Chief of Correction Department “Retires” Amidst Scandal, The Prison System Is Still Screwed

Commissioner Ponte at signing of Intro 292, a law that requires the DOC to post data about inmates (Photo: Department of Correction)

Officials announced Tuesday that William Clemons, one of the top guns at New York City Department of Correction, will leave his post as Chief. According to a New York Times reporta department spokesperson said that Clemons, after serving just five months in his position, is “retiring.” By this morning, Joandrea Davis and Gregory McLaughlin (both deputies) had also stepped down. The rhetoric also changed overnight–today, a spokesman said the two officials’ departure is a result of “a restructuring” spearheaded by Commissioner Joseph Ponte.

Chief Clemons recently became embroiled in an ever-evolving scandal for his culpability in grossly distorted statistics related to violence at Rikers Island and released in 2011. The numbers made it appear as though incidents physical violence between inmates had dropped precipitously. When the statistics were released, Clemons was warden of the prison that we now know has seen a dramatic increase in violence (240 percent) over the past decade.

Given the revelations in the report released by the Justice Department back in August, and the findings of investigative reporters at the Times in July, it’s not exactly surprising that Clemons stepped down. Both reports found that instances of brutality committed by guards against prisoners (including adolescent boys and mentally ill prisoners) were pervasive.

But last month it came to light that Clemons’s career probably should have ended long before the reports became public. An investigation into incidents at Rikers between 2011 and 2013 conducted by the Justice Department, and uncovered by the Times in September, connected Clemons to the distorted numbers. The Times found that the report, previously issued to the Department of Corrections, recommended Clemons and the deputy warden “both be demoted ‘based on their admitted lack of attention to critical duties and responsibilities of jail management.'”

What’s surprising then, is that it took this long for Clemons to move down the ladder. Even prior to the report becoming public, when Mr. Clemons was up for promotion to Chief, the Department of Investigation reviewed the candidate and recommended he not be promoted. Makes sense, right?

But newly appointed Commissioner Joseph Ponte went ahead and promoted Clemons to Chief anyway. In doing so, Ponte effectively followed in the footsteps of the previous Commissioner, Dora Schriro. As the Times article stated:

“Mr. Clemons was promoted by Ms. Schriro to assistant chief of administration in the midst of the internal investigation.”

Subsequently under Schriro, no one was punished for the distorted data, even after the results of the Justice Department’s investigation were made clear the the Correction Department.

One of the major issues with Rikers Island– in addition to the pervasive violence committed against inmates, amongst inmates, and self-inflicted by inmates– is the lack of transparency. It’s a super secret island where reporters are rarely allowed, and even the Justice Department had difficulty uncovering how things work there (particularly when it comes to how internal investigations into wrongdoing are conducted at Rikers).

And what better way to ensure that a notoriously shady operation like Rikers Island is actually addressing ubiquitous violence than to make things a little more transparent? One way not to achieve greater transparency is to reward department leaders that continue to promote officials involved in coverups.

If you buy that, then you probably also find it confounding that Commissioner Joseph Ponte is still around, despite having promoted Clemons (to the dismay of City Council Members and the Department of Investigation) even after it was known that the former warden had played a role in the release of the distorted data.

Sure, even officials make mistakes. But Ponte’s mishaps are evidence not of a reformist break with the past (the context in which Ponte was initially framed), but a continuation of the opaque rewards system that benefits powerful people who have abused that power.

Worse yet, Ponte has repeatedly defended his decision to promote Clemons (he claims that he didn’t see the full report from the investigation beforehand) AND Mr. Clemons himself.

Instead of punishing these either corrupt, inattentive, or incompetent individuals, somehow this system works to move these people up the chain of command. The fact that this is happening over and over again, and increasingly in the view of the public eye with little remorse on the part of Corrections officials, indicates that the way to get things done in the prison system is not to fix them, but to cover them up.

New York’s boldest indeed.

Still crazier, given the facts, is that Mayor de Blasio has continued to stand by Commissioner Ponte. Yesterday, the two stood side-by-side once again to introduce a new program that seeks to curb suicide and self-harm in the city’s jails and find out why such things happen in detention.

The announcement recalls the case of Jose Bautista, a horrific story of abuse recounted by the Times. While in detention at Rikers for a misdemeanor charge, Bautista attempted suicide. After being cut down from a hand-fashioned noose, Bautista (who stands at a slight 5-foot-five) was wrestled to the ground and beaten by four Rikers guards who injured Bautista so seriously, he almost died:

Feces from the perforated bowel were leaching into his abdomen. ‘My stomach was swelling,’ Mr. Bautista said.

In a few hours, he said, he was put into a van and thought he was going to the hospital, but instead was driven around and returned to the clinic.

There is a charade at Rikers, widely known by jail employees and jokingly referred to by some as ‘bus therapy’ — where guards will load an inmate they do not want around into a van and drive him in circles.

[…]

In the written account that the four officers filed within an hour of the incident, none reported being injured.

They described what happened as routine, that they had used standard body holds,’“guided’ him to the floor, applied flex-cuffs, ‘assisted Bautista to his feet,’ and escorted him to the clinic.”

Bautista arrived at the hospital several hours later and doctors had to perform emergency surgery to save his life.

This incident drives home the fact that whether suicide attempts are maliciously misreported or misinterpreted by guards, they are inherently wrapped up in and made worse by this same lack of transparency.

The Mayor’s announcement (as timed with William Clemons’s “retirement”) is indicative of how supposed reforms to the corrections system are proceeding in New York City. Instead of targeting what’s actually broken (the system, corrupt and/or incompetent officials) efforts are focusing their attention elsewhere, in this case their efforts are aimed at fixing the prisoners.

The “retirement” of Clemons and the absence of real change or acknowledgement of responsibility as of yesterday indicated that, sadly, the Department of Corrections will be allowed to carry on as it has, despite consistent reminders that the system as a whole needs to be overhauled. The only way to really change things and stop this cycle of cover-ups and incompetence, is to remove those from power who continue to feed the fire. This morning’s “shakeup” offers a glimmer of hope that perhaps Commissioner Ponte is serious about reform.

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