Ponte Brings Record of Reform to City's Prison System

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced appointments for several key criminal justice agencies today--likening his selections to a "dream team"--a term he's used to describe several other appointments to his administration thus far. The mayor's appointments included Joseph Ponte as commissioner of the Department of Corrections; Ana Bermudez as commissioner of the Department of Probation; Elizabeth Glazer as director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice; and Vincent Schiraldi as senior adviser to the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice. 

While the latter three are all veterans of the city and state's criminal justice system, Ponte, the newcomer from New England, is particularly intriguing. Ponte served in the exact same capacity in Maine and has been widely hailed for helping overhaul the state's prison system, which had previously been plagued by inmate suicides, hunger strikes, inmate assaults on guards, guard assaults on inmates and unexplained inmate deaths. A former warden, Ponte focused on the Special Management Unit, more commonly known as solitary confinement, reducing the number of prisoners in the unit by almost 60 percent, in part by ordering that inmates not be placed in isolation longer than 72 hours without his personal approval, but also by requiring guards to use “informal sanctions” to discipline unruly prisoners, like taking away commissary or recreation privileges, as alternatives to solitary. 

Ponte also helped bring spending under control, stablizing Maine's corrections budget by reducing guard overtime expenses by 2.4 million, and reducing medical overspending for the prison system. Those qualifications should be music to the ears of de Blasio and his Budget Director Dean Fuleihan, considering that the city spends an average of $167,731 per inmate, according to a recent study by the Independent Budget Office. 

While Ponte has said in the past that he encountered some resistance to these sweeping reforms while in Maine, it is safe to say that he is coming into a more welcoming environment, as the state has already begun moving towards revamping the use of solitary confinement, the largest prison system in the country to do so.