a bird and a bottle

NYC Lowers Bar to Hold People Behind Bars
May 28, 2007, 11:08 pm
Filed under: civil rights, criminal justice, law, news, NYC

The NYC prison reform community has been up in arms for the last month or so over proposed changes to the city’s minimum standards for its jails. In April, the New York Board of Correction, supposedly the watchdog over prison conditions in the city and the manager of all of the city’s jail facilities, suggested changes to the requirements it sets for city jails. In addition to allowing the city to eavesdrop on telephone conversations between incarcerated men and women and their friends and families and to censor their mail, the new standards would allow for:

# More crowding: Open dormitory housing units would hold up to 20% more prisoners.
# More round-the-clock cell lock-in: Virtual solitary confinement-cell lock-in all day except for an hour for exercise and a shower-would be applied to prisoners who are removed from general population for their own protection or for administrative reasons. Prolonged cell confinement of this sort has been linked to prisoner suicides.
# Less assistance for Spanish-speaking prisoners: The amendments would repeal the requirement that the jails have sufficient Spanish-speaking staff to assist Hispanic prisoners, and would provide only that the Department of Correction must implement Aprocedures@ to ensure that they can understand communications from staff. There is no requirement or even hint as to what those procedures might be.
# Denial of personal clothing: The amendments would allow jail officials to require pre-trial detainees, in addition to sentenced prisoners, to wear uniforms, despite their having been convicted of nothing, and would deprive their families of the ability to provide them with clothing to protect them from the extremes of temperature often found in the jails. They would have to wear uniforms at all court appearances except actual trials, stigmatizing them before the court.

There are so many problems with these standards that it’s hard to know where to begin. New York Civil Liberties Union Director Donna Lieberman is on the right track:

“For the Board of Corrections to proceed down this path would do a fundamental disservice to prisoners and their families and would make all New Yorkers both less safe and less free,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director.

Why would these standards do a disservice? First, they would continue the degradation and humiliation of incarcerated women and men and perpetuate some of the problems that lead to recidivism. Second, it will violate the privacy rights of both incarcerated people and their families. Third, as Legal Aid noted in a recent press release, the new proposed standards allow the Board of Correction to deflect the proposed improvements to carcereal policy, including ending disability discrimination, providing G.E.D. education for incarcerees, and renewing a court order protecting incarcerated men and women from abusive searches.

The human rights of incarcerated men and women are not just an issue for those of us concerned with prison reform. It’s a women’s issue too. As Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Professors notes (quoting a report of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project):

*As of January 2007, 2,859 women were incarcerated in New York’s prisons – 4.5% of the state’s total prison population of 63,215. An additional 26,600 were parole (about 3,100) and probation (roughly 23,500).
* From 1973 to 2007, the number of women in New York’s prisons increased by 645%.
* Almost 69% of the state’s female inmates are women of color: about 47% are African American, roughly 22% are Latina, and 30% are Caucasian.
* New York’s general public is 30% women of color and almost 69% Caucasian.
* 84% of women sent to New York State prison in 2006 were convicted of non-violent offenses.
* As of January 2007, 33% of New York’s female inmates were incarcerated for a drug offense. Almost 80% of women drug offenders were women of color.

The fact that we are expending energy fighting against proposed bad changes instead of in support of proposed positive steps is both frustrating and alarming. I keep wondering when we will realize that the U.S. is not the beacon of righteousness in the area of human rights that we claim to be. Certainly there have been wake up calls in recent years (hello Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and yet the U.S. still holds itself out to the world as a model. A little melodramatic? Maybe. But these days I’m not so sure rationality gets us anywhere.

If you want to do something, head over to petition online and sign the petition against the proposed changes.


6 Comments so far
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Just signed the petition. Even after a rash of good news postings, little surprise that we’re back to prison abuse as prison reform. Huge disappointment.

Comment by professorplum

The fact that the government would even present these options is confusing. They had to know people would object to such drastic, strange changes. The prison system doesn’t work. We’re not going to make it better by amplifying the problems that already exist.

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