As prepared for delivery
Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Keith Powers
Committee on General Welfare
Chair Stephen T. Levin
Brenda Cooke, Chief of Staff
NYC Department of Correction
October 2, 2019
Good morning, Chair Powers and Chair Levin and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice and the Committee on General Welfare. My name is Brenda Cooke, and I am the Chief of Staff of the Department of Correction. As Commissioner Brann testified before this Council last month, the Department of Correction is committed to closing Rikers Island and replacing our existing facilities with modern jails that support modern correctional practices. I am pleased to have this opportunity to affirm this Department’s commitment to a smaller, safer, and fairer correctional system and to provide you with the Department’s comments on the pre-considered Intro that outlines important principles for the design of our new facilities.
It is no secret that the Department’s current facilities are woefully out of date and we can all agree these facilities have outlasted their usefulness. Our current jails were built to match the best correctional practices at the time – more than 40 years ago - but clearly no longer reflect the City’s criminal justice values. Importantly, the City’s criminal justice goals cannot be achieved through renovation of our existing inadequate jail facilities. Since the announcement of the plan to close Rikers Island, the Department has been proud to partner with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and experts in modern jail architecture to reimagine the design of correctional facilities for the city of New York that will provide a safe and humane environment for all those who live and work in these spaces. These new facilities will be designed to provide direct access to fresh air and natural light, aspects lacking in most locations across our current facilities. New jails will also be designed to provide better lines of sight for our officers and achieve more efficient movement across our facilities, ensuring everyone can have increased access to program and recreation space in a safe and secure manner. Further, the proposed borough based jails will also enhance the city’s decarceration goals by making it easier for individuals to maintain connections with their communities and their families, both of which are important factors for successful reentry following incarceration.
However, the Department recognizes new facilities are only a part creating a safer and fairer correctional system. In order to meet these goals, our institutional culture would need to modernize as well. I am proud to say this Department is not the same Department it was five years ago. Since the announcement of the 14 point anti-violence agenda, we have continued to support a wide range of culture change efforts, from de-escalation training to staff wellness initiatives. In just a few years, we have become national leaders in forward thinking correctional practice and we are ready to bring today’s Department of Correction to a borough based jail system.
In regards to the pre-considered Intro that addresses principles for design in newly constructed jails, the Department supports the intent behind the bill, including many of the design principals proposed. We agree adequate space and the provision of certain basic amenities are absolutely a right of people in the Department’s care. The Department also agrees that modern jail practices require a modern electronic management system. There are certain provisions of the bill we are continuing to review for feasibility, such as the requirements to use certain building materials, to ensure that any concerns are addressed, especially as it relates to fire safety.
We look forward to continue to discuss these issues with the Council in the days and weeks to come.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you this morning. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions you may have.