Board Approves Eavesdropping, Uniforms for City Jails

by Graham Rayman

The city Board of Correction yesterday opted for security over civil liberties in voting to let city jail officials listen to inmate phone conversations, and read mail without first getting a warrant. And for the first time, jail officials will require inmates across the sprawling system to wear matching uniforms, rather than civilian clothes. The design of those uniforms has yet to be determined. Suggestions, anyone?

But the board rejected a controversial cost-saving measure that could have increased overcrowding in some jails, and opposed rules that could have allowed more inmates held in 23-hour-a-day lock down. It may have been a rather mind-numbing 4-hour meeting, but the result was the most extensive revision of inmate rules in 30 years. The decisions made today, as one board member noted, likely will affect inmates in the city jails for decades to come. Earlier this year, the board was buffeted by accusations that it hadn't let enough folks review the proposals—along with grumbling that the board had gotten too chummy with jail officials. Some of that tension was evident today. After all, the full board hadn't really sat down and openly discussed their views. And one board member, Richard Nahman, likened the meeting to asking a jury to decide a complex legal case in a couple of hours. Board chair Hildy Simmons and others were anxious to vote. "This process has to end at some point," she said. The act of putting inmates in uniforms, officials contend, will reduce violence and theft in the jails. But the policy won't begin until jail officials come up with what will be a complex and expensive system of cleaning and storing the clothing. In particular, the department will have to work out an efficient method of providing civilian clothes to inmates heading to court. "It's a big ticket item," Regan said. "I don't believe it can be done in a quick manner." The eavesdropping program is also still in development, and it's unclear when it will begin. And there may be the obligatory lawsuit from civil rights groups, though John Boston, a Legal Aid lawyer and prisoners rights advocate, said it was too early to make a decision on that issue. For his part, Correction Commissioner Martin Horn said, "The board today took important and long overdue action in the name of safety for the inmates and our staff in the jails and the public outside them." The rejection of the lockdown measure, meanwhile, was applauded by inmate advocates and others. "The board of correction came very close to doing something awful, something tantamount to torture," said Michael Mushlin, a Pace University professor and correction scholar.

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