Why Should We Close Rikers Island?

The City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito,announced in her State of the City address that the state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, would lead a commission to comprehensively examine the city’s criminal justice system. Its mission will be to reduce the jail population, now at about 10,000, enough to make it possible to consider shutting Rikers down for good.

“The costs and inconvenience to the city, which spends $25 million a year just to transport inmates, and to family members, who lose a day’s work to get there and back, argue powerfully for neighborhood-based alternatives…“Rikers stands for everything that’s miserable about the criminal justice system,” Mr. Lippman said. “By conquering Rikers, in a politically astute, smart, credible way — this is the ultimate challenge, to be able to take on something which is so widely viewed as the heart of all of our problems.” Read more, here.

Mayor De Blasio contributed to Staten Island Live on the issue of closing Rikers. He wrote, “A teenager, waiting years for trial in solitary confinement. An officer, physically maimed by the inmates he works each day to protect. For years, these stories of abuse and negligence have emerged from Rikers Island all too frequently…Today, as we continue to drive down crime, the idea of closing Rikers has returned to the forefront.  Yet while this idea deserves serious consideration, we cannot allow the closure conversation to distract from jail reform needed now – long before any possible transition from Rikers could become reality.  And we must make sure that in calls for Rikers’ closure, our city does not become more focused on shutting down the facility than ending the culture that gave rise to its infamy.” See more. 


New York State Corrections Dept. Takes on Guards Union Over Brutality

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“Investigators had often been reluctant to challenge the powerful corrections officers’ union, and the disciplinary system was so stacked in the union’s favor that a guard could be found guilty of brutalizing an inmate and not be fired. But the internal affairs unit had been overhauled. It was now prepared to take the fight to the union, Daniel F. Martuscello III, the department’s deputy commissioner, declared.” Read more.

New NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Training

Tracie Keesee  has been named the new deputy commissioner of training for the NYPD. She is a founder of the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank aimed at strengthening the relationships between community and police. She was also heavily involved in the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, which was the DOJ’s pilot program aimed at reducing racial bias among police officers. Learn more. 

Raise the Age Not in the Budget

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Gov. Cuomo in Dannemora (photo via The Governor’s Office)

Raise the Age, though initially backed by Cuomo and included in his executive budget, will be pushed to the post-budget legislative session. The budget was passed by April 1st but the legislative session itself is extended into June.

“For some advocates it is no surprise given the complexities of their issues, like the push to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility in New York and legislation to amend state law to create a special prosecutor to preside over investigations of police killings of civilians. To others, it isn’t surprising for an entirely different reason: they are used to seeing Cuomo pitch major criminal justice reforms during his State of the State address only to abandon them during budget negotiations due to push back from Senate Republicans.”

The issue of how to treat 16- and 17-year-olds in the state’s criminal justice system is complicated. Senate Republicans don’t want to be soft on crime, or give the appearance of being so, while Assembly Democrats want to provide a host of alternatives to criminal court….Cuomo did push last year to leave funding in the budget to enact Raise the Age reforms were a deal reached, and that money was there, but no deal occurred. The governor included similar language in this year’s executive budget. Advocates are anxious to see if the language makes the final budget bills, setting the stage for an agreement in the months ahead. Cuomo also has bail reform on his agenda for the legislative session ahead.” Read more.

According to Times Union, the New York Senate should be ashamed of itself. “A bevy of research has shown the state’s current policy is simply bad for public safety. Children under 18 who are charged as adults commit more additional crimes and get involved in more serious offenses than their peers who remain in the rehabilitation-focused juvenile justice system…The five states that have raised the age of criminal responsibility to 18 in the past decade (Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi and New Hampshire) have all seen falling arrests, lower correctional system costs and generally sinking crime rates…”

“To be clear, we aren’t calling for a simple slap on the wrist for offenders. The juvenile justice system isn’t a walk in the park for those caught up in it. Well-run programs put very real demands on their participants, and for many offenses, sentences can be just as long as those in the adult system. The few children who commit very serious offenses like murder and violent rape, likewise, are almost always eligible to be tried as adults in New York and everywhere else.”

Will New York New York develop the political will to do the right thing by June? See more.

The Raise the Age Campaign will be continuing to advocate for change! The Correctional Association is planning with Families Together NYS a mothers’ lobby day! It will take place on May 10 and we will bring a bus of mothers from NYC to join forces with mothers from the Albany area. They will hold a press conference and have mothers who have children impacted by the adult system speak and then have groups of mothers (both those directly impacted and those who are concerned as a parent about the current age of criminal responsibility) meet with legislators. The CA and larger RTA NY Campaign think this is an important voice that has not been highlighted. BerlinRosen will assist with the press conference.


