Opinion

The next New York City Correction commissioner should be an outsider

By Glenn Martin |  

May 30, 2017 |  

Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s next appointment to head the New York City Department of Correction must be an outsider who is committed to #CLOSErikers.

This might come as a surprise to those who know me only from my work as a national criminal justice reform advocate – or who know I spent six years incarcerated – but I have a great deal of respect for many of the people employed in the corrections system. In fact, my older brother was a corrections officer for ten years, and I know from his experience how difficult a job it is.

But career corrections professionals in this country have risen through the ranks in a system that is overly reliant on incarceration as a solution to all societal problems, like mental health issues and income inequality. Just look at the numbers: The U.S. makes up five percent of the world’s population, but contains 25 percent of its prison population. For decades, New York City officials have been locking away our social problems at Rikers Island, and Department of Correction leadership has been complicit in maintaining the deplorable conditions that accompany mass incarceration.

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With the abrupt retirement of outgoing career-correction bureaucrat Joseph Ponte, the mayor has the opportunity to dramatically reshape the department for the important years ahead. Rumored replacement, Dan Pacholke, the former secretary of the Washington state Department of Correction, is an incremental reformer who has worked to reduce solitary confinement. However, we need someone who is prepared to wield an axe when it comes to Rikers, not a scalpel. De Blasio must choose a leader from outside that narrow corrections box who can do more than slap a Band-Aid on a system dying of deep internal wounds. 

Although I have been a critic of the de Blasio administration – which initially refused to accept the inevitable and humane conclusion to close the torture mill that is Rikers Island – his office has made strides in some of the areas most desperately in need of change. The administration has increased alternatives to incarceration programs and worked with the courts to speed up case resolution, which has accelerated the decline in the city’s jail population. That is a necessary first step towards the ultimate goal of closing Rikers. Other positive reforms include the Mayor’s Action plan, which brought together residents and key city agencies to improve safety in public housing developments, and a supportive housing program to break the jail-to-homelessness-to-jail cycle.

What these initiatives have in common – besides being practical, common-sense solutions that should have been adopted years ago – is that they have all come from outside the Department of Correction. Coincidence? Highly unlikely. The department’s approach has always been to lock “problems” – what you and I refer to as moms, dads, sons and daughters – out of sight.

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Although Ponte ended up leaving his post because of management missteps, like having taxpayers foot the bill for personal trips in city-issued vehicles, his real problem was that he couldn’t come up with solutions that didn’t involve jailing people. He couldn’t think outside the box because his entire career had been built inside it. Nowhere was that more apparent than his approach to Rikers, which he resisted closing right up until the end, despite terrible violence that continued to skyrocket while he attempted his reforms. Ponte was so stubborn in his beliefs he didn’t even bother to read the work of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a 27-member body that recommended closing Rikers.

That’s unacceptable, and evidence of the type of leader we must avoid. De Blasio needs to pick someone outside of the Department of Correction, someone who is willing to challenge the status quo, someone with the courage to say, “the old approach didn’t work, let’s try something else.” In short, we need someone who knows New York well enough to know that those we imprison will one day be our neighbors and colleagues. The solution isn’t to lock people away, and the quicker we accept that, the quicker we will have a smarter, safer and fairer city.

Glenn E. Martin is the president and founder of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030, as well as the founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign.

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