex, where inmate-on-inmate violence has been on the rise for the past decade.

It was the mayor’s proposals governing jail visitation that sparked the most critici

Messrs. de Blasio and Ponte said they would seek permission from the city’s Board of Correction to limit inmates’ physical contact with visitors and prohibit some people with felony convictions, or a history of gang membership, from visiting nonfamily members who are incarcerated.

The policy is designed to keep weapons and drugs out of city jails. During the past four months, the city has seized 16 weapons and 94 contraband drugs from 44 visitors who attempted to enter city jails. In fiscal 2014, there were 307 arrests of visitors; so far in the fiscal year that began July 1 there have been 239 visitor arrests.

The city didn't provide details on the new visitor policy, but officials said contact would now be limited to a quick hug at the beginning and end of the visit.

Under the new policy, visitors and inmates would be separated by a low-glass partition. Currently, visitors and inmates may have contact throughout the visit, and the tables in some places are low, making smuggling easy, officials said.

The specifics on who would be barred from visiting were also vague, but Mr. Ponte said the city would be targeting people with felony convictions and gang affiliation. Family members would continue to have unfettered access to visits, but officials didn’t specify how family would be defined.

The policy change, which officials said are more in line with regulations in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, are to be presented to the board in May. If approved, the new policy would be put in place in August.

“Visiting with family and friends is one of the ways that people remain sane when they’re put in jail,” said John Boston, who heads the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit. “It’s one of the ways that they keep plugged into ordinary society and are less likely to recidivate once they’re released.”

Mr. Boston said the “devil is in the details” and that he and others would be closely monitoring the specifics of what the city ultimately proposes.

Robert Gangi, former director of the Correctional Association of New York, an advocacy group, said reducing contact with visitors could “create more tension and possibilities of violence.”

Mr. Gangi said he would support barring people from visiting who have been caught smuggling weapons or other contraband, but if a person has been convicted of a felony it “does not mean that person is going to cause problems during a course of a visit.”

Lisa Schreibersdorf, executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services, a public defender organization, said many people are in city jails because they are too poor to pay their bail.

“Unless there is a clear, individualized nexus between an individual’s behavior or their visitor’s behavior, it is unjust to take away a contact visit with their loved ones,” she said.

Messrs. de Blasio and Ponte said they understood the importance of visits.

“But we’re going to be smart about the fact that there still need to be some limitations on the ability of any individual to pass items to an inmate that are inappropriate,” Mr. de Blasio said.

Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the officers’ union, praised the mayor’s proposal as a solid step toward reducing violence in the city’s jails.

“I applaud that,” he said, referring to the administration’s plan to reduce contraband from visitors.

Officials said they also are working on a new housing and inmate classification system aimed at housing most violent inmates with each other.

Warring gangs and warring factions would be separated. The city is tripling the number of security cameras throughout Rikers Island and expanding education and other services for inmates.

Mr. de Blasio said the city’s jail facilities have been neglected for years and that change is impossible overnight.

“The investments we are making are strong and purposeful,” he said, adding that “we will not stop until this place is much, much safer.”