NYCLU Urges City Council to Oppose Jail Standard Changes

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
June 7, 2007 12:00 am

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Group Says Proposed Changes Endanger Prisoners and Tread on Rights

NEW YORK – In testimony today before the New York City Council, the New York Civil Liberties Union will argue that proposed changes to the Minimum Standards governing New York City jails would erode civil liberties and public safety and unfairly punish pre-trial prisoners who have not been convicted of any crime. Along with a coalition of advocates, the NYCLU will ask the City Council to urge the New York City Board of Correction to abandon the proposed changes.

“The amendments proposed by the Board of Correction would dramatically expand censorship of publications and surveillance of private communications between the public and people held in detention,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Corey Stoughton, who will deliver the testimony. “Because they are an unnecessary intrusion into the privacy rights of prisoners who have not been convicted of any crime, the City Council should join the call to withdraw the proposed changes to the Minimum Standards.”

The amendments proposed by the Board of Correction include:

  • Authorizing warrantless surveillance of telephone calls and mail. The new rules would permit jail officials to record and listen to phone calls for any reason and would lower the standard for reading and opening mail and packages. The new standards would not, in some instances, provide notification to prisoners that they are subject to surveillance. The new standards also lack crucial protections for privileged correspondence with physicians, clergy, and possibly attorneys.
  • Granting jail officials authority to limit prisoners’ correspondence. The amendments would permit jail officials to deny prisoners the ability to send and receive mail and packages, potentially depriving prisoners of the ability to communicate with the outside world, including friends, family, attorneys, clergy, and advocacy and regulatory bodies that police prison conditions.
  • Increasing jail officials’ power to censor publications received by prisoners. The proposals would authorize the Department to censor any publication that it determines “may compromise the safety and security of the facility.” This standard, the NYCLU argues, is excessively vague and susceptible to overbroad interpretation; prison officials could use it to ban publications criticizing the correctional facility or system.
  • Watering down the requirement to provide Spanish-language interpreters. The changes would eliminate the requirement that jails have sufficient Spanish-speaking staff to assist prisoners, and replace it with a more “flexible” goal of ensuring non-English speakers can understand orders from prison officials.

The changes would also increase crowding in prison rooms without increasing prison staffing to ensure safety; expand 23-hour cell lock-ins to detainees in protective custody; and deny prisoners contact visits with their families and friends during the first 24 hours of their jail stays.

The NYCLU joins a coalition of advocates and public figures, including the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project, the Innocence Project, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and former members of the Board of Correction, among others, in recommending that the Board withdraw the proposed amendments and conduct a full and fair deliberative process that considers civil liberties and public safety concerns, as well as community input, before proposing any changes to the Minimum Standards. City Council Member Miguel Martinez has also called on the Board to withdraw the current proposals and re-start the amendment process.

“The proposed amendments reflect a completely one-sided process in which the Department of Correction pressed its agenda, parties who might have questioned or opposed the Department’s positions were excluded, and there was no voice to speak for the prisoners and the communities from which they come,” said John Boston of the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project.

The hearing, convened by the Fire and Criminal Justice Services Committee of the City Council, will be held at 10:00 a.m. this morning in the City Council Chambers on the 2nd Floor of City Hall.

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