- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - After touring New York City’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex for the first time since taking office, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday announced the end of the longstanding practice of putting 16- and 17-year-old inmates who break jailhouse rules in solitary confinement.

De Blasio made the announcement while speaking to reporters in the chapel of the Rikers facility that houses young inmates - the same facility at the center of a scathing Department of Justice report that found teenage inmates were too often placed in 23-hour confinement and beaten by jail guards.

Instead of isolation, young inmates who break jailhouse rules will now be sent to two new units where they’ll receive a range of services from one-on-one therapy to programming that teaches decision making, de Blasio said.

“We know some people come here from very tough circumstances. We know people come here who have made mistakes, in many cases very dire mistakes,” the mayor said. “But our job is not to write them off - it is to see if we can bring them back.”

There were 91 adolescents in solitary on Jan. 1, the day de Blasio took office, and they were all moved out of solitary by Dec. 4, the mayor said.

New York’s jail system, the nation’s second largest, has come under increased scrutiny this year after The Associated Press first reported the horrific deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates and other problems at Rikers.

The city is still negotiating with federal prosecutors following their August review of conditions for adolescent inmates at the Robert N. Davoren Complex, which included 18-year-olds, Commissioner Joseph Ponte said. There are dozens of 18-year-old inmates at Rikers, who are no longer grouped with 16- and 17-year-old inmates, still serving time in solitary confinement in other jail facilities.

De Blasio’s tour was the first time he had been to Rikers since the 1980s when he was in a fellowship program during the administration of Mayor Ed Koch, he said.

He greeted correction officers and visited with six young inmates wearing brown jumpsuits, including a 17-year-old who spent 110 days in punitive segregation and owed 166 more days before entering the second-chance housing program where he’s now showing progress, the mayor said.

“I talked to this young man and it’s clear he’s had his problems, he’s had his troubles, but being given this chance fully registered with him,” de Blasio said. “If he wants to turn his life around, this is the chance to do it: That means no violence.”

The mayor also visited the largest Rikers facility, the 2,300-bed Anna M. Kross Center, where many of the most seriously mentally ill inmates are held. The mentally ill now account for about 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 daily New York inmates.

Ponte said he was working facility by facility to implement reforms and teach officers the new approach to handling young inmates, which has required “many one-on-ones with staff to convince them that we probably can find a better way of doing business,” he said.

“We know it works, we know we have staff willing to participate, we know we have the resources,” he said. “All we need now is the time to process these changes.”

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