Rikers Island detainees chained to desks during class sessions; The New York jail oversight board was not consulted on the rule change
Dozens of Rikers Island inmates are chained and handcuffed to specially constructed desks when participating in classes or other group activities, despite a promise by the city’s Corrections Commissioner last year to stop the practice.
Seventy-four detainees in three Rikers housing units are sometimes shackled to restraint desks, corrections sources told the Daily News. The purpose-built metal desks they are used to restrain “potentially disruptive inmates during therapeutic, educational, programming, and/or recreational sessions in a classroom setting,” the department says.
“Restriction counters are a critical tool in managing a challenging population prone to acts of serious violence,” Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina told the city’s Board of Correction at a meeting last week. “The desktop allows for the constant provision of programming and socializing with peers (while) also ensuring security.”
Molina’s comment was a departure from last July, when told a WNYC radio host: “We are removing the restriction desks that were part of our restrictive housing system.”
Metal desks have been in use at Rikers for about six years. They come in two versions, one with a single seat and one with double seats in which detainees face each other.
In both versions, the detainees’ legs are chained through a steel bar embedded in the desk, which is bolted to the floor. One arm is secured with handcuffs and a chain, which goes through a ring welded to the desk.
Under direct questioning from Board of Corrections member Bobby Cohen, Molina acknowledged that the use of the desks has continued for the purpose of securing, as he said, “individuals with a high propensity for violence.”
Cohen, a physician, noted at the meeting that Molina had just testified that stabbings and slashings have dropped systemwide by 14.4 percent in the past nine months.
“Now he is telling us that the violence has gone down and, nevertheless, a month ago, he restored the containment chairs. Why did you do it?” Cohen asked. “The board spent a lot of time trying to end this torturous process.”
The controversy began last July when the DOC was about to embark on a program called the Risk Management Accountability System, a replacement for solitary confinement that allowed detainees to spend more time out of cell.
Just as the Risk Management Accountability System was about to go live, Molina announced that it would be going with a different model called Enhanced Supervisory Housing. Along with emergency orders signed by Mayor Adams suspending many rules governing jails, Enhanced Supervision Housing allowed restraint counters.
Molina explained that he needed a way to provide more security for violent detainees and initially wanted to wear so-called “gloves,” or large, thick gloves that cover the hands and are meant to prevent cuts and stabbings.
But he said federal monitor Steve Martin, a court-appointed prison supervisor, and Department of Correction consultant James Austin advised him to use the restraint desks.
“Our expert and the monitor had reservations about using restraint gloves when they were out of the cell,” Molina said. “So the alternative we had was the holding desk. When we presented that to the federal monitor, that’s what was approved.”
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Martin did not respond to an email, but Austin confirmed Molina’s opinion. Austin said violence has decreased “significantly” in the Enhanced Supervised Housing units, where restraint desks are used. When a detainee proves that he is not a risk, he is transferred to another unit where restraint desks are not used, Austin said.
“Commissioner Molina is right: This is a much better approach than handcuffs/gloves as it allows one to actively participate in rehabilitation programs in a more normal way,” Austin told The News.
At the Board of Correction meeting, Cohen complained that the board had not been consulted about the change. “Containment desks are not a good medical option,” he said. “They are medically dangerous. They are devious. They are humiliating and I hope they remove them as soon as possible.”
Molina responded: “The problem, Dr. Cohen, is that death is also a very dangerous thing. And we cannot allow someone to have the opportunity to kill another person.”
Tahanee Dunn, director of the Bronx Advocates’ Prisoner’s Rights Project, said the Corrections Department’s use of the desks is “circumventing” the Corrections Board’s right to approve prison policies. “This is another example of the department’s disregard for the authority of the board,” Dunn said.
Although Molina insists that Enhanced Supervision Housing is reserved for the most violent detainees, Dunn noted that one of her clients served 60 days in that more restrictive housing despite having no records of prior assaults or disciplinary violations.
Board of Corrections Chairman Dwayne Sampson was remarkably silent during the tense exchange between Cohen and Molina. Neither he nor the board’s interim executive director, Jasmine Georges-Villa, responded to a request for comment.