Recently, the Board of Corrections (BOC) voted on whether or not they would begin the rule-making process for several proposed new rules. The meeting focused on the potentially increased restrictions on packages sent to incarcerated individuals and restrictions on full contact visits at New York City jails. The rule-making process would also incorporate higher maximum sentences for assaults on DOC staff and a weakening of due process rights of those on the inside regarding enhanced supervision housing. Lastly, the rule-making process would involve making some variances permanent, including the commingling of city sentenced and detainees between the ages of 18-21 and pregnant persons, restricting certain personal hygiene items to those on suicide watch, and placing restrictions on in-cell recreation.
In addition to the rule-making process, the BOC also voted on whether or not to allow a new variance that would allow jail staff to deny people in solitary a 7 day break after being held in solitary for 30 days. There was a strong showing of opposition to both. The new restrictions on full contact visits would deter visits, which are incredibly important for incarcerated persons’ mental health. Full contact visits have been shown to decrease violence and, especially for trans*, gender non-conforming and intersex folks, as they give incarcerated persons the strength to live another day. Although the Commissioner says his priority is creating a safe environment, his actions say something else.
The change that does need to happen in regard to visits is making it a more positive experience for those visiting their loved ones. Several people shared their awful experiences of mistreatment while visiting friends and family. Aside from having to wait as long as 3 hours, visitors were subjected to invasive searches in which guards put their hands inside bras and looked inside visitors’ pants. The Board also heard testimony from a visitor who reported that her activism has made her subject to repeated strip searches under unhygienic conditions. These horrible abuses are clear evidence that something needs to be done to improve the visiting experience.
Conversely, there is no such clear evidence that putting restrictions on full contact visits will make the jails safer places. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Although the commissioner said that it is difficult to track down how contraband gets into jails, research already exists that shows only 10% of weapons used in jails came from visits. This threat is an imaginary problem. Even if these measures were to stop some contraband from getting in, it would be at a massive cost to so many. The rights of everyone on the inside far outweigh a few items of contraband.
As for the changes regarding packages, the ruling would drastically limit the number of packages incarcerated persons would receive. The change entails that people on the outside could only send packages from a list of pre-approved vendors. The people who are locked up are often the poorest of the poor and many are there because they can’t afford bail. This economic barrier effectively cuts off many from receiving anything. Again, there is no evidence to suggest that a threat exists, but the Department of Corrections is still pushing for this new rule.
Unfortunately, the Board voted 5-3 in favor of beginning the rule-making process. The board members who voted in favor of the rule-making said they understood that there were problems with the changes as proposed, but that they would be worked out in the rule-making process. Some board members who voted against the proposed rules and some of the people making comments strongly urged against this course of action because they have tried to fix proposals in the past during the rule-making process and have failed. Concerns were also raised about the fact that suggestions were made on how to change the proposal and none were incorporated. This rushed process results in bad policy and it is a shame that it wasn’t avoided.
Despite difficulties in the past with the rule-making process, it is important that we continue to voice our disapproval for the proposed rules. On a brighter note, the Board voted against allowing the variance depriving incarcerated persons of a 7 day break from solitary confinement. This was an important victory because it would have allowed prison staff to keep people in solitary for an almost indefinite amount of time.
For more in depth information about the meeting, all of the documents presented to the BOC are available here.