Rikers Island detainees can continue to receive paper mail and packages from family, friends and acquaintances after action by the city Board of Corrections on Tuesday.
Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina wanted the board to limit detainee mail to images that would be digitally scanned so they could only be read on tablets.
Molina also wanted to limit detainee packages to items shipped directly from mail-order providers like Amazon.
The goal of the proposal was to prevent contraband from entering prisons, including the deadly drug fentanyl, which is sometimes soaked in paper mailed to inmates. “If we don’t change our mail and package policy, fentanyl will come in,” Molina said. “It’s more important that we keep people alive.”
But no member of the Board of Corrections even supported bringing the plan to a vote at Tuesday’s meeting, after the moves were roundly criticized by public defender groups and other advocates for the detainee population.
“If the board approves any of the measures, we are prepared to take legal action,” said Andrew Case, lead attorney for Latino Justice. “The DOC’s own mismanagement of jails cannot serve as a basis for emergency action.”
Public Defender Jumaane Williams added that the Department of Corrections has not presented convincing evidence that the mail is the source of the contraband, when there is much more evidence that correctional staff have a much larger role in drug smuggling.
Molina revealed that on Monday, the long-awaited use of a body-scanning machine to check staff for contraband had begun at the Robert N. Davoren Facility, a Rikers Island jail. Molina said staff would be searched at random and promised more machines would be added at other jails.
Also on Tuesday, a proposal by new Corrections Board Chairman Dwayne Sampson to reduce the number of meetings each year from nine to six was sharply criticized by critics at the meeting. No board member would bring that measure to a vote either.
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“Fewer meetings and less public testimony will gut the Board of Corrections,” said Daniele Gerard, a lawyer for the children’s rights group: “This measure smacks of authoritarianism and we hold the mayor accountable.”
Molina has been criticized for blocking the board’s remote access to security video since Jan. 11. Board of Corrections staff now have to go to Rikers Island to view the video and are only allowed to take handwritten notes of what they see, the sources said.
Meanwhile, the number of seriously mentally ill detainees at Rikers rose to 1,153 in January, figures released Tuesday by Comptroller Brad Lander show. That’s nearly double the number in July 2020 of 672, and about a sixth of the total prison population of 5,952.
Since December 2021, when there were 843 people in jail with a serious psychiatric diagnosis, the number has been increasing in each of the following 12 months.
Lander acknowledges that the general plan to replace Rikers with new, smaller jails in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx is misplaced. The timeline for the new Brooklyn jail could surpass Close Rikers’ 2027 deadline by two years.
“Month-to-month trends indicate a lack of serious efforts to incarcerate or provide alternatives to incarceration for people with serious mental illness,” Lander said in a statement.
“Without an accelerated plan to reduce the prison population and build new facilities, justice and security will remain out of reach for people awaiting trial at Rikers.”