The Human Toll of Jail

“Jails exist in nearly every town and city in the United States. Although rarely on the radar of most Americans, jails are the front door to the criminal justice system in a country that holds more people in custody than any other on the planet. Their impact is far-reaching and profound: in the course of a typical year, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions—almost 20 times the number of annual admissions to state and federal prisons—at great cost to individuals, their families and communities, and society at large.

The Human Toll of Jail is an essential part of an emerging national conversation about changing this picture. Presented by the Vera Institute of Justice with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, The Human Toll of Jail is a platform for true stories about and by ordinary people, both those who are or have been caught up in the criminal justice system, and those who work on its front lines.” Discover more, here.


Why You Should Hire Young Adults with Criminal Records

Our own Julie Peterson wrote a piece in the Center for New York City Affairs on the importance of hiring young adults who have criminal records.

“As important as education and training are, they often fall by the wayside for young people living in poverty, lost in the unending immediate need for funds to survive and support a family. Without a job to provide those funds, inevitably, many young people turn to a shadow economy – and that often leads to a criminal record.  Once that spiral has begun, opportunities for legitimate employment become few and far between. Opportunities for meaningful employment are almost nil…Social service programs can play a critical role helping to break that cycle.” Read more.


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Raise the Age Lobby Day, March 8th, 2016

In the morning of Tuesday, March 8, 2016 our bus of 35 teenagers and advocates drove to Albany to meet over dozens of people dedicated to reforming New York’s criminal justice policies towards our youth. Four exalt graduates ranging from 15 -21 years old arrived by 6:30am to show their dedication to raising the age of criminal responsibility.


As the Internship and Community Development Liaison at exalt I was able to coordinate a graduate engagement project where exalt graduates could learn about lobbying, community organizing, and get involved with a campaign that would directly affect their lives. The Children’s Defense Fund’s Youth Justice Organizer, Cadeem Gibbs led four workshops with our graduates on Raise the Age and the legislative process to prepare for Lobby Day.

As a reminder, the Raise the Age NY Campaign calls for comprehensive reform that would:

  • Raise the overall age of juvenile jurisdiction to 18, which is consistent with other states
  • Ensure no youth who is 16 and 17 year olds is placed in an adult jail or prison
  • Ensure that parents of 16 and 17 years old are notified upon arrest and that these youth are interviewed employing youth-appropriate practices
  • Better address the collateral consequences of court involvement and help youth become successful adults by sealing records and expanding Youthful Offender status to age 21
  • Increase investments in front-end diversion services that keep youth in their communities rather than incarceration
  • Originate as many cases of 16 and 17 year olds in Family court as possible and create Youth Parts in adult court. Apply the Family Court Act to as many cases as possible regardless of which courthouse in which the case is heard


The day launched with a press conference on the steps of the Senate House. Many legislators came to show support for the campaign, including Michael Blake from the Bronx who gave a passionate speech that resonated the hall. There were three young adults who gave their account of being arrested and incarcerated as a 16 or 17 year old and the impact that it had on their lives. Kalief Browder’s brother also spoke about how this change in legislation would have saved his brother’s life.


Exalt graduate interns met with the offices of three Senators to advocate for these reforms. The issues they emphasized in their meetings were the urgency of front-end diversion programs and alternative to incarceration programs that focus on career development; the importance of reducing recidivism; and the inequity and trauma that results from incarcerating youth in adult facilities.

In our second meeting, one of the graduates broke out into tears describing to Senator Diane Savino’s office the impact the exalt youth program had on her life. She urged the senator to invest in communities of color that are underresourced and overpoliced.

In meeting with Senator Martin Golden’s office, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that Golden was on board with Raise the Age – however emphasizing, his opposition to equal treatment for violent offenders. Another graduate explained the importance of alternatives to incarceration, such as investment in education and mentorship by relatable and positive adults. He described his experience at the youth facility at Riker’s Island as a “gladiator boot-camp”.


Despite the fact that the Governor allotted $120 million dollars for these reforms, it appears that they will not be included in the budget session, which will finish at the end of this month. In addition to the allotment of resources, there were seven pages of recommendations as to how localities will be reimbursed for implementing these reforms including to probation. Advocates remain confident that the legislative session may bring more luck as the foundation of support was mostly built last year. The campaign is starting at a different place this year – Republican Senators know about the asks of the campaign and slowly but surely are coming around. The Children’s Defense Fund will continue their targeted advocacy in Rochester (which will occur in two weeks) and in Senator Flanigan’s district in Long Island.

