NYC jail boss questioned at oversight hearing

AP News
Posted: Oct 08, 2014 3:05 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — New York City's jail commissioner faced more than two hours of questions from lawmakers on his hiring choices, disciplinary practices and the installation of security cameras.

Commissioner Joseph Ponte (PAHNT) appeared Wednesday at a City Council hearing that was called after a scathing federal review found that the constitutional rights of 16- and 17-year-old Rikers Island inmates were being routinely violated.

Ponte said he agreed with the findings and is working with federal authorities.

He said he has created a team of investigators to look into every use-of-force incident in the juvenile lockup and will install 200 more cameras there in the next 18 months.

Lawmakers also asked why the department's top uniformed official — whose recent promotion stirred controversy — wasn't present. Ponte said he was on vacation.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

New York City lawmakers holding an oversight hearing Wednesday plan to ask correction officials about conditions for 16- and 17-year-old inmates on Rikers Island in the wake of a U.S. Justice Department review that found their constitutional rights were routinely violated.

City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the committee on fire and criminal justice, said the questioning will center primarily on what's being done to embrace the more than 80 recommendations made in the federal report released in August. Among other things, the department recommended removing adolescents entirely from Rikers, the city's giant 10-facility jail complex on the 400-acre island near LaGuardia Airport.

"That report was really alarming and it depicted the levels of violence," she said. "While we wait for the state to raise the age of criminality, we must make sure our inmates on Rikers Island are safe."

New York and North Carolina are the only two states that charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Commissioner Joseph Ponte has vowed to reform the nation's second-largest jail system, and recently said he will end, by Dec. 31, the longstanding practice of placing 16- and 17-year-old inmates who break jailhouse rules in solitary confinement.

Ponte has said staffing ratios in the facility housing the majority of the young inmates have been reduced to 15-to-1 from 33-to-1.

The agency that oversees the jails, the New York City Board of Correction, is in the lengthy process of changing city rules that govern when and how solitary can be doled out. In New York, the disciplinary action is called punitive segregation but referred to more commonly as The Bing.

Those planning to testify Wednesday included board member Bryanne Hamill; John Boston, head of the Prisoners' Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society; and Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook.

New York's troubled jail system has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months. The Associated Press and others have reported extensively on both the violence in city jails and the treatment of the mentally ill, who now account for about 40 percent of the roughly 11,500 daily inmates.