NYCDS testifies at NYC Board of Correction
Rachel Sznajderman Natalie Fiorenzo Corrections Specialists
New York County Defender Services
New York City Board of Correction Public Meeting
June 14, 2022
We are Rachel Sznajderman and Natalie Fiorenzo, Corrections Specialists at New York County Defender Services, a public defender office in Manhattan that represents thousands of indigent individuals accused of crimes every year. As Corrections Specialists, we are responsible for communicating with and advocating for our incarcerated clients. When these clients express concerns relating to their health or living conditions in the jails, it is our job to intervene and advocate on their behalf to address underlying issues or unmet needs.
The latest update from DOC regarding implementation of RMAS leaves many questions unanswered. The biggest change that RMAS enacts is access to counsel during disciplinary hearings for incarcerated people accused of violating jail rules. Yet defender organizations have been completely left out of the conversation and planning for RMAS implementation. Last month, board staff came to us with the exact same questions that we posed to DOC in December 2021. As of today we still do not have clear information from DOC about what they expect RMAS hearings to look like. Our recent meeting with Board staff offered few answers and seemingly little support. They urged us instead to circle back with DOC, which we have since done.
Our communication with DOC has been less than satisfactory. For example, when we asked DOC for specific directives that outline the possible punishments for the various infraction
levels, we were told we would have to FOIL it. How can defender offices effectively or practically represent clients in disciplinary hearings if we do not even know the infraction level or potential punishments of the alleged offense? Unsurprisingly, the meeting we scheduled with DOC to try to get some of these questions answered was canceled and postponed without explanation.
If the Board wants RMAS implementation to proceed successfully, we ask for your assistance in getting answers to our questions of the Department. Typically during these Board meetings it feels like we are yelling into the void with no response in return. We hope this time will be different. Our specific questions are as follows.
a. RMAS QUESTIONS
- Will you supply defender offices with the directives outlining the elements of various offenses, all of the infraction levels and potential punishments? Defenders previously requested this information via FOIL.
- Notification process - who is DOC going to notify? Please let me know if you need the contact information of the point people from our
- Are you going to record counsel refusals (e.g. when a person allegedly says they don’t want counsel to represent them in an RMAS hearing)? Can we be provided the video as soon as it happens?
- Will we be notified of infractions if a client “refused” counsel? For example, if a client gets a ticket and does not want representation, will we ever be notified, or will we never be made aware of the infraction?
- Will plea bargains be allowed? If so, how can defenders reach DOC counsel to engage in the plea bargaining process?
- Will we immediately get access to video evidence, or will we have to request that from DOC?
- How will we get access to video? Will it happen in a timely manner?
- What is the maximum number of days a person can spend in RMAS?
- Who is the DOC point person for this? Who do we reach out to schedule hearings?
- Does RMAS apply to young adults?
- Have the RMAS units been built? Can we see a photo?
b. RMAS CONCERNS
Chief among our concerns about RMAS implementation is how refusals are going to be handled. In our minds, the worst case scenario is that “RMAS begins,” but clients are never made aware of their ability to request counsel. Hundreds of hearings happen without our having knowledge of it until the client has spent 30 days in solitary. We do not trust the Department to accurately report refusals. DOC staff have lied about refusals time and time again. They have even been found to lie about refusals on the record. How are we supposed to trust that refusals are real? We are doing everything in our power to inform our clients of their rights, but we are concerned that vulnerable clients will be taken advantage of, and put through this process without their defense team ever being notified.
ii. Speedy Trial
In the past, DOC has stated that they will not allow plea bargaining during these disciplinary hearings. Previously, requesting video footage from DOC has proven to be a lengthy process. Some of our clients have also shared that hearings are often put off because DOC staff don't want to do extra paperwork. For these reasons, we are concerned that there will be a significant lag time between when a client is placed in Pre-Hearing Detention, and when they have their disciplinary hearing. We are deeply concerned that clients will be forced to serve the maximum sentence for whatever they are being accused of before the hearing has even begun as they await their hearing. What kind of restitution will there be for our clients who this will inevitably happen to, if it is found that they are not guilty of what they are accused of?
iii. Continuance of EOs
Lastly, we are concerned that the Department will continue to weaponize executive orders as a loophole to evade following the law. How can we ensure that RMAS is actually going to begin, when we’ve been in this exact same place a year ago, and at the end of 2021? Will there be consequences if the Department continues to stall? What is the Board doing to ensure that RMAS is eventually implemented?
III. Deaths in Custody
In the last Board meeting we discussed three of the deaths in custody that took place in 2022. Since the meeting, there have been three more deaths. Dashawn Carter, Mary Yehudah, and Emmanuel Sullivan died under your watch. I ask every single one of you to visit the jails, as I do every week I want you to see the inhuman conditions that people are subject to by the Department. I want you to understand why these conditions would compel someone to
self-medicate with substances, why they would drive someone to take their own life. Go unannounced to the units that we have been bringing to your attention again and again and again.
Go see ESH. Go see the units where Mr. Carter, Ms. Yehudah, and Mr. Sullivan passed. Do it unexpectedly, and do it often.
If you have any questions about our testimony today, please email