Reflection from the Women’s City Club of New York panel, Youth and the New York State Criminal Justice System – Why Criminal Reform is Needed

by Claire Buonocore, Prospect Hill Foundation Intern

New York State’s Criminal Justice System is one of only two states in the country that allows for anyone over the age of 16 to be convicted as an adult. Last week the Women’s City Club of New York in partnership with the Citizens Committee for Children and the Correctional Association of New York hosted a panel discussion on what this means for New York’s youth. The program was entitled Youth and the New York State Criminal Justice SystemWhy Criminal Reform is Needed. The program hosted a wide range of panelists, including Anjelique Wadlington and Venida Browder, who have both been personally affected by the criminal justice system. Additional panelists included: retired Supervising Family Court Judge of Bronx County, Monica Drinane, the executive director of the Citizens Committee for Children, Jennifer March, Women’s City Club of New York executive director, Jacqueline Ebanks, and the executive director of the Correctional Association of New York, Soffiyah Elijah.

Venida Browder’s son, Kalief Browder, was incarcerated at the age of 16 on charges of robbery. He was accused of stealing a backpack and was sent to Rikers Island for three years, two of which were spent in solitary confinement. According to Mrs. Browder, children at Rikers often face worse abuses than adults; Kalief Browder was starved, beaten, refused the right to a shower for up to two weeks at a time, put in solitary, and once he was released, nothing was done to rehabilitate him back into society. At Rikers you are guilty until proven innocent, Kalief was never found guilty of any crime.

Once Kalief was released he was faced with many obstacles integrating back into the community including issues with finding employment, financial aid, and education. Unfortunately, Kalief’s mental health continued to deteriorate and two years after his release he committed suicide.

Kalief’s story does not stand alone, most children who come out of Rikers have similar tales, suffering from post-traumatic stress and difficulties integrating back into society. The brain isn’t fully formed until the age of 25 and yet at 16, you can be convicted as an adult for minor misdemeanors in New York. Children are our future but if they are seriously physically or mentally harmed by the State, what kind of future are we going to have?

Raise the Age is a bill that aims to increase the age of criminal responsibility; not only will it produce better outcomes for New York’s youth but also has been proven in other states to better protect public safety. According to the Correctional Association of New York, youth who receive age appropriate services are less likely to re-offend.

Last year “raise the age” bill was purposed but not passed.  It was a very complex piece of legislation presented at a time where there were issues with leadership in both houses. The bill was often overshadowed by others and it became extremely difficult to get officials interested. In order for any bill to get passed, it has to be a top legislative priority.

A year has passed since the first bill was proposed and now officials are slightly more informed. Due to a recent heroin epidemic in upstate New York and Long Island that has been impacting a lot of white youth, awareness about raise the age is more prevalent in those communities.  Prior to this year, the issue was happening mainly and disproportionately to children of color. The current bill would raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18; anyone under this age would be tried in Family Court. The entire panel encourages anyone interested in Raise the Age to send letters, emails, or call their local senator and assembly members.

For more on Raise the Age visit www.RaisetheAgeNY.com

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Upcoming Event: Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach Putting Principles into Practice – Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach (the report) was first published in 2012. This webinar will review the emerging science on adolescence, the recommendations of the report, and how practitioners are implementing the recommendations. The report’s recommendation that practitioners take steps to aid the shift toward an evidence-based, developmentally informed approach to juvenile justice is embedded within the Reclaiming Futures model. The presenter will lead a discussion on the advances that are being made in juvenile justice reform. Finally, practical tools and ideas will be explored for implementing a developmentally informed approach to serving justice-involved youth within our communities. It is recommended that participants review “Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Development Approach”, Practitioner Highlights, June 2013, prior to the webinar.
To download the brief and to learn more info on the presenters, click here.


Mass Incarceration’s Toll on Women

“Families throughout the U.S. know that the burdens, pain, and trauma of mass incarceration extend to women and girls in uniquely terrifying ways. The U.S.incarcerates more women than any other nation in the world: more than China, Russia, India, Mexico, and Thailand combined. Like men, they experience rape behind bars, sodomy, solitary confinement, too frequently the denial of adequate medical care, and disparate sentences related to drug offenses. Disproportionately, females behind bars in the U.S. are women and girls of color… Reports that the population of women in prison grew by 832% in the period between 1977-2007–nearly twice the rate as men during that same period. This staggering increase now results in more than one million women incarcerated in prison, jail, or tethered to the criminal justice system as a parolee or probationer in the U.S.” Read more, here.

