Board of Corrections to contemplate restrictions on mail in city jails as BK pols, public defenders voice opposition • Brooklyn Paper

The city’s Board of Corrections has fashioned a committee to discover the results of a proposal that might successfully ban folks held in city jails from receiving bodily mail and packages, it introduced at a Jan. 10 assembly. 

Three members of the board, which oversees and screens city jails and the Division of Corrections, will “focus on the impact of the proposed variances on the incarcerated population,” mentioned BOC chair Dwayne C. Sampson. The committee — made up of BOC members Jacqueline Sherman, Jacqueline Pitts, and Joseph Ramos — will work to handle the considerations of the board and of the overall public earlier than the following BOC assembly on Feb. 14, in accordance to Sampson. 

“It will work collaboratively with department leadership to develop conditions that address both contraband entry concerns and the needs of incarcerated individuals to maintain connections to their family and community,” Sampson continued. 

Breaking down the variances — and the opposition

Late final 12 months, the Division of Corrections requested variances — or modifications to — current guidelines relating to the receipt of mail and packages. Claiming letters typically include medicine like fentanyl, the DOC desires all mail to be despatched to a third-party facility, the place it will be opened and scanned. Digital copies of letters, drawings, and different mail would then be despatched to the recipient on a pill supplied by the jail.

A second variance requested on the identical time would require that each one packages be mailed by the shop or retailer they had been bought at — not by a pal or member of the family. If a member of the family wished to ship books bought at Barnes and Noble, for instance, they’d have to have workers on the retailer itself package deal and ship the books themselves. 

Tons of of folks have overdosed on medicine in city jails since January 2021, NY1 reported final 12 months, and 9 folks have died. 

rikers island jail complex - board of corrections is contemplating mail restrictions
Most of the city’s incarcerated inhabitants is held on Rikers Island, the place lots of of folks have overdosed in the previous few years. DOC officers say the variances would assist preserve fentanyl and different medicine out of the power. AP Picture/Seth Wenig, File

The typical each day inhabitants of New York City’s jail system was about 5,700 in the primary quarter of Fiscal Yr 2023, in accordance to DOC data. About 22% of these held in jail had been arraigned in Brooklyn, and most are being held in varied services on Rikers Island – jails throughout the boroughs have closed as half of former mayor Invoice de Blasio’s plan to completely shut Rikers Island and change it with 4 smaller borough-based jails. Demolition and building of new services is underway.

Nineteen folks died on Rikers Island in 2022 — most by suicide. A federal monitor appointed to supervise situations on Rikers in October reported that the jail is “dangerously unsafe,” noting that fights between folks in custody and violent use of drive by DOC officers is frequent. Persistent workers shortages have exacerbated points. As of Nov. 2022, slashings and stabbings had been down in city jails in contrast to Jan. 2022, in accordance to DOC data, however detainee fights and use of drive had been larger. 

The mail variance requests have raised alarm bells for incarcerated folks, their family members, legal professionals, and elected officers, who fear in regards to the impression they might have on incarcerated folks. Prior to the Jan. 10 assembly, Brooklyn Defender Companies penned a letter to the BOC expressing their opposition to the variances.

Signed by S. Lucas Marquez, the Affiliate Director of BDS’ Civil Rights & Regulation Reform division, the letter says the variances may minimize off communication between incarcerated folks and their households and family members and negatively impression the psychological and emotional well being of folks in jail.

Individuals typically cling bodily letters and drawings on the partitions of their cells, Marquez wrote, one thing that would not be finished with digital mail. Scanned letters are sometimes blurry and unreadable, she mentioned, and require tablets to be learn — however tablets will not be but accessible in city jails, and in the event that they break or are confiscated, recipients wouldn’t give you the chance to entry their mail. 

“While we are disappointed that the Board did not outright deny this variance, we believe that if the committee listens to incarcerated people and their loved ones and researches the effects of these policies, they will come to the logical conclusion that this proposal is harmful and must be denied,” Marquez mentioned in a press release. “Across the country, similar mail-scanning policies have failed to reduce drug use and overdoses, while further alienating people from their loved ones.”

