High Security Unit Opens at Rikers

NEW YORK — A new enhanced supervision housing unit opened within Rikers Island’s Otis Bantum Correctional Center in New York on Feb. 22. The recently renovated unit is designed to house up to 50 of the facility’s most violent inmates, though it will hold just 20 for the time being, better ensuring the safety of fellow inmates and correctional staff. The project was funded through Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s $27 million commitment to close security gaps at the facility.

The Otis Bantum Correctional Center was constructed in the 1980s and received a thorough renovation in the months prior to its opening, including a new green and yellow paint job. Now with safe, correctional grade furnishings and more than 20 security cameras, the special unit will house roughly 6 percent of Riker’s estimated 11 total inmates. Those being transferred are considered high security and may have previously assaulted staff or fellow inmates, or been cited for weapons or drug smuggling, while incarcerated.

A team of more than 30 correctional officers handpicked for the position by Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte will supervise the unit, with four on duty at all times. Inmates will spend the majority of their day within the unit, leaving only for medical appointments, outdoor recreation, court or legal appointments and scheduled visitation. Various programming such as parenting and anger management classes will take place within the space, which also allows inmates access to a law library.

The unit was developed as part of the department’s efforts to improve safety and security at the notorious prison. In December, federal prosecutors announced plans to sue the city over the handling of juvenile inmates at Rikers. Several months earlier the U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District, Preet Bharara, released a report highlighting a culture of violence throughout the facility, felt severely by its younger inmates. The report, based on research and observation conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office between January 2011 and April 2013, found that adolescent inmates “are not adequately protected from harm caused by other inmates” and that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive.” The reviewers also noted that, though they focused primarily on adolescent inmates, the investigation suggested that the system deficiencies “may exist in equal measure at other jails on Rikers.”

To address these concerns, the City of New York Department of Corrections already has improved hiring and training practices for correctional staff and capped the amount of time an inmate can spend in solitary confinement, stopping the practice altogether for 16-year-old and 17-year-old inmates. It will also phase out solitary confinement for inmates to up age 21 in the coming months.