Kudos to the Coalition to Raise the Minimum Standards at New York City Jails
Good things can happen when people come together and stand up for what's right.
Usually, it is not easy to drum up support for prisoners' rights, and the noise that is made often falls on deaf ears. But not this time …
In January 2007, for the first time in 30 years, the Board of Corrections (BOC) proposed a number of changes to the Minimum Standards for New York City Correctional Facilities. The Minimum Standards cover rules and regulations for city jails, and as such have a tremendous impact on people in jail and their families. It seemed that the BOC was hoping to make its profound changes quietly, with limited disclosure or public discussion, as if it were simply re-naming a facility.
For example, the BOC sought to increase the number of people per dorm from 50 to 60, while shrinking the dorm space from 60 to 50. This would have increased crowding and threatened the safety of both the jailed and the jailers. For inmates who were seeking protective custody, the BOC wanted to put them on lock-down in cells for 23 hours per day, an action usually reserved solely as punishment for serious disciplinary infractions. The BOC wanted to replace the requirement that sufficient Spanish-speaking staff and volunteers be in every facility to assist prisoners in understanding and participating in various institutional programs with an amorphous rule that non-English-speaking prisoners understand all written and oral communications.
In response to these and other proposed changes, and outraged at the restricted forum for dialogue, a number of organizations that work with prisoners banded together, formed the Coalition to Raise the Minimum Standards at New York City Jails, and demanded that they and their clients be heard. From the Legal Aid Society to the New York Civil Liberties Union, from the Innocence Project to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, from the Bronx Defenders to the Correctional Association, along with many more, organizations formed meetings, wrote letters, issued comments, testified at hearings, and made sure that the BOC understood that it could not unilaterally make budget-driven changes to the way people in jail are treated without hearing from those most affected.
As a result of the Coalition's relentless efforts, the BOC voted against the "overcrowding" policy, against putting those in need of protection in 23-hour solitary confinement, and against reducing Spanish translation services.
Unfortunately, the Coalition was not able to sway the BOC on every issue. The Board approved a provision that requires pre-trial detainees to wear prison uniforms rather than civilian clothing in court (not at trials). Not only is this dehumanizing and a symbolic rebuttal of the presumption of innocence, but it could make advocacy before judges --- including humanizing and individualizing a client --- even more difficult. The BOC will now permit warrantless surveillance and restrictions on prisoners' telephone conversations, correspondence, packages, and reading materials, without taking the necessary steps to protect the constitutional rights of inmates and their families. It also decided to deny prisoners contact visits during the first 24 hours of incarceration, even to young people, parents of young children, and people in jail for the first time, despite the fact that this is when some individuals are at a heightened risk for suicide.
Despite these unfortunate changes, the Coalition prevailed in preventing other disturbing policy proposals, and its refusal to allow the BOC to implement policies one-sidedly that would have impacted the lives of poor people of color without affording them a voice in the matter was admirable, even heroic, and I tip my cap to the Coalition and its members.