On Tuesday, February 23, 2016, a congressional briefing will be held on Women, Girls, and Mass Incarceration.Screen shot 2016-02-22 at 12.46.43 PM.png

“Nearly 113,000 women are locked up in state and federal prisons. They make up approximately 7 percent of the country’s prison population. More than half (or 59 percent) of women are in federal prisons for drug offenses. That might seem like a startling statistic until you realize that these women make up only 6.5 percent (or 7,500 women) in the country’s women’s prisons.  In state prisons, women with drug offenses account for 24 percent (or 22,000 women). Combined with the number of women in the federal system, that’s a total of 29,400 women imprisoned for drug crimes. In contrast, 34,000 women are in state prisons for violent crimes. Discussions about rising rates of female incarceration — and the changes needed to curb it — ignore these women. That’s because their stories are messy, complicated and include victims who have been harmed or killed.” To learn more about how current proposals for criminal justice reform fail incarcerated women, read here.

Traveling Exhibit on Mass Incarceration

The National Endowment for the Humanities is funding a traveling exhibit that displays the collective memories on prisoners. “Leading up to the launch of the exhibition, teams of students and people directly affected by incarceration from 20 cities will explore their communities’ experience with this pressing issue,” a press release announcing the project said. “The work of each team will be compiled into a collective, multi-faceted portrait of incarceration, past and present, framed by the key questions these histories raise.” The traveling exhibit will kick off at the New School in New York City in April. Universities involved in the project include Brown, Duke, Rutgers, and the University of Texas. See more here. 

Stop-and-Frisk Still Lingers

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On February 16th, 2016 “the court-appointed monitor overseeing reforms to the New York City Police Department’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices filed his second interim report on the steps taken to date to implement the court’s orders in the Center for Constitutional Rights’ landmark case, Floyd v. City of New York. While the number of stops the department conducts continues to decrease, the percentages of Black and Latino New Yorkers being stopped remain disproportionately high. The monitor reports that there are still a substantial number of unconstitutional stops, and that supervisors are failing to catch and flag them. He begins his report writing that “Ultimately, this a challenge of leadership, particularly at the levels that interact most directly with the officers engaged in enforcement—sergeants, lieutenants, captains, precinct and unit commanders.” We are well aware that Stop-and-Frisk is a policy that impacts New York’s youth; to learn more, click here for updates from the Center for Constitutional Rights. To read about NYPD’s faulty data collection around Stop-and-Frisk, click here.

“Another critical piece of the effort to reform the police department is the court-ordered Joint Remedial Process (JRP), which is intended to solicit substantive input from directly-affected communities as well as other stakeholders on further reforms to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. The court-appointed facilitator for the JRP has now convened 40 focus groups in different locations, with different populations, including youth of color, LGBTQ youth, homeless people, and recently incarcerated people. The information collected will be combined with other input to shape recommendations for further reforms.” To learn more about the Joint Remedial Process, see here.

The New York Times recently published an article, “A Black Officer’s Fight Against the NYPD,” which reveals some of the alarming but unsurprising policies used by the NYPD  that reinforce the racial divide and mistrust of police in communities of color.”Between 2011 and 2013, the publicity surrounding the [Floyd vs. City of New York] prompted the department to all but abandon the tactic — the number of annual stops fell by more than two-thirds over two years — but, according to Raymond and others, the pressure to arrest people for minor offenses has not let up. ‘‘Every time I read the paper, I thought, Why do they think the problem is stop-and-frisk?’’ Raymond says. ‘‘Although stop-and-frisk is unlawful, and it’s annoying, you’re not going to not get a job because you’ve been stopped and frisked,’’ he says. ‘‘You’re going to get denied a job because you have a record.’’

“In August 2015, Raymond joined 11 other police officers in filing a class-action suit on behalf of minority officers throughout the force. The suit centers on what they claim is one of the fundamental policies of the New York Police Department: requiring officers to meet fixed numerical goals for arrests and court summonses each month. In Raymond’s mind, quota-based policing lies at the root of almost everything racially discriminatory about policing in New York. Yet the department has repeatedly told the public that quotas don’t exist.” To read this insightful piece into the divide in the police department (and in the communities they serve) caused by racially discriminatory practices, see here.

Investigation into New York’s Family Court

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In a recent report for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, Abigail Kramer discusses her findings from a journalistic investigation into New York’s Family Court system. To read the Child Welfare Watch Special Report, click here. Pro Publica interviewed Kramer regarding her report. To view this interview, click here.

