Rikers Island detainees shackled to desks during classroom sessions; NYC jail oversight board not consulted on rule change
Dozens of Rikers Island inmates are shackled and handcuffed to specially-built desks when they participate in classes or other group activities — despite a promise last year by the city Correction Commissioner to stop the practice.
Seventy-four detainees in three Rikers housing units are sometimes shackled in restraint desks, correction sources told the Daily News. The specially-built metal desks are used to restrain “potentially disruptive inmates during therapeutic, educational, programming, and/or recreational sessions in a classroom setting,” the department says.
“Restraint desks are a critical tool in managing a challenging population prone to acts of serious violence,” Correction Commissioner Louis Molina told the city Board of Correction at a meeting last week. “The desk enables the consistent provision of programming and socialization with peers [while] also ensuring safety.”
Molina’s comment was a turnaround from last July, when he told a WNYC radio host: “We’re removing the restraint desks that were part of our restrictive housing system.”
The metal desks have been in use at Rikers for around six years. They come in two versions — one with a single seat, and another with double seats in which detainees face each other.
On both versions, detainees’ legs are chained through a steel bar built into the desk, which is bolted to the floor. One arm is secured with handcuffs and a chain, which is looped through a ring welded to the desk.
Under pointed questioning by Board of Correction member Bobby Cohen, Molina acknowledged that use of the desks has continued for the purpose of securing, as he put it, “individuals with a high propensity for violence.”
Cohen, a medical doctor, noted at the meeting that Molina had just testified that stabbings and slashings were down system-wide 14.4% in the last nine months.
“Now you are telling us that violence is down and yet a month ago, you reinstituted the restraint chairs. Why did you do it?” Cohen asked. “The board spent a long time trying to end this tortuous process.”
The controversy began last July when DOC was about to embark on a program called the Risk Management Accountability System, a replacement for solitary confinement that allowed detainees more out-of-cell time.
Just as the Risk Management Accountability System was about to start, Molina announced he would instead go with a different model called Enhanced Supervision Housing. Along with emergency orders signed by Mayor Adams suspending many rules governing the jails, Enhanced Supervision Housing allowed the restraint desks.
Molina explained he needed a way to provide greater security for violent detainees and initially wanted to use so-called “mitts,” or large, thick mittens which cover the hands and are intended to prevent slashings and stabbings.
But he said federal monitor Steve Martin, a court-appointed overseer of the jails, and Correction Department consultant James Austin advised him to use the restraint desks.
“Our expert and the monitor had reservations about using restraint mitts when out of cell,” Molina said. “So the alternative we had was the restraint desk. When we submitted that to the federal monitor, that is what was approved.”
The Daily News Flash
Catch up on the day’s top five stories every weekday afternoon.
Martin did not reply to an email, but Austin confirmed Molina’s view. Austin said violence has declined “significantly” in the Enhanced Supervision Housing units, where restraint desks are used. When a detainee proves he’s not a risk, he’s transferred to another unit where restraint desks are not used, Austin said.
“Commissioner Molina is correct — this is a much better approach than the handcuff/mitts as it allows one to actively participate in rehabilitative programs in a more normal manner,” Austin told The News.
At the Board of Correction meeting, Cohen complained that the board had not been consulted on the change. “Restraint desks are not a sound medical option,” he said. “They are medically dangerous. They are torturous. They are humiliating and I hope you take them down as soon as possible.”
Molina countered: “The problem, Dr. Cohen, is that death is also a very dangerous thing. And we cannot allow an opportunity for someone to kill another person.”
Tahanee Dunn, director of the Bronx Defenders’ Prisoners’ Rights Project, said the Correction Department’s use of the desks is “circumventing” the Board of Correction’s right to approve jail policies. “This is another example of the department’s disregard for the board’s authority,” Dunn said.
Though Molina insists Enhanced Supervision Housing is reserved for the most violent detainees, Dunn noted that one of her clients served 60 days in that more restrictive housing despite having no records on file of prior assaults or disciplinary infractions.
Board of Correction Chair Dwayne Sampson was notably silent during the tense exchange between Cohen and Molina. Neither he nor the board’s interim executive director, Jasmine Georges-Villa, replied to a request for comment.