CITY HALL — Calling Rikers Island a "dehumanizing environment," Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a series of fixes Thursday he said would change the atmosphere of "neglect" and reduce violence at the troubled jail.
Changes coming to the jail include separate housing units for both the most violent inmates and transgender inmates, hundreds of new cameras, a reduction in punitive segregation and millions more dollars to treat the 40 percent suffering from mental illness in the jail.
"In the past so many inmates ended their time at Rikers more broken then when they came in," the mayor said during an hourlong press conference with Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte.
"The notion of rehabilitation and preventing repeat offenders got lost along the way in a system that is broken."
The problems at Rikers have been well documented in recent months.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said adolescents at the facility suffered a "systematic culture of violence" instituted by the guards who faced no discipline for the abuse they doled out.
A Department of Investigation report found that one of its undercover agents was able to smuggle weapons and drugs past checkpoints on six separate occasions.
The contract of a company providing healthcare for inmates on the island was renewed even after investigations following four deaths called on the provider to change its practices.
Another embarrassing report from Comptroller Scott Stringer found that violence at the jail was up despite increased spending and a reduction in inmate population.
De Blasio said the jail had an attitude that made the horrible conditions inevitable and indomitable.
"This is an institution that deeply needs a culture change," he said.
He added that he had "too much faith" things had been handled properly at the jail, he was surprised at the level of neglect and issues at the prison rarely rose to a high level of public discourse discourse even during his campaign for mayor.
"For most people, it's an abstraction, literally isolated from the rest of the city," de Blasio said about the jail.
The Department of Correction is the city agency that has "suffered the most neglect and needs the most support," said the mayor.
To change things, $32.5 million is being dedicated to mental health and anti-violence initiatives at the jail such as to create special units to treat the most mentally ill inmates.
Another $15 million is being spent to add 7,800 cameras, three times the current number and including 400 at the adolescent facility.
Punitive segregation for adolescents is being eliminated and the maximum amount of time for other inmates is being reduced to 30 days from 90 days.
Commissioner Ponte said a special unit for the most violent and dangerous inmates is necessary because 2.2 percent of prisoners are responsible for a large chunk of of violence at the jail.
"Without a safe environment nothing effectively works in any correctional system," said Ponte, who added that 90 percent of the jail's leadership structure has been replaced since he started in April.
Ponte said some of the changes in the adolescent facility have already reduced inmate fights, assaults on staff and use of force.
The mayor said he plans to visit the jail on Dec. 18 to see how some of the changes are working to remedy "years of neglect" and view the continuing problems.
De Blasio elevated fixing the terrible conditions at the jail to one of his administration's top priorities and virtually guaranteed that the problems there would finally be corrected.