Statement Before the New York City Council

March 9, 2017
By Martha W. King, Executive Director
New York City Board of Correction

Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services
Hon. Elizabeth Crowley, Chair

Good afternoon Chair Crowley and Members of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice Services.  My name is Martha King, and I am the Executive Director of the Board of Correction.  Today, I am joined by one of our Board members who was appointed by the City Council, Stanley Richards.

This afternoon I’d like to explain how the Board of Correction is using much needed new resources to strengthen the Board’s effectiveness and independence and position the Board as a national model for prison and jail oversight and as one of the City’s important levers in creating smaller, safer, fairer, and more humane jails. We have mapped out and are executing comprehensive plans to re-establish the Board as a major partner in the critical work to build a justice system that reflects the City’s values, brings dignity and respect to people held within, working in, or connected to the system – and brings these same people to the system’s policy-making table.

Since it became independent in 1977, the Board has played a leading role in major reforms to the City’s jails. These include, in 1985, making NYC the first jurisdiction to voluntarily require appropriate mental health staffing in its jails, and, in 2015, making NYC the first major prison or jail system to prohibit punitive segregation for adolescents and young adults.  

The City Charter outlines the Board’s central functions:

  • To establish and ensure compliance with minimum standards “for the care, custody, correction, treatment, supervision, and discipline of all persons held or confined under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction”;
  • To investigate any matter within the jurisdiction of the Department;
  • To establish procedures for hearing inmate and staff grievances;
  • To evaluate the performance of the Department of Correction; and
  • To make recommendations on areas of key correctional planning.

The Board established its Minimum Standards on conditions in 1978, on mental health care in 1985, on health care in 1991, and on the elimination of sexual abuse and harassment in 2016.

Recent Growth
When I arrived at the Board at the end of June 2015, there were 16 staff and a budget of $1.6 million. It had been operating for six months without any management team.  The Board currently has 22 staff spread across its lower Manhattan and Rikers Island offices. With the increased support of the City Council and the Administration, a FY17 budget of approximately $3 million will allow our staff to grow to 35.  We’ve restructured and hired a complete management team and a total of nine staff, growing each of our three divisions: legal, research, and monitoring. We currently have open postings for a total of seven positions: an additional four Monitors for the jails, a Project Director for our new regulations on sexual abuse, a Deputy General Counsel, and a Program Associate for Research.

Today I would like to update you on progress and plans in three areas of our work: updated, tailored, and expanded regulations; more research, data analysis, and public reporting; and strengthened and structured monitoring.

  • Updated, tailored, and expanded regulations: 

In November 2016, the Board adopted a final rule designed to detect, prevent, and respond to sexual abuse and harassment of people incarcerated in the City’s jails.  NYC Public Advocate James petitioned the Board to adopt rules consistent with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act standards and subsequently this led to the first new chapter of the Minimum Standards in 25 years.

Incorporating the ideas and expertise of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Public Advocate, City Council members, DOC and Health and Hospitals, and many community stakeholders, the Board’s new rules are a significant contribution toward safer and more humane jails.  The new Standards go beyond federal standards, require more reporting and monitoring, and include provisions requiring that:

  • Health + Hospitals will design and operate new rape crisis counseling services that will serve incarcerated people who report sexual abuse. These services will ensure that victims of sexual abuse obtain the support they need to undergo forensic examinations and interviews, and to overcome emotional and physical trauma.
  • DOC must complete all investigations of sexual abuse and harassment allegations no later than 90 days from the date the allegation is reported to DOC.
  • DOC will install, on a pilot basis, security cameras on buses used to transport inmates.
  • DOC and Health + Hospitals will implement new training for staff working with inmates who are transgender or intersex, designed to heighten awareness of their psychosocial and safety needs and ensure communication and custody that is respectful of gender identity.

The Board is currently working on new Standards related to restrictive housing and improving the Board’s variance procedures. We expect to consult with you and your staffs throughout this process and intend to complete rulemaking in these areas in 2017.

  • More research, data analysis, and public reporting:

We have created a stronger research department led by a new Deputy Executive Director solely dedicated to analytics, evaluation, and research.  This commitment to evaluating and analyzing operations and outcomes in the jails, increasing transparency, and sharing data is crucial to maintaining compliance with Board Standards and other regulations. For instance, over the past year we have issued quarterly reports on punitive segregation reforms, monthly reports on jail visits, and completed assessments of enhanced supervision housing and the inmate grievance program.   Monthly reports on medical and mental health care access have now led to action.  DOC and H+H are creating a plan with remedies, timelines, and metrics to evaluate progress toward increased access.  Collaboratively we will work together to issue this plan in May.

Data remains a challenge for DOC, which relies heavily on paper logs to monitor occurrences in the jails.  While understanding of these challenges, we continue to move toward a Key Performance Indicator Dashboard to monitor compliance with 12 Minimum Standards in the adolescent and young adult housing areas. This will be an unparalleled tool for transparency and understanding and improving compliance over time. 

We have also requested unprecedented access to individual-level data about everyone in custody in the jails.  Traditionally, the BOC has not had this type of data and, with it, we can conduct, robust evaluations of Standards compliance and the implementation of policies and programs, such as evaluating the impact of punitive segregation reform or enhanced supervision.

  • Strengthened and structured monitoring: 

We continue to grow our monitoring staff in the jails and are poised to add five staff this year.  These staff conduct site visits, resolve and refer inmate and staff complaints, monitor compliance with the Minimum Standards and other regulations, investigate and intervene on deviations from regulations, and help to smooth the delivery of basic services and calm tensions in the facilities. 
Increased funding has allowed for several new initiatives that reflect strengthened and structured monitoring:

  • We are embarking on unannounced weekend tours of each facility in 2017, and we expanded our inspections at the hospital prison wards and court pens to every other week.  BOC staff at the court pens regularly check and gather data on production, appearances, and court clothing issues, including a focus on the implementation of the Council’s recent legislation.
  • Over the next three years, BOC staff will visit each of the approximately 330 open housing areas to conduct randomized, structured compliance checks on key Minimum Standards, such as lock-out time, recreation, law library, laundry, and sick call.  This new strategy will actualize our mandate of unannounced visits and will significantly broaden our reach in the jails, making sure no unit goes unchecked.
  • We are working to improve the inmate complaint system. In completing an audit in 2016 of the inmate grievance program, we saw a need for an annual audit and a biannual interagency team of BOC, DOC, and H+H to review inmate complaint data and identify policies and practices that must be jointly monitored or changed.   This team will focus on increasing the procedural justice and fairness of the existing complaint system and making sure patterns of individual complaints feed systemic change where necessary. 
  • We have expanded and improved our visit restriction appeal process and will re-start accepting appeals in seven other areas, including the exercise of religious beliefs, law library access, and telephone rights.  We responded to 209 visit appeals in 2016, more than double the number of appeals that we received five years ago.  We denied 54% and granted or modified 33%. The importance of independent oversight of such individual restrictions and Minimum Standard policy areas cannot be overstated. The appeal process allows us to also work closely with DOC on improving practices to make sure restrictions are appropriate and fair.

In the Board’s 60th anniversary year, we are thankful that this Administration and City Council have shown increased commitment to a strong, active, and effective Board of Correction. The Board is now better poised to play an important role in reform, and we look forward to collaborating with the City Council and its many members who are engaged on these issues.

Thank you again to Chair Crowley and the Committee for the opportunity to testify today.  I’m happy to take any questions that you might have.