- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

NEW YORK (AP) - Joseph Ponte, who since 2011 has headed Maine’s prisons and is widely credited with reducing by two thirds the number of inmates in solitary confinement there, was named New York City’s jails chief on Tuesday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a City Hall news conference that his new pick would be tasked with reforming a department that, in size and scope, is bigger than many state systems but that, “sadly lagged behind many correction systems in terms of upgrading some of its practices and procedures.”

He also credited the longtime corrections official - who has served as a warden in jails and prisons in Nevada, Florida, Tennessee, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts - for also reforming how mentally ill inmates are treated, and how to reduce jail violence both by inmates and correction staff.

In Maine, Ponte has headed a state system of about 2,100 inmates in six adult facilities and two juvenile ones. That’s much smaller than New York City’s system, which has about 12,000 inmates, most of them housed at the 10-facility Rikers Island complex.

“In Maine, I take all emergency calls personally,” he said to laughter from the audience. “I won’t do that in New York City.”

Ponte said he would work with the powerful 9,000-member correction officers’ union and others to identify what changes he’ll make in New York but said research has found that long-term segregation conflicts with the mission of rehabilitation.

A spokesman for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association had no comment on the announcement.

The New York City Board of Correction, which has an oversight role over the DOC, has initiated the process of changing the rules that govern when solitary can be used for adolescent and mentally ill inmates. There will be two public hearings on the topics this summer and fall.

Advocates also say there is a culture of violence at Rikers that has long gone unaddressed and is in dire need of reform.

Last week The Associated Press reported, based on an internal city report obtained via a public records request, that nearly a third of Rikers inmates who said their visible injuries came at the hands of a correction officer last year suffered blows to the head, a tactic that’s supposed to be used by correction officers as a last resort because it’s potentially fatal.

Also Tuesday, the mayor named Ana Bermudez as the city’s next probation commissioner, Elizabeth Glazer to lead the mayor’s office of criminal justice, and former probations head Vincent Schiraldi as a senior adviser to the mayor’s office on criminal justice.

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