Close Rikers for Kalief Browder

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“The speaker of the New York City Council shook up the political landscape this week when she announced a slate of reforms aimed at reducing the population at Rikers Island in order to realize the “dream” of shutting down the city’s infamous jail complex. The proposal by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, which included setting up a commission headed by the state’s former chief judge, drew the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while Mayor Bill de Blasio called it “noble” but “very difficult.”’ The Marshall Project published an interview with Kalief’s mother, Venida Browder on this topic. Read it here.

A Personal Appeal to End Solitary Confinement

Screen shot 2016-02-22 at 3.02.08 PM.pngKalief was not the first and has not been the last person to be placed in long-term solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Candie Hailey describes in this article, her experience in solitary confinement. “Six weeks after her arrival at Rikers Island, an argument over who should clean a jailhouse shower sent Candie Hailey to solitary confinement – known as “the bing.” It was the first time, but it would not be the last. A month later, records show, she cursed and spit at a guard and resisted when she was put in a hold. Ninety-five days in the bing. She later got 70 days for cursing at an officer, splashing the guard with toilet water and refusing to stop. Among other infractions: fighting (40 days), disrespect of staff (30 days) and blocking her cell window (15 days). Of her first 29 months in jail, Hailey served about 27 alone in a 6-by-10-foot cell, with a bed, a toilet and a few books to pass the time. When she did go outside, it was just for one hour in 24. And she had yet to be tried for any crime, let alone convicted. To read more, see here.


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A Compelling Argument for Restorative Justice and Raise the Age

We are aware of the collateral consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline yet few institutional changes have been made to address this issue. While the number of school suspensions have dropped since 2008, black and latino students are still over-represented in this data. Read this article from the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange on the story of Youngmichael as an argument for restorative justice, in light of the absence of legislation that raises the age of criminal responsibility.

A Community Youth Court for Brownsville?

Despite the number of very public incidents of violence involving youth, for the past six years advocates still face opposition to building a community court in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The Redhook Community Court model has seen blazing success — “It reduced recidivism among young people by 20 percent while curbing incarceration, a saving of real money and future misery.” Jonathan Lippman, who retired last month as the state’s chief judge and fought for the Brownsville court year after year. “There are some public policy matters where there is a reasonable debate. This is not one of them. There is no conceivable argument that I think can be made to not put this revolutionary concept, proven without a doubt, into place.” According to this New York Times article, “One person stands in the way: Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, who effectively has a veto over the site of the proposed courthouse.”

Source: http://redhookjusticenews.blogspot.com/2014/12/red-hook-youth-court-fall-recognition.html

Lawyers’ Committee Launches National Initiative to Eliminate Barriers Faced by Students with Criminal Histories


On January 28th, 2016 “the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee) launched a national initiative to eliminate barriers to educational opportunity for applicants who have been stopped, detained or arrested by police.  The first phase of the initiative seeks information from 17 colleges and universities that include inquiries on their applications regarding contact with the criminal justice system, including arrests that did not lead to conviction, sealed or expunged youthful offender records, or pardoned records. The Lawyers’ Committee’s preliminary review of the application process utilized by colleges and universities revealed that the information sought by the schools had no legitimate educational justification and no bearing on whether a student would succeed in the classroom. Rejecting or evaluating college applicants based solely on information regarding stops, detentions or other contact with the criminal justice system has a disproportionate impact on African-American boys and men, who are more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped, detained and arrested by police. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that black males were imprisoned at a rate six and a half times higher than white males.” To read more and see the list of 17 schools guilty of this discrimination, click here.

Once Again, the Supreme Court States Juveniles are Different

On January 25th, 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that people who were sentenced to mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole as juveniles have the right to seek parole. Over the last decade, Supreme Court rulings have confirmed that it is morally and constitutionally wrong to “equate offenses committed by emotionally undeveloped adolescents with crimes carried out by adults.” Read more from this New York Times Op-Ed, here.

Cuomo’s Criminal Justice Reforms

In Cuomo’s State of the State, the Governor announced his youth justice reform plans. Many advocates are skeptical of his plans and there is a clear need for more visibility. According to the Executive Budget for FY 2017 “Last year, the Governor issued an Executive Order to establish a facility to house 16- and 17-year old youth who are in the State’s correctional system. This action will relocate certain juvenile offenders from adult prison facilities into an age-appropriate alternative. The Governor also offered pardons to persons convicted of non-violent crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 years old, and who have since lived crime-free for 10 or more years, giving an opportunity for over 10,000 people to escape the limitations of a criminal record and become productive citizens.” Cuomo allocated $110 million over a 5 year period, including a reimbursement plan. The Children’s Defense Fund is currently working on a side by side analysis of the proposed legislation included in the budget, which I will feature in this blog when it becomes available.

