Interview with NYC Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte

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Interview with Joseph Ponte, Commissioner New York City Corrections

Part One of Two

New York City Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte is a small town guy in the big city, who is changing the culture at the problem-plagued Rikers Island complex that’s been the topic of reports of mismanagement of both prisoners and correction officers. The Commissioner visited the offices of Our Time Press last Thursday, September 29 to address a wide-range of topics and issues.

Making the impossible, possible

One of the commissioner’s most immediate and impactful reforms was the elimination of punitive segregation for 16- and 17-year-olds, something people have been requesting for years. He had not been in the job for a year and he got it done. He then went on to 18-year-olds and he has effectively eliminated it for 19- to 21-year-olds. The reforms are having an immediate impact on communities

We asked Ponte how does that happen? How does the impossible became possible”?

The commissioner said he knew it would work because he had seen it work in Maine, with its progressive juvenile system, that over a 15-year period has eliminated punitive segregation. “They have found ways to manage young people without using” punitive segregation as a tool, he said. “The work they had done in Maine on the juvenile side was very impressive. It’s probably the top two or three in the country as far as managing juvenile offenders. It also cost them about 200,000 plus a year for every juvenile in custody.”

Ponte says “these are not throwaway people,” and should not be locked away from the community forever. 

Corrections Officer Training

As a first step, the commissioner said that the screening requirements for the officers have been raised to the NYPD level, a process that required hiring and training the staff who were investigating the applicants.

“It used to be if you tried to get a job at NYPD and got rejected, you could come and apply and come to work for DOC. Now we apply the same standards.” Beyond the application are the new expectations of the officer. “If you look at the job postings, they don’t add up to all of the things we ask officers to do today.” Things like training in mental health and managing mentally ill inmates. “None of us signed up to work in a mental health hospital, but 40% of our inmates have a level of mental illness. And like I said, it’s not in the officer’s job description working with the mentally ill.

Additionally there was no training done on how to manage adolescents, 16, 17, and 18-year-old, “which is much different than how you manage adults.”

The biggest challenge has been to shift the staff “from a model that really was punitive, so when inmates misbehaved, we locked them up. Misbehave again, we locked you up longer. So as we ended that model, we needed the officer to be more engaged with the inmate.”

In the past, officers didn’t see themselves as that kind of role model and “it really requires a shift in culture.” By the end of the next calendar year, they expect to turn over almost half of the officers and Ponte see that as a good opportunity to effect the culture change that’s needed.

“We don’t change our inmates or the people committed to our facilities without changing our staff,” says Ponte.

Juvenile Offenders

Coming to the State, Ponte was surprised that New York classifies 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. “In the rest of the world, they’d be juveniles and they wouldn’t even come into the adult system,” he says noting that New York joins with North Carolina as the only two states that classifies 16-year-olds as adults. “And one of 10 that treats 17-year-olds as adults.”

At Rikers, even though teenagers are sentenced as adults they are treated as juveniles inside the facility and separated from the adult population, and can attend high school on the island. Even so, the commissioner says that by being in the adult system, they don’t have the range of options that a juvenile system can offer. “The department can’t say, “This kid doesn’t need to be incarcerated, we should divert him into a program.”

Ponte said that with the support he’s received from the Mayor and the Council, he has been given the resources to decrease the inmate ratio to 1 officer to 15 inmates, where it used to be 1 to 33. While at the same time dividing up the population into adult, juvenile, mentally ill, violent offenders –those areas restricted to no more than six inmates per officer “and at times you’ll have one officer per inmate. So you may have as many officers as inmates in these areas just to be able to manage them without locking them up. The options would be lock them up in segregation, and we don’t do that. So we just increase the staff to provide the safety and make sure the programming still runs.”

This is labor intensive but if it were a juvenile facility the staffing levels would be much higher, said Ponte. “It’s one thing to say that it costs a lot of money, and it does. It’s the other thing that their outcomes are much better,” and that has to be the ultimate goal. “With this staffing model, our outcomes are much better. Locking kids up into segregation was a bad idea 10 years ago, it was a bad idea here and we stopped that in December of 2014.”

The inmates can be there for several days or several months and it is the longer stays that have remedial and trade training certificate programs available to them and the department has recently gotten funding to have a re-entry component for adolescents so that when they are released, they don’t just get a MetroCard back to the neighborhood. The family situation is looked at. Is he going back to school? Is there mental illness? Ponte says it’s a matter of “trying to set that community piece up for him or her so when they get back out there,” they can deal with the peer pressure and if steps are not taken, “we’re going to lose you real quick. So having some structure to the release makes a lot of sense.”

