The Legal Aid Society Blasts the Weakening of Jail Standards
MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2007

The Legal Aid Society has sharply criticized proposed changes to the rules that govern the City jails, the Minimum Standards of the Board of Correction. The Board of Correction is supposed to be the City's watchdog over the jail system.

"These amendments will make the jails more crowded, dangerous, oppressive, and regimented, despite the fact that the vast majority of their prisoners are pre-trial detainees, convicted of nothing and jailed only because they and their families cannot afford to pay bail," said John Boston, director of Legal Aid's Prisoners' Rights Project.

Boston called on New Yorkers to oppose the amendments by writing to the Board of Correction and attending and speaking at a public hearing on Tuesday, April 17, 2007 at 9:30 a.m. at the City Planning Commission Hearing Room, 22 Reade Street, 1st Floor, New York, N.Y. 10007.

The proposed amendments were drafted in a closed process with the Department of Correction, without the participation or input of community representatives or civil rights and civil liberties organizations.

"We call on the Board of Correction to withdraw these amendments across the board and start over, this time listening to the community as a whole," said Boston. "The Board should act as a truly independent oversight body and stop being subservient to the agency that runs the jails."

The amendments would provide for:

  • More crowding: Open dormitory housing units would hold up to 20% more prisoners.
  • More round-the-clock cell lock-in: Virtual solitary confinement-cell lock-in all day except for an hour for exercise and a shower-would be applied to prisoners who are removed from general population for their own protection or for administrative reasons. Prolonged cell confinement of this sort has been linked to prisoner suicides.
  • Less assistance for Spanish-speaking prisoners: The amendments would repeal the requirement that the jails have sufficient Spanish-speaking staff to assist Hispanic prisoners, and would provide only that the Department of Correction must implement Aprocedures@ to ensure that they can understand communications from staff. There is no requirement or even hint as to what those procedures might be.
  • Open-ended surveillance and censorship: The amendments would allow surveillance of prisoners' telephone calls to their families for any reason or no reason, dropping the requirement of a court warrant that has been in effect for decades. They would permit blocking of correspondence based on completely vague standards-when officials claim a "reasonable belief that limitation is necessary to protect public safety or maintain facility order and security,"-without any further explanation of what kind of material would be censored. Reading material could be censored on similar grounds.
  • Denial of personal clothing: The amendments would allow jail officials to require pre-trial detainees, in addition to sentenced prisoners, to wear uniforms, despite their having been convicted of nothing, and would deprive their families of the ability to provide them with clothing to protect them from the extremes of temperature often found in the jails. They would have to wear uniforms at all court appearances except actual trials, stigmatizing them before the court.

The Board failed to address the concerns of prisoners and the community about jail conditions and failed to propose any changes that would make jail life less oppressive and dangerous. It did not, for example, address:

  • Visiting delays. Many family members and friends of prisoners wait for hours to see their loved ones on Rikers Island.
  • Extreme delays in court transportation. Prisoners are often awakened before dawn to go to court appearances that cannot occur before 9:30 a.m.; often they are not returned to the jail until long after the courts have closed; they spend most of the intervening time sitting idly for hours in holding pens and in buses, sometimes in physical restraints.
  • Education. Young prisoners without high school diplomas or G.E.D.'s are entitled (and often required) to attend school, but the Department's record in providing schooling has been mixed at best.
  • Searches. Formerly, a court order protected prisoners against abusive search practices, but that order is no longer in effect.
  • Disability discrimination. The Minimum Standards provide no protection against discrimination based on physical handicaps.

See also: Comments of The Legal Aid Society Prisoners' Rights Project on the Proposed Amendments to the Minimum Standards for New York City Correctional Facilities. Presented before the public hearings of the New York City Board of Correction by John Boston, Director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society.