His reforms also include a plan to reform the state’s bail system that severly impacts a youth’s ability to stay free. While it has not been fully fleshed out yet, Cuomo’s proposal dictates that judges would use a scientific assessment tool to determine an individual’s “risk to public safety” while setting bail. “The plan was criticized by public defenders and criminal justice reform groups as a step in the wrong direction. Groups like Legal Aid Society are concerned adding ‘dangerousness’ to a judge’s evaluation of an individual could lead to preemptive detention and institutionalized racism.” Read more, here. 

While Our Government Debates Legislation, Abuses in New York State Prisons Continue

“The Justice Department hauled New York City into court last year when it failed to curb the wanton brutality that has long been a hallmark among guards at the Rikers Island jail complex. The same culture of violence infests the sprawling state prison system, where guards batter inmates for sport knowing that their union will protect their jobs and that district attorneys in small towns dominated by prisons will not prosecute them.” Read more from this New York Times Op-Ed.

In Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York “Inmates describe being ambushed by guards and beaten, taunted with racial slurs, and kept out of sight, in solitary confinement, until the injuries inflicted on them have healed enough to avoid arousing suspicion. Leonard Strickland was a prisoner with schizophrenia who got into an argument with guards, and ended up dead. In a security video obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Strickland is seen in handcuffs, barely conscious and being dragged along the floor by officers, while a prison nurse standing close by does nothing.” The 2010 case fits a troubling pattern of savage beatings by corrections officers at prisons across New York State and a department that rarely holds anyone accountable, issues that have been highlighted in a series of articles over the past year by The Times and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization. Read more.  This Times Union article, reports more abuses.

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Happy New Year!

2015 Marks the Beginning of the End of the Era of Mass Incarceration

Recent Policy.Mic article highlights the ways in which we have seen the beginning to the end of mass incarceration in 2015. The writer argues that in this past year year “the Black Lives Matter movement matured into a powerful social movement capable of unilaterally reshaping the policy platforms of presidential candidates. It was this year President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. It was this year lawmakers in Congress unveiled bipartisan legislation  to begin unraveling the harsh sentencing practices developed over the course of the late 20th century that played an essential role in making the United States the most aggressive incarcerator in the world. It was this year that conservative megabillionaires joined forces with hardcore leftists in calling for a fundamental change to the status quo on incarceration”.  To read how these significant changes are leading to “a sea of change in incarceration policy”, click here.

The End to Solitary Confinement?

As a result of a New York Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over the treatment of inmates in solitary confinement in the prisons, New York has agreed to a $62 million settlement to overhaul the system. “The changes are expected to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement by at least a quarter and usher in a range of reforms, including limiting the time served to three months in most cases and providing the prisoners with certain privileges, like monthly phone calls and group recreation”. To read more about the specifics of the agreement, see this New York Times article.


(Source: Solitary Watch)

But as Alphonso B. David, Governor Cuomo’s chief counsel stated in the previous article, this settlement agreement, (which still needs to be approved by Judge Scheindlin) is symbolic – there is potential that it will have a significant impact  on the prison system but not a guarantee. Advocates to end the use of solitary confinement through significant and direct reform measures include the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).  A recent Solitary Watch article explains that “the largely celebratory tone of the announcements and press coverage may lead all of the people in long-term solitary to mistakenly expect that their ordeals will soon be over, and the public to believe that the struggle to end prolonged prison isolation in New York has now been won…there is acknowledgement that the changes the settlement brings are incremental changes. While the agreement begins to address the underlying paradigm of punishment and control through isolation that has been liberally practiced in New York for decades, it does not destroy or replace it. And even when all its provisions are implemented, thousands of people are likely to remain in solitary, some for years or decades”.

If you would like to get involved and learn more about upcoming CAIC activities, click here.


Raise the Age Updates

With a week left in 2015, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order that “directed the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to remove minors from adult prisons and put them in their own special facilities, an action he promised to take after his Raise the Age proposal did not pass during the legislative session”. As a result,”medium security Hudson Correctional Facility in Columbia County will be transformed to house minors, with the first group of young inmates moving in by August of next year. They will include all medium and minimum security males and all female inmates…Maximum security classified male youth inmates will be housed in a separate juvenile unit at the Coxsackie Correctional Facility”. To view the actual executive order and read more details, see here.

