NEW YORK — The New York City jail oversight board voted Tuesday to move forward on proposed changes to city rules governing, among other things, who can visit inmates and how long particularly violent prisoners can be placed in solitary confinement.
In a 5-3 vote, the watchdog Board of Correction initiated the bureaucratic rule-making process for changes that corrections officials have argued are necessary to stop violence but inmate advocates argue will have the opposite effect.
The most contentious issue surrounds the roughly 300,000 visitors to city jails every year and a proposal by corrections officials to deny visitors based on certain factors, including whether they'd been convicted of a felony in the past seven years or had no familial or close relationships to an inmate.
"We're not focused on any one thing — it's a combination of things," jails Commissioner Joseph Ponte said. "Is this a positive relationship or one that should be disallowed?"
But some board members argued that the proposed restrictions were too ambiguously written and asked for more data showing the relationships between the 193 visitors arrested for smuggling contraband into the Rikers Island jail complex so far this year and the inmates they were scheduled to see. They also said inmate visits kept the jails safe by keeping prisoners connected to the outside world.
"I don't think we should be going this way right now," board member Dr. Bobby Cohen said.
The board will be able to make changes to the rules before adopting them as law after holding a public hearing and allowing the public to comment.
Also at issue is a proposal giving the chief of department the power to keep an inmate who commits a violent act in solitary confinement during a mandated seven-day reprieve from 23-hour isolation between 30-day stints.
Jail officials have argued solitary is the safest housing for particularly violent inmates and a needed tool for jail guards. But some board members said overriding the seven-day respite from solitary time was a step backward, urging jail officials to consider using other secure housing units for dangerous inmates instead.