As prepared for delivery

Testimony before the New York City Council

Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses Adrienne Adams, Chairperson

By Cynthia Brann, Commissioner NYC Department of Correction

September 5, 2019

Good Morning, Chair Adams and members of the Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses. My name is Cynthia Brann and I am the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction (DOC). I am joined at the table this morning by my Chief of Staff, Brenda Cooke, as well as leadership from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, all of whom I have been proud to work with in a collective effort to support the creation of modern jail facilities for New York City that match our modern jail practices.

The Department’s commitment to closing Rikers Island and building a smaller network of modern, community-based jails is rooted in an understanding that all New Yorkers deserve a criminal justice system that is smaller, safer and fairer. That includes not only those who are detained, but also their family members and loved ones, the attorneys who represent them, and the dedicated staff who work in city jails, all of whom are entitled to facilities that reflect the Department’s modern values. In New York City, we are building an overall justice system in which crime continues to decline, fewer people are incarcerated, and more resources are dedicated to supporting those who become involved with the justice system. At the Department of Correction, we believe that the new borough based system will deepen this commitment while further ensuring that all New Yorkers are treated with dignity and respect. For these reasons and more, I am pleased to join you this morning to express the Department’s commitment to closing Rikers and discuss the positive impact a borough based system would have on everyone living and working in the Department’s facilities.

As you all know, DOC is a vast, complex organization. We currently operate eleven separate jail facilities, on and off Rikers Island, as well as two hospital prison wards and court facilities in each borough. In addition, we operate support service divisions including our transportation division and facility maintenance division. Our staff are responsible for the care, custody, and control of approximately 7,000 individuals every day and process more than 39,000 admissions annually. The Department itself is comprised of approximately 12,000 members of staff, a total which does not include the employees of Correctional Health Services, the Department of Education, the Board of Correction, and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office who also work in our facilities in addition to the program providers and volunteers who provide services to the individuals in our care. Simply put, this Department is tasked with providing safe and appropriate living and working spaces for thousands of individuals on a daily basis.

Our staff should be able to conduct their important and challenging work in buildings designed to enhance security and safety, just as the individuals in our care should be housed in facilities that support their wellbeing and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, this is not the case on Rikers Island or in our current borough facilities, all of which are woefully out of date. Our buildings are decades old, have experienced significant wear and tear, and, in many cases, have unfixable structural elements that contribute to the negative impacts of incarceration. These buildings have outlived their usefulness. Some of our facilities, such as the case of temporary mods installed in the 1980s, have remained operational more than 30 years beyond their intended use. Keeping our facilities in a state of good repair requires ongoing attention and significant capital commitment, both of which take time and resources away from the true purpose of the Department. This agency is committed to being part of a 21st century approach to criminal justice, but in order to do that, we need 21st century facilities.

For the Department, closing Rikers is an opportunity to build new, modern jails that align with and enhance correctional best practices. Though conversations about design are only just beginning, we are working with all stakeholders to ensure that new jails will be designed with enhanced safety and security in mind. In addition to better lines of sight for our officers, these facilities will localize activities like recreation and programming to reduce movement, which in turn reduces opportunities for violence. Localized program delivery also ensures that any alarms or emergency events will disrupt services for as few individuals as possible. Further, we intend for our new jails to be climate controlled, ensuring more humane living and working conditions for everyone who steps foot into the Department’s facilities. Additionally, the Department has experience operating high rise jail facilities and remains confident that safety and security can be achieved in the proposed new buildings.

The Department recognizes the fundamental importance of keeping individuals in custody connected to their families and communities. Community connection is linked to positive post- incarceration outcomes and remains critical to an individual’s success both in and outside of the Department’s custody. Due to the remote location of Rikers Island and the cramped and narrow spaces in our borough facilities, visiting a loved one in the Department’s care is a challenging experience. New borough based facilities will not only ease the burden on families and loved ones, but also enable the Department to create visitor spaces that welcome the community and ensure environmental design isn’t a barrier to much needed connection.

Over the past year, the Department has been proud to partner with city agencies like MOCJ to listen to the concerns of community members. We are committed to being a good neighbor and I am proud that these conversations have led to some positive immediate changes, including a community beautification effort outside of the Manhattan Detention Center. Since the inception of this borough based jail plan, my staff and I have attended countless community meetings and public hearings to discuss a number of important questions and concerns related to the borough- based facilities and the work of the Department of Correction. I remain consistently impressed by the passion of New Yorkers and their strong commitment to their communities. Our goal is to fit seamlessly into and support the communities of Chinatown, Boerum Hill, Mott Haven, and Kew Gardens. Should this plan move forward, we will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure this important dialogue remains open.

As I have previously testified before this Council, the Department of Correction takes its culture change efforts seriously and we are not waiting for a move to new facilities to begin this important work. I am aware there are voices in the community that have suggested that the Department is incapable of the kind of culture change these new facilities demand and I believe its entirely appropriate for New Yorkers to question the way their jails are managed. I would like to assure those who hold these concerns that this not the same Department as it was five years ago. We have not only reformed many of our practices, but we have become national leaders in forward thinking correctional practice. Since 2014, we have engaged in historic reforms to create a safer and more humane jail system:

  • Providing engaging programming is a key component in the Department’s 14-Point Anti- Violence Agenda as program engagement reduces idle time and supports detainees in focusing on their future. Prior to this Administration, the Department provided on average less than one hour a day of non-school programming. Today the Department offers a wide variety of programming that promotes wellness and assists with successful reentry. The Department is also continuing its roll out of tablet based programming.
  • In May of this year, the Department entered into a two-year partnership with the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance to solidify the Department’s vision for organizational culture and identify the explicit goals and actions necessary to achieve it. The partnership will further result in the creation of robust performance metrics and a performance management system, which will be used to evaluate the Department’s success in achieving our important culture change goals.
  • Helping individuals maintain connections to family and support networks is critical. In order to combat the barriers that impede visitation, we implemented a free visitor bus that provides hourly transportation to and from the island on visit days from Harlem and Central Brooklyn. In the first year of operation, the buses provided over 75,000 free rides to and from the island. Further, we partnered with the Children’s Museum of Manhattan to offer mothers in our custody an opportunity to visit with their children at an off-site location. This program has gained national attention and we have been contacted by other jurisdictions across the country looking to replicate our model.
  • Significant reforms have been made in the use of punitive segregation, both by eliminating its use for adolescents, young adults, and those with serious mental illness, and by creating program and therapeutic based housing units that offer targeted support for individuals following an infraction. Since 2014, the Department has reduced the number of individuals in punitive segregation by approximately 80% and we continue to be a national leader in punitive segregation reform.
  • In order to ensure that everyone in our custody is safely and appropriately housed, we have implemented a policy of housing by gender identity. We have also recently hired a Director of LGBTQI Initiatives to support the Department in providing responsive programs and housing options to all individuals. Further, the Department has begun meeting bimonthly with advocates and experts on transgender policy issues in order to better inform our policies and practices.

We are proud of these achievements over the past several years and look forward to creating a new system that is safer, more humane, and promotes better outcomes for individuals, families and communities.

Thank you again for the opportunity to testify about the critical need for borough-based jails for the City of New York and for your continued support. My colleagues and I are available to answer any questions that you may have.