Hudson Correctional Facility (HCL), Winter 2011(Hudson Correctional Facility, Source: Prisonpublicmemory.us)

Cuomo also announced that he would “pardon anyone who was found guilty of a nonviolent felony or misdemeanor that was committed while they were 16 or 17, provided they have spent at least a decade without any additional convictions”. The pardons however would not expunge a person’s criminal record but will provide “legal relief” for any negative collateral consequences of a conviction. Read more.

Despite Cuomo’s proactive approach to juvenile justice, real reform to raise the age of criminal responsibility requires action on the part our Legislature.  The Governor should not be exempt from taking responsibility for his part in the continuation of practices that criminalize our youth, however. According to Politico, in a press release, “the Correctional Association said it was “disappointed” and “dismayed” at Cuomo’s decision to remove minors from the state’s prison system but to keep them under the supervision of the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision”.

The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision is the subject of an investigation into the internal corruption in their investigation unit. According to this Times-Union article, “the internal affairs unit that investigates misconduct and abuse in state prisons was for years mired in cover-ups, nepotism and unbridled sexual harassment, and investigators who questioned or reported the problems faced threats of retaliation, including being returned to their prison-guard jobs and marked as “rats”.

“The allegations are outlined in court records and investigative reports gathered by the office of state Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott, and were buttressed by interviews the Times Union conducted over the past year with current and former employees at the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.”

Cuomo Proposes Higher-Education Initiative in NY Prisons

(Albert C. Wagner Correctional Facility, Source: Princetoninfo.com)

Governor Cuomo plans on announcing his new set of justice proposals at the upcoming State of the State address. These proposals include:

  • expand higher education programs in prison by a third
  • improve programs so that credits acquired in prison can be transferred to outside colleges
  • an agreement to stop making some juvenile criminal records available for purchase
  • allocate an additional $50 million to an existing jobs program for at-risk youth, as well as more money to alternative to incarceration programs

Read more about Cuomo’s higher education initiative in this New York Times article.


J-RIP Expanded Despite Lack of Success

The New York Police Department and City Council have continued to fund and expand the Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program, which aims to stop robberies before they happen by intervening in the lives of some youth offenders. This program has been found to have no effect on stopping robberies however, as shown in a report that “studied arrest patterns over several years among teenagers in the program and comparable teens outside of it”. The NYPD insist that the program’s value lies in its ability to improve police-community relations. Learn more, here.


Historic Settlement Overhauls Solitary Confinement in New York

December 16, 2015 —  – The New York Civil Liberties Union and New York State today announced a settlement agreement that will comprehensively overhaul solitary confinement in New York State — one of the largest prison systems in the country — and provide a framework for ending the state’s overreliance on extreme isolation. The agreement will result in the end of traditional solitary confinement for more than 1,100 people — one-quarter of the current solitary population — who will either be placed in alternative units or provided with less isolating, more rehabilitative conditions. The settlement is expected to reduce the solitary population even further by eliminating solitary confinement as punishment for all minor violations and limiting the duration of most solitary sentences, and it will abolish several of solitary’s most dehumanizing features altogether.

“New York State has recognized that solitary confinement is not only inhumane but detrimental to public safety and has committed to changing the culture of solitary within state prisons,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “No prison system of this size has ever taken on such sweeping and comprehensive reforms to solitary confinement at one time. Today marks the end of the era where incarcerated New Yorkers are simply thrown into the box to be forgotten under torturous conditions as a punishment of first resort, and we hope this historic agreement will provide a framework for ending the abuse of solitary confinement in New York State.”

The agreement comes as a result of the 2012 class-action lawsuit, Peoples v. Fischer, brought by the NYCLU with pro bono co-counsel Morrison & Foerster and co-counsel Professor Alexander Reinert of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, that challenged the system-wide policies and practices governing solitary confinement in New York State prisons. Solitary confinement is the most extreme form of punishment used in the United States outside of the death penalty and causes severe trauma, while also being linked to higher rates of recidivism and a reduction in public safety. The NYCLU’s 2012 report “Boxed In” showed that state prisons doled out thousands of extreme isolation sentences every year, with some prisoners serving terms of years or even decades in isolation. In 2014, the NYCLU and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision reached an “interim” settlement agreement under Peoples that provided immediate protections to those most vulnerable to solitary’s most devastating effects, including youth, pregnant women and developmentally disabled prisoners, and committed the NYCLU and the state to working toward a global settlement agreement. The agreement announced today is the result of nearly two years of additional negotiations since the interim agreement, and will result in sweeping, systemic changes benefitting all incarcerated individuals, corrections staff and all New Yorkers.