Model Facility Shows Results

On the island there are two model facilities that have been made into crucibles where the best practices and the lessons learned from a “painful” self-evaluation of the department have been put into practice. “We spent several months doing a very deep dive into the organization, talking to staff” said Ponte. It was an organizational health survey and we rated probably at the bottom of the barrel. You couldn’t have probably gotten any lower.”

In these facilities, the George R Vierno Center (GRVC) and the Anna M. Kross Center (AMKC), the 14-point Anti Violence Reform Agenda was initiated which was a holistic approach to incarceration, with the understanding that each element was dependent on the other. “The 14-point plan really encompassed everything, from the quality of staff to the training of staff to the safety of staff to the programming of inmates.”

The Commissioner emphasized the importance of programming in the institution. Before he came, “most of our inmates got zero to no programming. I mean they could go to rec, they could go to law library, that’s not programming.”

In these model facilities “it’s up to five hours of additional programs and that’s not counting rec and law library, which they’re all entitled to. That’s additional programming. It could be educational, it could be antiviolence, it could be anything of that nature.”

The results achieved by these facilities in reducing violence is very impressive. From Sept. 14, 2015 to Aug. 31, 2016, comparing expected incidents based on historical records with actual events, they show violence is down over 70%. “That’s after going through the entire process, from cleaning the place up, doing the infrastructure changes, making sure all the locks and doors work and then retraining the officer, re-classifying the inmates, ensuring the officer has ownership of his or her housing areas, and then adding the programming piece.”

Rikers has a population where half, about 4,000, turnover in seven days and for the rest, the average stay is about 56 days. “But there is a substantial group that did more serious crimes, about 170 days on average. That’s, when we can offer programs that are beneficial. A lot of these guys in these areas show more serious criminal behavior, but they’re also well-behaved when we offer the programming piece to them.”

Programs like the OSHA certification course are very popular as are safe food handling. “I’m telling you, they’re signing up for this and we’re getting 60%, 70% participation in programs, which for me I’ve never seen in jails and prisons. Part of it is they’ve never had anything. We literally could offer nothing.

Violence

“Violence is really driven by a small percentage of the inmates. Most inmates like everybody else, they did something wrong, they’re going to come in and do their time and they want to go home. It’s maybe 10% that are really most problematic,” and those would be the 16 – 25-year-olds.

The commissioner is a strong proponent of alternative models for incarceration saying “While they are violent felons, there are issues, either addiction or mental health, that are cheaper to do” outside of the incarceration system.

For us now, it’s really developing the programs and getting them to the highest level, doing the evaluations on those that are effective and impact and recidivism, those that aren’t. So it’s really fine-tuning the stuff that we have. We have a lot of stuff rolling out at the same time. And trying to then, at some point, maybe a year from now, we start to look at evaluating what’s worked, what doesn’t work, what’s better, what’s not.

Some of the stuff has never been done. So we created a secure unit, which is where the inmates are out of the cell about 10 hours a day, and restricted in small numbers. But they go to program and they go to rec. They have some interaction in small groups but there’s no punitive seg for that age group.

No one in the country’s even trying that, they are reducing their reliance but no one’s saying I’m going to eliminate it. Not only are we saying it, we’ve already eliminated it for 18-year-olds,” considered adults in many parts of the country, “and we will eliminate it for 19 to 21-year-olds real soon. When you ask if there is somebody else out there that we can copy from, not in these kinds of program and operational areas because no one’s even trying, they’re not even talking about it.

Asked how long to roll out these practices across the Island complex, Ponte said it would take at least a year and probably two.

 

Incarcerated Women

“Most female crimes are usually committed along with the male participant, most times. Problem is as we incarcerate more women, we’re incarcerating families. Many times, the woman is the leader in the family, so you incarcerate them, don’t give the support, and you’re creating generations of problems for the city.”

Rikers has about 600 women and punitive segregation has already been eliminated for them and programming put in “but it’s just not enough. We need to get in front of that. Most of our female offenders are not violent. They’ve committed crimes, ideally, but typically it’s with a male. You know, almost always it’s with a male.”

Commissioner Ponte says, “we need to get smarter” about incarcerating women and the long term damage that entails. “They are the true breadwinners and (the one’s) holding (the) structure together.”

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If Commissioner Ponte’s policies roll out successfully, then the small town guy from Maine would have done this big city a great favor. Part Two will be presented next week.

The Commissioner fielded questions from Our Time Press co-publishers David Mark Greaves and Bernice Elizabeth Green with community leader Dr. Kim Best, former President, 79th Precinct Council, on Thursday, September 29, 2016 in Brooklyn, New York.

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