Heard Around Town: Proposed Rikers' visitor policy would exacerbate tale of two cities, critics say

The de Blasio administration’s campaign to reform and better secure Rikers Island jail has taken a step too far in its efforts to restrict visitors, some advocates contend.

The Rev. Que English, co-founder of the New York City Clergy Roundtable, said she fears people of color’s already fragile family unit could deteriorate under proposed changes that would permit correctional personnel to consider criminal convictions and charges when admitting visitors to facilities. English said she knew firsthand how positive visiting a loved one on Rikers island can be and said any hurdlers to such exchanges could result in depression, isolation, suicide or increased recidivism rates.

“My brother was in Rikers Island numerous amount of time, and what my visit did for him could not be expressed in words because he felt like he had someone on the outside that cared,” the reverend said of her now-deceased brother.

The reverend is among many individuals and about 14 organizations that have signed onto the advocacy group Jails Action Coalition’s “save visiting” campaign. The coalition has planned a Tuesday rally with City Council members Daniel Dromm and Ydanis Rodriguez shortly after the Board of Corrections is slated to consider the proposed changes. No public hearing has been scheduled yet, advocates said. 

The Department of Correction said Commissioner Joseph Ponte understands how family relations factor into rehabilitation and re-entry of inmates and would only limit such visits when they threaten the safety, security or good order of the facility.

New York City’s rules for visitors will remain among the most permissive in America,” the department said in a statement. “We would restrict visitation only on intelligence-based safety and security criteria, such as known criminal history, probation or parole status, gang ties or open warrants.” 

The Department of Correction has proposed allowing its staff to begin considering potential visitors’ criminal records, pending criminal charges and lack of familial or intimate relationship with the inmates they wish to visit. These factors alone may not form the basis for the department’s decision, the rules note.

Other proposed rule changes include excluding violent inmates from a rule requiring those in punitive segregation for 30 consecutive days to be placed within the general jail population for at least seven days. Another proposed change would be limiting which vendors can send packages into Rikers. Ponte said these changes are meant to address an increase in slashings, stabbings and violence in city jails that the department believes are linked to the proliferation of contraband weapons.

Critics, however, contend there is no evidence that curbing visits will result in a safer environment at Rikers Island and that news stories and investigations suggest DOC personnel are responsible for carrying contraband into city jails.

The city said more than 300 visitors to correctional facilities were arrested in fiscal year 2014 and 371 were arrested in fiscal year 2015. The administration also listed several initiatives underway meant to prevent staff from bringing in contraband, such as the use of K-9 dogs and the hiring of more investigators. 

Still some advocates, such as Tanya Krupat, director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, maintained the outlined changes are very broad and could easily be misapplied. She said allowing expansive background checks into visitors could pose civil rights issues and cause delays for the more than 3,000 children that currently visit city jails each month. Additionally, the appeals process could be built out to six to eight weeks under the proposal, Krupat said.

“These were standards that were set to safeguard basic human rights and dignity,” Krupat said. “It’s kind of supporting and even worsening the tale of two cities because, you know, if you have resources, you will pay your bail and get out and be with your loved ones.”

Organizations that have signed onto the Jails Action Coalition’s campaign include: the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, JustLeadershipUSA, Healing Communities Network, The Osborne Association, The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys UAW Local 2325, the Urban Justice Center, The Correctional Association of New York, Hour Children, Brooklyn Defender Services, NYC Criminal Justice Clergy Task Force, The Center for Nu Leadership on Urban Solutions, Children’s Rights, the Campaign for Alternatives to isolated Confinement.

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