Can NYC Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte stop the brutal, scandalous festival of incompetence that sums up Rikers Island?
He’s working on it. But he’s light-years from success. After a few months on the job, Ponte has yet to show he’s in complete control of the place.
And without control, reform doesn’t start.
His appointment this week of Jeff Thamkittikasem as his chief of staff is crucial. A former federal border official, Thamkittikasem must work like a field marshal to stop the chaos and let healing begin. Here’s what they’re looking at:
A population of 12,000 inmates — about 40% of whom need mental health care more than punishment.
A grotesque culture of violence — guard on inmate, inmate on guard and inmate on inmate. Personal injury claims against the city have jumped 114% in just four years for the nine lockups on Rikers and three others.
A staff that has seriously abused solitary confinement as a way to manage adolescents. On any given day last year, 15% to 25% of Rikers adolescents were in solitary.
Laughable contraband detection. The Department of Investigation said this month that an agent posing as a guard zipped through six employee portals with 250 envelopes of heroin, 24 strips of the opiate Suboxone, a half-pound of marijuana, a razor blade and a water bottle filled with vodka. And that was only the latest in the guards trading-in-contraband story.
There are encouraging signs. Ponte wants to install 7,800 more security cameras. But one caveat: The job needs to be completed within months — not the next year and a half as planned. Also heartening are Ponte’s plans to move about 250 of the system’s most dangerous inmates into a new unit that would serve as an alternative to the irresponsible overuse of solitary confinement.
Ponte’s key reckonings won’t be only with inmates.
If he wants core reform, he will need to force the entrenched Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association to accept big changes. But if Ponte plays his cards shrewdly, he could improve the conditions at Rikers.