Moreover, Marquez added, although DOC claims mail and packages are a big supply of medicine in city jails, there’s little proof past anecdotes to again up the declare — however loads of proof that corrections officers and different DOC staff commonly smuggle medicine into the services. 

department of corrections commissioner louis molina at jail hearing
Division of Corrections Commissioner Louis A. Molina mentioned there are various sources of medicine in city jails — together with the mail — and disputed allegations that medicine are principally introduced in by DOC staff. John McCarten/NYC Council Media Unit

In the course of the Jan. 10 assembly, BOC board member Robert Cohen requested DOC Commissioner Louis A. Molina if the division has thought of screening staff for medicine as they enter services, citing statistics that DOC staff and officers are accountable for bringing most medicine into city jails.

“I just want to correct the categorization of the majority of stuff coming in … over the last six years, we have unfortunately had 25 correction officers, uniformed staff, that were arrested for bringing in contraband,” Molina mentioned. “But that’s since 2017, and 25 is not a majority of the thousands of people that work at the Department of Corrections. We [intercepted] more than 532 contraband narcotics items coming in through the mail. Of that 530 or so items, 153 were directly connected to having fentanyl. There are a number of what I would call streams of possibilities where narcotics can come into our facilities … I do not believe that the majority of contraband narcotics coming into our facilities is a uniformed or non-uniformed contractor or volunteer problem. A lot of this stuff is coming in through the mail as well.” 

Elected officers step in 

The day earlier than the listening to, Brooklyn Councilmember Crystal Hudson partnered with Bronx rep Carlina Rivera to ship a letter opposing the variances to the BOC. The missive was signed by 16 different councilmembers — together with Brooklyn reps Lincoln Restler, Jennifer Gutiérrez, Alexa Avilés, Shahana Hanif, and Rita Joseph. 

The proposed variances do nothing to address the issues the Board of Correction is seeking to remedy,” Hudson mentioned in a press release. “Rather than addressing the rot in their ranks, the Board is debating changes to strip incarcerated New Yorkers of their rights and open the door for private enterprise to take advantage of those who are incarcerated and their loved ones.”

Hudson additionally plans to introduce a council decision opposing the variances on the City Council Acknowledged Assembly on Jan. 16. 

jennifer gutiérrez at rikers jail presser
A quantity of New York City Councilmembers — together with north Brooklyn’s Jennifer Gutiérrez — signed onto the letter opposing the variances. Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

Hudson isn’t the one pol to take problem with the position of a non-public firm in the plan. In a Jan. 6 letter opposing the variances, City Comptroller Brad Lander reminded DOC that Securus Applied sciences, the corporate offering the tablets, which DOC has labored with in the previous, has allegedly illegally recorded telephone calls between folks in detention and their legal professionals. Scanned written correspondence is much more doubtless to be learn and shared, Lander mentioned.

The comptroller additionally accused DOC of preserving the contracting course of between DOC and Secarus secret, and never sharing potential prices with stakeholders.

“These changes would likely come with costs to the city, for the people in custody using tablet services, and for loved ones on the outside sending packages,” Lander mentioned. “Currently, however, neither my office nor the Board knows that those costs would be, since we have not been provided with that information.”

A DOC spox mentioned drug contraband being smuggled into jails spiked through the pandemic, when in-person visits had been suspended. A rise in Tactical Search Operations has helped get well extra medicine and weapons in jails, in accordance to the division.

“Keeping our staff and individuals in our custody safe is paramount, and one of the key ways we can do that is by eradicating contraband in our jails,” the spokesperson mentioned. “We have zero tolerance for anyone smuggling contraband into our facilities, and that includes our staff, contracted providers, and visitors. Scanning mail onto tablets will not only keep drugs out of our jails, but will also likely increase the efficiency of mail processing.” 

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