“Solitary confinement is mental torture that I wouldn’t want anyone to experience,” said lead plaintiff Leroy Peoples, who served 780 consecutive days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents. “A major milestone has been accomplished today.”

“It isn’t just the people in the box who have been at risk,” said Sandy Peoples, Leroy Peoples’s wife. “These reforms are important for the families of incarcerated people.”

Under the agreement, the state commits itself to (1) reducing solitary, (2) limiting the length of solitary sentences and (3) increasing rehabilitative features in solitary and abolishing its most dehumanizing aspects. The agreement, which is expected to cost $62 million and is subject to court approval, contains the following major provisions, which must be implemented within the next three years and will be followed by a two-year monitoring period:

  • Removes more than 1,100 people from traditional solitary conditions and either moves them into rehabilitative units with common spaces and group programming or moves them to into other less isolating disciplinary units. These changes are designed to impact people trapped in solitary with the longest sentences, people with developmental disabilities, people in need of drug therapy or more comprehensive behavioral therapy, juveniles, and people who would otherwise be released directly from solitary to the street.
  • Restricts the circumstances that solitary can be imposed as punishment. Nearly half (42) of the 87 rule violations punishable by solitary – including drug use and drug possession — no longer allow solitary sentences for one-time violations. Petty violations — 23 out of the 87 violations – are no longer eligible for solitary confinement sanctions at all.
  • Requires de-escalation training of over 20,000 of Department of Corrections and Community Supervision personnel on how to diffuse situations before solitary becomes a consideration.
  • Imposes a maximum sentence for solitary confinement of three months for all but a handful of first-time violations such as assault and escape, and a maximum sentence of 30 days for almost all first-time non-violent violations.
  • Grants all people in solitary automatic early release for good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programming.
  • Provides for basic human needs for people in solitary, including access to telephone calls, reading materials and a shower curtain in shared cells, and abolishes the use of serving inedible food (the “loaf”) as a form of starvation punishment.
  • Commits the state to spend approximately $62 million on implementing terms of the settlement, including the conversion of traditional solitary blocks into more rehabilitative spaces with group dayrooms and outdoor space.
  • Establishes a robust monitoring regime to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement, including quarterly reporting to the public.

“Today is a watershed moment, as New York moves beyond just shielding the most vulnerable and sympathetic from solitary and starts to address more difficult and fundamental issues that have allowed such a devastating and unsafe practice to become so common for so long,” said Taylor Pendergrass, lead counsel and NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney. “By addressing the use of solitary at nearly every level, this agreement puts New York on the path toward a system that embraces the reality that respecting human dignity and improving public safety are not in conflict, but are mutually reinforcing goals.”

A federal study released in December 2014 found that states that reformed solitary confinement found no decrease in safety inside the prisons, and that in some state prison systems, like Colorado, safety improved as fewer prisoners were subjected to solitary.

“For more than 100 years, it has been shown that extreme isolation causes serious harm while accomplishing little if any of the goals of a rational corrections system,” said co-counsel Alex Reinert, a law professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “This settlement puts New York on the right path, one joined by an increasing number of states and localities.”

“To their credit, New York officials recognized the vast overuse of solitary confinement in the corrections system and came to the table with an appetite for reform,” said Jennifer K. Brown, co-counsel and Senior pro bono counsel, Morrison & Foerster. “Our firm was honored to play a part in the negotiations that led to this historic pact and will be vigilant with our co-counsel in monitoring the implementation and impact of this agreement. We commend New York corrections leaders for tackling this issue head-on and committing to the hard and complicated work necessary to reduce solitary – work that will improve everyone’s safety, in and outside prison, in the long run.”

“I’m thankful that the problems of solitary confinement are finally being taken so seriously,” said plaintiff Dewayne Richardson, who was sentenced to 1,095 days in isolation for nonviolent behavior after prison officials determined he filed false legal documents. “And with these changes in place, I hope that people like me will now have a better chance at being productive citizens after we leave the system.”

“For the months that I was locked up and forgotten about in solitary, I have been working with the NYCLU to bring about today’s reforms,” said plaintiff Tonja Fenton, who was given three solitary sentences for non-violent conduct. “I hope that today New York can finally begin to find its way out of the box.”

In addition to Pendergrass, NYCLU staff who have worked on the case include Christopher Dunn and Philip Desgranges.

The Morrison & Foerster team, led by David Fioccola and Jennifer Brown, also includes Kayvan Sadeghi, Daniel Matza-Brown and Adam Hunt.

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