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Public to Review Rules for Visits and Solitary Confinement in City Jails

By Danielle Tcholakian | September 16, 2015 6:10pm
 Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte appeared at a Board of Corrections meeting on July 14, 2015.
Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte appeared at a Board of Corrections meeting on July 14, 2015.
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DNAinfo/Rosa Goldensohn

CIVIC CENTER — Changes to rules governing when jail inmates can hug loved ones during visits and how long they can be kept in solitary confinement are up for public review ahead of a hearing scheduled for Oct. 16.

The changes were prompted by a request Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte made earlier this year. Ponte argued that visits needed to be limited in response to an increase in stabbings and slashings, believed to be a result of contraband weapons and drugs being smuggled into city jails.

He also said DOC ought to have flexibility to be able to hold inmates in solitary confinement longer than the restrictions allow. The United Nations has said that holding inmates in solitary confinement for longer than 15 days constitutes torture.

The Board of Correction, a body that oversees the city's Department of Correction, agreed to consider Ponte's proposed changes earlier this summer, and released its version of the changes, outlined below, on Sept. 11.

Under the Board of Correction's proposed changes, the new rules relating to visits would:

► Allow inmates a brief embrace and kiss at the beginning and ending of a visit from a friend or loved one. They would also be allowed to hold children under the age of 9 and hold hands with family members throughout the visit, with the understanding that a family structures are not limited to blood relations, marriage or other legal bonds. This rule brings the city in line with the state's definition of "permitted contact" between visitors and inmates.

► Add preserving "good order" as a valid reason to block a visit to an inmate that posed a serious threat to safety or security. The DOC already has the power to block visits from people based on probation or parole status, whether they've been released from jail in the past year, or whether they have pending criminal charges involving drugs, weapons, gang activity or violation of jail rules.

► Require the DOC to make alternative arrangements for non-contact visits if a contact visit is denied.

► Allow people to appeal visit denials to DOC and require DOC to issue a written decision within 14 business days of the appeal.

► Allow visitors whose appeals are denied to appeal to the board, which then has 14 business days to issue a written decision, unless they immediately notify DOC and the appealing party of a good reason that they need 10 additional business days.

The rules would also affect inmates' access to packages and the way some inmates are housed by:

► Only allowing packages from approved vendors.

► Giving DOC three days rather than 48 hours to deliver packages to inmates.

► Codifying a long-standing policy that allows adolescents, inmates ages 18 to 21 and pregnant inmates to be kept together.

► Mandating in-cell recreation for inmates kept in contagious disease units, and require the DOC provide inmates with daily access to magazines, books and newspapers in the six languages most commonly spoken by inmates.

Additional changes affect the rules governing "enhanced supervised housing" (ESH), the new alternative to solitary confinement for violent inmates.

► DOC would not have to hold a second hearing when putting inmates back in ESH within 45 days of them being placed elsewhere, as long as the inmate’s ESH status and restrictions were approved at an earlier hearing.

► Inmates must get written notice explaining why they’re being returned to ESH.

► When they are returned, their ESH status must be reviewed within 45 days of the last status review.

The rules being changed were passed by the board in January — in particular, the requirement of a seven-day break from solitary confinement after 30 days and a restriction limiting the number of days inmates can be kept in solitary to a total of 60 within a six-month period.

The changes to the new solitary confinement policies would:

► Allow DOC to keep inmates who assault other inmates or staff while in solitary or during the required seven-day break more than 30 days without the required seven days of respite or be return them to solitary before the full seven days are up.

► In order for the seven-day requirement or 30-day limit to be lifted, however, a waiver must be explained and documented in writing, then approved in writing by the Chief of Department with an explanation of why the waiver is necessary to ensure the safety of other inmates and DOC staff, with a copy of the Chief’s approval immediately sent to the board.

► Waivers revoking the right to seven days out of solitary can only be issued three times in any four-month period.

► Inmates can be held in solitary confinement for more than 60 days total within a six-month period if continued acts of violence persist while in solitary, as long as the Chief of Department approves extending the inmate’s confinement with a written explanation for why the extension is necessary, and that document must be sent to the board.

► Only acts that would qualify an inmate for pre-hearing detention — things like stabbing, slashing, assault resulting in death or serious injury, sexual assault and escape or attempted escape — can be used to justify a waiver.

► All waivers would expire after 30 days.

► Daily mental health check-ins, documented in writing, would be required for inmates kept in solitarily longer that 30 consecutive days or more than 60 days total in a six-month period.

Notably, one rules overrides all of these waiver requirements:

► Inmates can be placed in solitary confinement for 60 consecutive days for a single infraction, without a seven-day break in the middle, if that infraction seriously injures a DOC employee.

The board also wrote into the rules a requirement that DOC issue a report no later than Nov. 1, 2016 on their efforts to reduce violence committed by inmates in solitary confinement that aren’t just keeping inmates in solitary confinement for longer periods.

A 22-page document outlining the changes can be downloaded here.

The hearing on the changes is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Oct. 16 in the auditorium on the ground floor at 455 First Ave. in Manhattan. Anyone who wants to speak at the hearing can call 212-669-7900 or show up to sign up in person before 1 p.m. the day of the hearing.

Public comment and testimony can also be submitted by close of business on Oct. 16 through the NYC rules website, or by sending an email to BOC@BOC.nyc.gov or a fax to 212-669-7980. Comments can also be sent by mail to the Board of Correction at 1 Centre St. Room 2213, New York, NY 10007.