Commentary: How a progressive majority on the NYC Board of Correction had the upper hand over City Hall

Two new members of the panel Tuesday tipped the balance of power in favor of more progressive reforms for the first time in nine years.

Screenshot of Tuesday’s NYC Board of Correction hearing.

Screenshot of Tuesday’s NYC Board of Correction hearing. Kelly Grace Price

Two new New York City Board of Correction members appeared at the board’s monthly hearing Tuesday, tipping the balance of the nine-member body on a day when two controversial votes were scheduled. 

The first proposal to amend the BOC’s own rules to restrict public meetings to only six per year (now currently there are nine) was defeated before it reached a vote. Nary a single member of the BOC motioned to bring it to the floor. The second vote on a bundle of variances submitted by the Department of Correction, which the BOC oversees, was trounced by the same lack of process. None of the board members moved to bring it to a vote. So it did not pass.  

The plan – to scan all mail and provide digital access on tablets and to only accept care packages from pre-approved vendors – had been decried by advocates and elected officials for months. The day was a crushing defeat for Board Chair Dwayne Sampson and the people in City Hall to which he holds allegiance. . The BOC has only once failed to bring a DOC-proposed variance to the floor since former Mayor Bill de Blasio was in office.    

The votes had been scheduled for last month’s meeting but Sampson, appointed by Mayor Eric Adams in January, didn’t have the votes to pass his agenda. On that same day, the two new BOC members previously mentioned were appointed by the City Council. Dr. Rachael Bedard and formerly incarcerated advocate De Anne Hoskins joined the board, tipping the balance of power in favor of more progressive reforms for the first time in nine years. 

Curiously, the meeting was canceled due to ‘technical difficulties.’ It’s remarkable Sampson, who controls the agenda, risked these two remarkable votes knowing he hadn’t the numbers on his side. 

How are people appointed to the BOC anyway? And by who? 

In 1977, the BOC’s charter was amended to curb mayoral control of the agency after fifteen Latino men were hanged in the jails, including Young Lords activist Julio Roldan. Roldan’s 1970 murder spurred the BOC charter revision. Before 1977, BOC members were picked by the mayor. The outcome of the BOC’s oversight under this scheme depended on each subsequent mayor’s will for oversight. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani tried repeatedly to destroy the board but John Lindsay embraced the entity and used it to oust an unpopular commissioner. The charter amendment took the authority of making appointments to the board and shared them between the Council and certain members of the Judiciary. However, the way various mayors have interpreted the language of the revision has continued to foil the true oversight potential of the agency.

The BOC’s section of the charter requires that, “Members shall be appointed for a term of six years. Vacancies shall be filled for the remainder of the unexpired term.” Three of those members are to be appointed by the mayor and three by the Council. 

The mayor then gets to appoint three more, based on nominations made jointly by the “presiding justices of the appellate division of the Supreme Court for the first and second judicial departments,” according to the charter. Vacancies are to be filled by appointments by the “three respective appointing authorities on a rotating basis.” 

However, board members have not been selected by the three respective appointing authorities on a rotating basis. Instead, beginning with de Blasio, City Hall has chosen to interpret the City Charter to allow the mayor to replace his appointments without rotating the selection power between the three appointing authorities. Former de Blasio’s press officer, Avery Cohen, affirmed this mis-reading of the charter when in October of 2019 former long-time board member Bryanne Hamill was ousted from her position and replaced by Felip Franco, just before several contentious votes over the curbing of solitary confinement. “We thank Bryanne Hamill for her service and for the commitment she has demonstrated to the board throughout her tenure. As is common with appointees from previous administrations, a mayor replaces board members whose terms expire.”

Throughout the de Blasio administration, whenever an important vote was pending, board members were plucked from the panel and replaced with people who voted in congruence with City Hall’s needs. In de Blasio’s case, the former mayor so blatantly ignored the “rotating appointment authority mandate” of the charter that on October 28, 2014 he appointed three new Board members at the same time.  As I pointed out  last month, the First and Second Judicial Departments have also had their appointing autonomy compromised.  But, this month, the scheme has backfired.

Who is Dwayne Sampson?

A scathing 2020 investigative brief submitted by the transportation non-profit organization Jobs to Move America to the IRS and the state Attorney General outlines dozens of crimes alleged against Sampson and his non-profit, including not reporting income to the state Charities Board; soliciting donations for scholarships never paid; assigning donations to the non-profit’s directors in the form of expense reimbursements (including to Sampson himself), and not paying taxes. 

If the allegations against Mr. Sampson and his NGO are substantiated and charges are filed, it would not be the first time a board member has resigned because of criminal activity. Fredrick J. Patrick, a New York Police and Correction Department veteran, was arrested on federal charges that he looted close to $113,000 from the New York City Correctional Foundation. Patrick used the bread to cover collect calls from prisoners to his home phone, “including thousands and thousands of calls he patched through to sex lines between January 1997 and December 2001, apparently listening in on the calls. Patrick admitted spending the money on phone calls, paying his MCI and NYNEX bills with Foundation checks,” an investigative report into his crimes said. Likewise Raul Russi served seven months on the board before quietly resigning, likely because of  a recommendation by the New York City Department of Investigation that Russi step down from his position because of his role in rigging hearings of the Local Conditional Release Commission.

The attempted regressive rollbacks to the DOC’s minimum standards and the BOC’s rules is exactly the kind of opaque maneuvering that has brought Sampson’s critics to accuse him of “astro-turfing,” the practice of giving the appearance of grass-roots, social-justice work while instead nurturing corporate interests under the guise of diversity. The entire leadership of Sampson’s NGO has been characterized as, “almost exclusively executives of companies that seek business from transit agencies, current high-level transit agency managers, including several who interface with private contractors, and former transit managers who have gone on to own or work for companies that do business with their former employers,” according to the Jobs to Move America brief. Sampson’s own comments addressing the board as its chair for the first time during the January, 10, 2023 BOC meeting belie his intentions to monetize his role at the helm of Board. “I really see a vision as chair of the Board of Correction that’s going to be really interactive with the Department of Correction in encouraging programs and other insights that’s going to benefit the communities involved with the business of corrections.

Speaking of the “business of corrections” if the variances had passed, incarcerated people wouldn't have been allowed to possess analog photos or books, religious texts or magazines sent by loved ones. Instead only materials sent from an approved vendor, like Amazon, would have been allowed to be mailed. Security giant Securus Corporation would have been paid to scan letters and distill intelligence information from incoming mail. This is big business. In 2021 Securus raked-in over $200,000,000 in profit.  

Veronica Vela, supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoner's Rights Project noted that “the City jails are in a state of humanitarian crisis … BOC’s oversight is needed now more than ever. Yet the proposed resolutions today would have further shielded DOC’s actions from scrutiny and undoubtedly hindered efforts to resolve the ongoing emergency.”

“This is a rare victory for us and for our clients,” Vela added. It may be a short-lived victory however. Judicial appointee Jackie Sherman’s tenure on the BOC expires in October, and whomever replaces her may again shuffle the board’s delicate balance of power.