Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to overhauling Rikers Island in an attempt to make it a safer and more humane place. His administration unveiled a sweeping plan for the city's jail system earlier this year and part of that plan was approved by the city's Board of Correction tonight, as NY1's Courtney Gross reports.
It was not a speedy process, but nine months after the mayor and his correction commissioner proposed sweeping changes to make Rikers Island safer, the de Blasio administration got only some of that plan approved by the agency overseeing city jails.
"I think it's a compromise like everything else we don't get everything we want," said Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte.
On Wednesday, the city Board of Correction approved changes to the island's visitation policy and to how the city uses solitary confinement.
The new visitation policy will mean visitors will now be restricted to only a brief embrace with an inmate at the start and end of a visit. They will be allowed to hold hands across a small partition. Inmates will also be allowed to hold children 14 years old and younger.
Initially, the department wanted to potentially restrict visits from people who had a criminal record and to conduct background investigations on those visiting the jail. That part of the policy was rejected by the board.
"We don't get background information, we don't get criminal records we just can't do that," Commissioner Ponte said.
"We came up with something that was much better than what the city was asking us for," said Board of Correction member Bobby Cohen. "The city was asking us to do essentially racial profiling to deny access to visits based upon their criminal record."
Outside of Rikers, the new policy got mixed reviews from the visitors themselves.
"They are cut off from all contact pretty much except the phone," one visitor said. "The visit is what they look forward to."
"There is a lot of people that transport drugs, weapons that sort of stuff," said another. "I think it is dangerous."
The board is also going to allow the department to keep violent inmates who seriously assault correction staff in solitary confinement for longer — perhaps as long as 60 days.
The move comes just months after the board had approved limits to solitary confinement to 30 days at a time.
All of these changes will take effect relatively quickly — sometime in January.