NYC Corrections Department Commissioner Joe Ponte took a government car while on seven weeks of vacation. Then, his department spied on investigations into Rikers Island. Why is Mayor Bill de Blasio protecting him?
What’s going on with Rikers Island?
The jail on Rikers Island is widely acknowledged to be a mess, one of the most dangerous places in New York for both inmates and guards. De Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte, the former Maine prisons chief, to reform the jail system. However, if anything, things have gotten worse and last week, the State Correction Commission declared that the Rikers Island jail failed to meet minimum safety standards. Adding to the litany, the City just paid $1.2 million to two women who were raped by a Rikers guard while they were held there awaiting trial.
Besides endangering thousands of people awaiting trial, Rikers demonstrates the larger need to reform the criminal justice system.
So what is Joe Ponte doing?
The jails chief seems to be hopelessly out of his depth. Ponte bumbled through a City Council hearing about taking a government car on weeks of vacation. With Mayor de Blasio defending him, Ponte insisted he just followed incorrect guidance, though Ponte’s former subordinate, the former First Deputy Commissioner, countered that Ponte was confused and he never advised Ponte to do anything similar.
His reaction to problems in the jails has been, if anything, worse. On Monday, Ponte admitted that he had not read a blue-ribbon commission report on the problems of Rikers Island which recommended shutting it down.
To lead the unit charged with rooting out abuse, he appointed Gregory Kuczinski, a lawyer with no experience in the role. Then, when he found out that the investigators were spying on independent investigations into Rikers Island, Ponte did nothing.
That’s explosive: what happened?
In a letter to Mayor de Blasio, the Mark Peters, the Commissioner of the Investigation Department reported that the Corrections Department interfered with their work, spying on informants and eavesdropping on investigators’ conversations with the informants.
And the interference came from the top: Gregory Kuczinski, Deputy Commissioner for the Investigation Division. (Unlike the Department of Investigation, the Investigation Division is part of the overall Corrections Department).
Ponte insisted that “there was no intent to interfere with D.O.I. and anything they were doing.” Once the Department of Corrections realized what they were listening to, they stopped the surveillance, according to Ponte. However, while he learned about the spying in February because another official stopped it, he didn’t follow city rules and neglected to notify the Department of Investigations, according to the New York Times’ reporting.
After the New York Times broke the story, the Corrections Department announced that Kuczinski was reassigned, though not fired, and his bio is still listed on the Corrections Department website for the same role.
What does the future hold?
A wide spectrum of leaders and activists including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and criminal justice advocates now agree that Rikers should be closed down. De Blasio’s recent budget proposal even included money to figure out a replacement for Rikers Island.
However, without strong leadership which Ponte seems unable to offer, New York City will have problems replacing the Rikers Island jail. And the people incarcerated on the island will continue to suffer in the meantime.
Why doesn’t de Blasio just fire Joe Ponte?
This scandal comes soon after a series of negative stories for the NYPD, underscoring Bill de Blasio’s difficult balancing act. As he runs for re-election, he’s trying to keep both his progressive supporters who care about criminal justice reform (including on Rikers Island) without further alienating the law enforcement officers whose cooperation he needs to enact policy and keep New York safe.
Update: Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito Calls for Ponte to Go
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, declaring that the City shouldn’t “create double standards”, called for Commissioner Joseph Ponte to be fired. “There is a lot of work,” that needs to happen at Rikers Island, she said, and “at this point his leadership is lacking.”