With stories about unbelievable violence and conditions emerging at a steady clip, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would try to tackle the problems at Rikers Island. He said, "Today we are taking aggressive steps to move Rikers Island from a culture of violence to a culture of safety. From changing the visitor policy to intercept contraband to smartly placing inmates to avoid conflict to providing our inmates with expanded educational opportunities and services, we are taking on the growing number of violent incidents at Rikers from every angle." Like limiting visitors' hugs to two!
How? Well, the mayor said, "This 14-point agenda will help us rebuild Rikers as a safer institution for officers and inmates alike." Yes, 14 points, and de Blasio's press release explains:
At the heart of the plan are five major initiatives to reduce inmate-on-inmate violence:
- Keeping weapons, drugs and contraband out of Rikers, including visitor reforms
- Creating an integrated classification and housing strategy to more safely house inmates
- Providing comprehensive security camera coverage
- Designing effective inmate education opportunities and services to reduce idle time
- Developing crisis intervention teams to respond more quickly to inmate-on-inmate violence.
Changing prisoner interaction with prisoners appears to be the immediate plan. New rules will be implemented that "seek to limit the physical contact inmates may have with visitors, broaden the criteria for restricting visitors, and establish a visitor registry." According to the NY Times, "Under the new plan, Mr. de Blasio said, physical contact between inmates and visitors would be limited to a hug or embrace at the beginning and end of the visit. He also said plexiglass partitions would be installed to separate inmates and visitors, making it more difficult to pass contraband. (Currently, inmates and visitors sit across a small table from each other, but there are no restrictions on physical contact for most inmates.)"
The mayor's office says this would bring Rikers "in line with other large jail systems such as Los Angeles, Cook County (Chicago), and Philadelphia, which either place limitations on physical contact between inmates and visitors, or restrict visitors based on security and safety concerns." And then they'll also have "K-9 capabilities for searches and investigations by June 2016," "more, new secure entrances for each facility by December 2018" and "Training 100% of existing front entrance staff in enhanced TSA-style procedures by December 2015."
Correction union president Norman Seabrook lauded the changes, calling de Blasio "the only mayor in the last 20 years who has been trying to make this come together."
However, the Times points out, "While smuggling by visitors is a serious problem, city investigators say much of the contraband that enters the jails is brought in by Rikers officers and civilian employees. Since 2010, 16 correction officers and other employees have been charged with contraband smuggling, according to the city’s Department of Investigation."