Rikers Island inmates chained to their desks while in class; New York Prison Oversight Board not consulted on rule change
Dozens of Rikers Island inmates are shackled and handcuffed to purpose-built tables when they participate in classes or other group activities, despite a promise last year by the city’s Commissioner of Corrections to end the practice.
Corrections sources told the Daily News that the 74 inmates in Rikers’ three housing units are sometimes shackled. According to the department, specially made metal tables are used to deter “potentially violent inmates during therapeutic, educational, programming and/or recreational classroom activities.”
“Restraint tables are an important tool in dealing with problem populations prone to acts of serious violence,” Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina told the city’s Board of Corrections at a meeting last week. “The desktop allows you to consistently provide programming and communication with peers. [while] as well as security.”
Molina’s comment marked a turning point since last July, when he told a WNYC radio host, “We’re removing the containment tables that were part of our restrictive containment system.”
Metal tables have been used at Rikers for about six years now. They come in two versions – one with a single seat, and the other with double seats, in which the prisoners face each other.
In both versions, the detainees’ legs are chained through a steel rod built into a table that is bolted to the floor. One hand is handcuffed and chained through a ring welded to the table.
Asked by Board of Corrections member Bobby Cohen, Molina acknowledged that tables were still being used to protect, as he put it, “highly violent individuals.”
Cohen, a physician, noted at the meeting that Molina had just testified that there had been a 14.4% reduction in stabbing and cuts across the system in the last nine months.
“Now you tell us that the violence has subsided, and a month ago you restored the containment chairs. Why did you do that?” Cohen asked. “The board spent a lot of time trying to put an end to this agonizing process.”
The controversy began in July last year when the DOC was about to launch a program called the Risk Management Accountability Framework, a replacement for solitary confinement that allows prisoners to spend more time outside their cells.
Once the risk management accountability system was due to go live, Molina announced that he would use a different model called Enhanced Supervision Housing instead. Along with emergency orders signed by Mayor Adams suspending many of the rules that govern prisons, the Housing Authority with Enhanced Supervision allowed the use of restraint tables.
Molina explained that he needed a way to provide more security for abusive prisoners, and initially wanted to use so-called “mittens” or large, thick mittens that cover the hands and are designed to prevent cuts and stabbing.
But he said federal monitor Steve Martin, a court-appointed prison warden, and Department of Corrections consultant James Austin advised him to use tables for containment.
“Our expert and observer had doubts about the use of holding gloves outside the camera,” Molina said. “So the alternative we had was the containment table. When we submitted this to the federal overseer, it was approved.”
Martin did not respond to the email, but Austin confirmed Molina’s point. Austin said violence has “significantly” been reduced in high-security units where tables are used for containment. Once a detainee proves they are not a threat, Austin says they are transferred to another unit where containment tables are not used.
“Commissioner Molina is right – this is a much better approach than handcuffs/mittens as it allows you to actively participate in rehab programs in a more normal way,” Austin told The News.
At a Board of Corrections meeting, Cohen complained that the board had not been consulted on the change. “Restricted tables are not the best option for treatment,” he said. “They are dangerous from a medical point of view. They are painful. They are humiliating and I hope you take them off as soon as possible.”
Molina countered, “The problem, Dr. Cohen, is that death is also very dangerous. And we can’t let someone kill another person.”
Tahani Dunn, director of the Bronx Defense Inmate Rights Project, said the Department of Corrections’ use of desks “bypasses” the Board of Corrections’ authority to approve prison rules. “This is yet another example of the department’s disregard for the authority of the board of directors,” Dunn said.
While Molina insists the tighter housing is for the most violent inmates, Dunn noted that one of her clients served 60 days in the more stringent housing despite having no record of previous assaults or disciplinary offenses. .
Board of Corrections Chairman Duane Sampson was especially quiet during the tense conversation between Cohen and Molina. Neither he nor interim board chief executive Jasmine Georges-Villa responded to a request for comment.
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