New York: Inhumanity in the Guise of Education at Rikers Island Jail

New York: Inhumanity in the Guise of Education at Rikers Island Jail

The New York City Board of Correction (BOC), which provides oversight of the city’s jails, has approved the use of controversial “restraint desks” for violent prisoners aged 18 to 21 held at the Rikers Island jail complex. The desks – used in classrooms where programming is provided – allow for free movement of the hands and arms but shackle the prisoners’ ankles to the bolted-down base.

According to Winette Saunders, head of youth programming for the BOC, the desks make prisoners feel more secure and thus more willing to attend classes at the jail.

“They feel more comfortable knowing that everyone is in restraints,” Saunders said at a Board of Correction hearing in January 2017.

The desks are used in Enhanced Supervision Housing units, which have replaced solitary confinement for prisoners under the age of 21. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.21]. The desks allow the prisoners seven to 10 hours out of their cells; however, unlike their cells, where they could take a few steps, the desks leave them completely immobilized.

The BOC members who voted to allow the use of the desks for another six months were not completely sold on the idea.

“The young adults, at this point, would prefer to be in solitary confinement than in this protracted restraint,” said board member Bryanne Hamill, calling it “harmful, harsh and humiliating.”

Then-New York City Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who walked out of the hearing during Hamill’s comments, disagreed.
“Inmates are in restraints while they are at a restraint desk in level 1 because of safety concerns for staff and other inmates,” he stated. “They typically are very violent. They have either slashed or seriously assaulted others.”

BOC member Jennifer Jones Austin walked a line between those two points. Admitting that when she first heard about the restraint desks she was “stunned,” “startled” and “deeply disturbed,” she said that she “grew to understand … that safety is a real issue.”

Austin was encouraged by statistics indicating that of the 33 young prisoners in the Enhanced Supervision Housing (ESH) unit, 44% opted for classroom instruction versus 33% of the general population prisoners at Rikers Island.

“I am looking to find the least evil of two situations,” she said. “And so when I look at ESH, I look at it as there being no other option at this particular point.”
Critics have unsurprisingly described as torture the practice of shackling young prisoners to metal desks for hours at a time, asking if corrections officials really expect them to learn while in such restraints.

“You are normalizing traumatizing them again,” said Sara Kerr, an attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society.

But Ponte insisted the prisoners can “earn [their] way out” of the restraints. Mayor Bill DeBlasio also came down on the Commissioner’s side.

At the final BOC vote, only board member Robert Cohen dissented to extending the use of the restraint desks, of which 38 were purchased at a cost of $1,700 each.

Cohen said he feared not only for the prisoners’ ability to concentrate while chained to desks in the noisy dayroom where they were installed, but also that they weren’t informed they had an opportunity to graduate from using them. He stated he had conversations with prisoners during a visit to the jail and heard “they were told they never get out of [ESH].”

According to a July 2017 report released by the BOC, “To address security concerns regarding the proximity of restraint desks to one another, on April 28, 2017, DOC moved young adults to a new ESH unit with 12 restraint desks spaced further apart from each other on the floor of the unit. However, only 11 desks in this new configuration can be used by students. According to DOC staff, when young people are restrained to the desks, one of the desks needs to be occupied by a staff person observing.”