New York City Jails Need More than Resignations and Reforms


There has been a flurry of activity surrounding the NYC Department of Corrections and Rikers Island after a series of horrendous reports exposing subhuman conditions, abuse and corruption at the city’s largest jail. But I am unconvinced that the situation is moving in the right direction.

The top uniformed official at the Department of Corrections, William Clemons, resigned at the end of October. Clemons was one of two men to have been promoted by DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte after corrections staff fudged statistics on jail fights to make it look like the number of violent incidents were down on his watch, when in fact they just weren’t making their way into the reports. (The other was Turhan Gumusdere, who Ponte promoted to become the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.)

Ponte, who was appointed by de Blasio and is said to be a ‘reformer,’ stood by the promotions even after the public became aware that the performance reports at their foundation were completely fraudulent. It was only after the department came under fire for conditions at Rikers that Clemons tendered his resignation. Two of Clemons’ deputies — Joandrea Davis and Gregory McLaughlan — resigned along with him.

City councilman Corey Johnson, who chairs the council’s health committee, has also pledged to hold hearings on health care at Rikers, which is administered by the nation’s largest for-profit healthcare provider in prisons, Corizon Health Services, Inc. Other city officials have discussed the possibility of ending the city’s contract with Corizon, though those officials declined to make such statements on the record.

Meanwhile, Ponte’s first response to the crisis was to hire a corporate consulting firm on a lucrative city contract. The firm, which has no prior experience working with prisons, is charged with crafting the DOC’s reform plan.

Aside from acknowledging that it is a ‘very bad situation‘ in NYC jails, the de Blasio administration has largely remained silent on the issue. This should be rather alarming to even the most ardent de Blasio’s supporter. The mayor rode into office on a mandate to clean up the city’s jails and reign in the law enforcement overreach that filled them (specifically stop and frisk). Yet he has declined nearly every opportunity to challenge the law enforcement establishment.

Mayor de Blasio made specific and repeated campaign promises to bring a ‘community-policing worldview’ to the city, and transform the public’s relationship with law enforcement from one of antagonism to respect. He even put his own son, Dante, in campaign ads on the issue, and according to the Huffington Post, “pundits say [the Dante ad] cemented his status as frontrunner in the mayoral race.”

Instead, de Blasio squandered the opportunity and appointed Bill Bratton to lead the NYPD — the very man who expanded the use of stop and frisk during his time at the LAPD. Bratton’s appointment was a bad way to start what needed to be a healing moment for the city, and the wound is still very raw as racially biased arrests (particularly for low level marijuana possession) are still on the rise in NYC today.

Maybe the mayor can’t completely control the people he appointed to lead the agencies at the heart of the city’s broken criminal justice system — the DOC and the NYPD. But de Blasio’s own ambitious reform plans still tip toe around the law enforcement gorillas in the room.

His newly-announced Renewal Schools initiative is a great example. It’s full of cheery, progressive language about community engagement, programs and services. But disciplinary reform (and the NYPD’s presence in schools) remains glaringly absent from the proposal. How can there be no acknowledgement of the city’s school-to-prison pipeline, which is directly contributing to the juvenile detention crisis on Rikers Island?

At the end of the day, Rikers can’t really be reformed anyway. It needs to be closed. And that doesn’t mean shuffling its prisoners to other facilities. Prisons are destructive places by design, and the city should know by now that there is no ‘corrections’ or ‘rehabilitation’ involved in keeping people there — only a deepening of trauma that is felt across generations.

If New York wants to get to the bottom of its police problem and prison crisis, it needs to up-end the status quo. That will require a lot more guts, ambition and imagination than the de Blasio administration has shown it’s capable of so far.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Learn more at
Brian Sonenstein
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