Jail Watchdog Caught Snoozing


Most of the time, no one who hangs around City Hall cares a penny about the Board of Correction, the supposedly independent watchdog overseeing New York’s sprawling jail system.

The tiny, dog-eared agency, based in a musty warren of offices on Chambers Street, has no website, a budget of less than $1 million, a staff of just 13 (with only eight field investigators), and a cramped meeting room that can barely contain its nine-member board (when they all show up). By contrast, the Department of Correction has an $870 million budget, 10 jails, 11,000 employees, 14,000 inmates—and a pretty nice website.

In November, however, that same little board will likely vote on the most sweeping set of changes to jail rules in 20 years—changes that could endure long after Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shuffled off to a career in philanthropy and Correction Commissioner Martin Horn has settled into a chair in some ivy-clad think tank.

Meanwhile, the new rules could cut living space for some pretrial detainees, increase crowding in dormitories, allow wider use of 23-hour lockdown, and permit almost unfettered tapping of detainees’ phone calls and reading of their mail.

The board’s overall effectiveness has long been questioned. It didn’t lift a finger to investigate two deaths in city jails last May, which occurred following the use of force by guards. Other topics deemed too politically sensitive or likely to embarrass the DOC are dropped, sources say.

“Its public reports and findings have been nearly nonexistent,” Legal Aid lawyer John Boston says. “Its main public functions have been to grant variances to the Department of Correction and to hold meetings in a room too small for more than a dozen of the public to attend and find a seat.”

The board is also supposed to arbitrate inmate grievances, but it’s been a long time since it performed that function. The agency can’t even check out inmate complaints.

In this latest—and monumental—task of overseeing major changes in the huge jail system, board chair Hildy Simmons says the board and its staff have done “extraordinary work” in reviewing each proposal. “I believe the process has been open and fair,” she says. “It’s gone on for a couple of years. There’s been ample opportunity for all interested parties to comment.”

Behind the scenes, however, sources familiar with the process tell the
Voice that the review has been superficial and undercut by backroom politics. Moreover, they say, the board has surrendered a large portion of its oversight role and sacrificed its independence.

Sources tell the Voice that the full board has yet to have a true in-depth conversation about each of the proposals. “We never really sat down as a group and really took it apart,” a board member says.

The board will vote without seeing actual written plans on how each measure will be executed. How, for example, will the DOC eavesdrop on phone calls without listening in on moms talking to their sons? How will the department require uniforms but still let inmates wear civvies to their court appearances? How do you prevent future jail commissioners from locking everyone—even those who haven’t been to trial—in their cells 23 hours a day? The devil, after all, is in the details.

So, has the board sought an independent analysis of these questions? Uh, no. Instead, the Board of Correction staff has essentially been sidelined. Sources say that no one, including Simmons, has asked them to do an in-depth examination of the proposals beyond simply compiling public comments. And no outside experts have been asked to do any independent research.

Other than Simmons, none of the current board members would comment, and the board’s executive director, Richard Wolf, refused an interview.

In a letter to the board last May, board member Richard Nahman complained that the proposals were put together by just three board members and the Department of Correction, with little opportunity for comment from other members. No outside experts were consulted, he said, and no substantive research was done.

The proposals, and the board’s handling of them, have been roundly panned in the diaspora of former BOC officials. “The thrust is to return most of the control to the commissioner, and to set standards that leave practically nothing for the board to do,” says John Horan, a former board member.

“In my opinion, this is no longer an independent board,” says former board member David Lenefsky. “This board is doing what the correction commissioner wants, with no serious evaluation.”

John Brickman, a former executive director, adds: “The board is, in effect, the conscience of the community, and I don’t think the proposals really fulfill that obligation. There’s supposed to be a tension between the board and the correction department. If that doesn’t exist, the board flat-out isn’t doing its job.”

Some observers say that Simmons is too chummy with Horn to be truly independent. She worked in the state prison system long ago at the same time as Horn, and they remain friends. “There’s no arm’s-length relationship,” a source says.

Simmons was appointed to the board by Gail Prudenti, a presiding judge in the State Appellate Division, on a recommendation from Bloomberg’s criminal-justice coordinator, John Feinblatt. Department of Correction spokesman Stephen Morello says when Feinblatt proposed her for the board, Horn—whose department Simmons was going to be overseeing—enthusiastically supported the idea.

Soon after she arrived, she began to push for changes to the jail system’s “minimum standards” that make them harsher.

“At first, she got nowhere,” says Horan, whose term was not renewed. “There were enough of us to resist it, until they got rid of us.”

Simmons, who has had a long career in corporate philanthropy, says she’s outraged that anyone would question her independence. “I am offended by the notion, given my professional background,” she says.

Predictably, Feinblatt defends the board’s response, saying, “The Board of Correction has gone to great lengths to solicit input from all interested parties. By going far beyond what is required, the board will surely know the views of a wide cross section of individuals prior to its vote.”

The struggle over the minimum standards, meanwhile, has raised deeper questions about the board’s overall effectiveness. Under the city charter, in addition to its power to set minimum standards, the board has broad powers to inspect any jail, examine any DOC records, subpoena witnesses, conduct investigations, write reports, hear grievances, probe complaints, and evaluate the department’s performance.

But there is little evidence that the board has used those powers in recent years. No one can recall the last time the BOC issued a public report on the jails or did an investigation. A special meeting in June was the first public hearing on a single subject in many years.

One other note: Last week, just a month before the looming November vote, the board abruptly canceled its October meeting. Not enough members were planning to show up.