New York City and the Department of Justice settled a 2012 class action lawsuit this week brought by the Legal Aid Society (Nunez v City of New York), alleging rampant inmate abuse on Rikers Island. The Nunez lawsuit is just one of many to have detailed the horrific conditions facing inmates in NYC jails and underscores the pervasive brutality and impunity with which the city’s corrections officers have traditionally operated.
In December of last year, Mayor Bill De Blasio’s Rikers Island task force introduced a collection of proposals he argued would make the city a progressive leader in criminal justice reform. Those proposals included ending solitary confinement for inmates under 21 (contingent on funding and programming by 2016), curbing punitive segregation for inmates with a history of mental illness, implementing thousands of surveillance cameras, rekindling the Department of Correction’s (DOC) long-dormant recruitment program and beefing up oversight and investigative measures aimed at policing the behavior of guards. At the beginning of this year, the city also implemented a multi-million dollar super-solitary unit known as the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU) and announced plans to restrict inmate visitation, which were met with vehement protest from the community.
The majority of the terms of the settlement mirror proposals from the De Blasio task force. And while some of these reforms would qualify as improvements of the status quo, I believe the package will ultimately fall far short of the city’s goal of ending the abusive environment on Rikers and achieving one of those most progressive criminal justice systems in the country. The reforms are largely empty gestures towards law enforcement accountability we see taking place elsewhere in the country, or represent policies and procedures that should shock each and every one of us for not having existed before; their implementation should not impress us now.
The following analysis is based on the summary of the agreement made available on the Department of Justice website.