Cleaning (the Big) House: Correction Shake-Up Part of Image, Mission Overhaul

The recently resigned former top uniformed officer in the Department of Correction was forced out by a commissioner who is pressing ahead to improve the image and performance of the embattled agency, sources told WNYC.

Larry Davis, Sr., resigned as No. 2 jail official and highest ranking uniformed officer last weekend in the midst of a Department of Investigation probe into allegations that some of his subordinates were getting special treatment – including the ability to take a department SUV home.

Davis's exit from the agency comes as DOC Commissioner Dr. Dora Schriro is doubling down on internal integrity controls — including the establishment of an Office of Excellence headed by Florence Finkle, former director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Schriro said the DOC maintains "extremely high standards" for the conduct of its workforce, which, because the department has little public interaction, often faces "those 'Oz'-type stereotypes" that have no bearing on reality.

"And when there is the occasional person who works contrary to that and the organization there are consequences," Schriro told WNYC, "and we are not shy or slow to bring about those consequences."    

Schriro, a native New Yorker and a nationally recognized change agent, was tapped by Michael Bloomberg two years ago after the beating death of an inmate and evidence of inmate favoritism had tarnished the department’s reputation.  

She helped turn around the Arizona prison system under then Governor Janet Napolitano, and later joined Napolitano at the Department of Homeland Security to triage the federal government's immigrant detention system.

To Arizona, she brought with her a program she had earlier pioneered called "Parallel Universe-Getting Ready," which helped inmates model what their life could be like once they served their time.

The Tucson Citizen reported the program cut inmate assaults by 46 percent and assaults on guards dropped by 41 percent.

"For those individuals who make good choices they can improve the condition of their detention," Schriro said. "And for those whose choices are poor than there are consequences. And those consequences are proportionate but swiftly and fairly applied."

Her makeover of the Arizona prison system became a national model for helping inmates stay out of jail, according to Michael Jacobson, a former Corrections commissioner who now leads the New York-based national research and policy organization the Vera Institute of Justice.

“She is very focused on mental illness, treatment building systems both inside and outside the facilities so that people don't recidivate again and again," he said.

An increasing number of those in DOC custody over the last five years are dealing with significant mental health issues, according to the mayor's management report, which finds they make up 30 percent of the average daily population.

The Bloomberg administration committed $1 billion to modernize the DOC’s facilities – including a new 1,500 bed facility at Rikers that Schriro hopes will give the agency the ability to identify medical, mental health and substance abuse problems.

"The facility will also have an expanded infirmary so that we will have the opportunity to place individuals in need of medical care or de-tox intervention in the same place and same time," she said.

The overall inmate population has decreased in large measure because of historically low crime rates in the city, officials and a report in the Scientific American recently found.

The daily inmate population in the city jail system reached its peak in the late 1980s and early 90s at 23,000. It is now below 13,000.

Jacobson, the former corrections commissioner, said that kind of decline also improves the odds that Schriro’s innovations can take root.

Attorney Leo Glickman, who specializes in representing both detainees and inmates in the city corrections system, said Schriro is setting the right tone.
“You can do all the programs and training you want to do  but it is not going to change the culture  of the corrections officer  in the facility until there is accountability top to bottom," said Glickman.
And past corruption and errant policies have been costly to resolve.

From 2009 to 2010, the amount paid by the city to settle legal claims against the DOC skyrocketed from $10.6 million to $43.7 million. Most of that came from one settlement for $33 million in a class action suit brought by people who claimed they were illegally strip searched.

The city had to settle two class actions on behalf of DOC — one in 2001 for $43 million dollars and a second one in 2002 for $5 million, for the same issue.

For attorney Glickman, who stays in close contact with his inmate clients, there are hopeful signs of change but still need for more progress.
“I believe the new Commissioner is doing a very good job in instituting programs that will ultimately benefit detainees and benefit the city; however, at this point, we are not seeing a reduction in the violence or the abuses of authority that occur on Rikers Island every day,” Glickman said.