International Business Times: Kalief Browder Suicide: Did Solitary Confinement Kill Him? Advocates On The ‘Torture’ Of Juvenile Detainees At Rikers Island


By Barbara Herman

When New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm first visited Rikers Island three years ago, he entered a cell to get a sense of what it was like to be detained there. It was the same kind of jail cell Kalief Browder was thrown into in 2010, at age 16, after being accused of stealing a backpack.

Although Browder was never convicted, and maintained until the end that he didn’t do it, he spent three years at the notorious New York jail, two in solitary confinement, awaiting trial because his parents couldn’t afford his bail. He attempted suicide several times there. His charges were dismissed — without a trial — and he was released on May 29, 2013, by a judge known for dismissing cases that had been backlogged for years. And even though he was beginning to get his life back together at age 22 and had celebrity advocates including Jay Z and Rosie O’Donnell, Browder committed suicide on Saturday, a tragic coda to a life whose story was powerfully reported by Jennifer Gonnerman of the New Yorker.

It’s hard not to connect his suicide directly with the psychological fallout of being incarcerated for three years in an adult facility, with regular beatings caught on surveillance video by guards and other inmates, and spending two years in solitary confinement. Juan Méndez, of the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, has said unequivocally that juvenile solitary confinement is torture.

“For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken,” U.S. attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara said at a news conference after looking into the conditions for male detainees at Rikers in August. “It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare.”

After the Justice Department gave a scathing review of what they called a “culture of violence” there, Dromm was able to get a bill passed he’d failed to with the Bloomberg administration which called for transparency at Rikers. Last August, the New York City Council approved the bill, which requires corrections officials to publish regular reports posted on the Department of Corrections website about who is in solitary confinement in city jails and at Rikers Island.

And in September, Rikers Island announced it was eliminating solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old detainees. Many questions remain about whether or not the system should be incarcerating 16-year-olds at all, often for minor crimes, or if solitary confinement has a place in the U.S. in the 21st century.

Charles Dickens Meets Guantanamo Bay

“It was horrible,” Dromm told International Business Times regarding his brief jail cell visit at Rikers Island. “I still get emotional when I think about what I saw. The conditions Kalief must have endured is hard to describe.”

“It was claustrophobic. It smelled like urine. There was graffiti on the walls and the paint was peeling,” said Dromm. “The bed was filled with dirt, grease, grime, and the blanket was covered with mildew and mold. And this was what they were willing to show me! With one small window and locked doors — I couldn’t imagine spending 23 hours a day there. Imagine being stuck in your bathroom alone for 23 hours a day.”

Although the official word is that detainees can leave their cell for one hour a day, Dromm said 24 hours a day is often the reality for juvenile detainees in solitary confinement. According to Dromm, corrections officers often try to wake detainees at 4 a.m. for their one hour of recreation time, and they often choose to continue sleeping instead. Dromm said he would rather use “detainee” than “inmate,” since Browder, like many other juveniles at Rikers, was there awaiting trial and should have been considered innocent until proven guilty.

The effects of solitary confinement on the human mind have been studied extensively.

Dr. Rami Kaminski, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, has worked with those housed in solitary confinement. “It’s a form of sensory deprivation,” he told IBTimes. “There’s noise, but no interaction with a human voice. That can be extremely scary. We get our reality check from other people.”

Symptoms, some of which show up within hours, include: visual and auditory hallucinations; paranoid thought; regressive breakdowns that cause detainees to throw feces or lay in a fetal position. “It can leave people with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They develop panic disorders, claustrophobia,” said Kaminski. “Solitary confinement should not exist. Crowd control doesn’t have to be brutal force. In general, our penal system needs to find cues on how to handle inmates with behavioral psychologists rather than the Spanish Inquisition.”

“Being home is way better than being in jail,” Browder told Gonnerman when she saw him last. “But in my mind right now, I feel like I’m still in jail, because I’m still feeling the side effects from what happened in there.”

Raise The Age

Any day now, a bill might pass in the assembly in Albany, New York that ends the automatic prosecution of 16-to-17-year-olds, raising the age someone can be considered an adult to 18.

New York and North Carolina are the only states that prosecute all youth as adults when they’re 16 years old. In 2013, over 33,000 16-and 17-year-olds were arrested as adults in New York State. And young people housed in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than if they’re housed in juvenile detention centers, according to Raise the Age, which raises awareness about the issue of the incarceration of young people in adult facilities.

For Angelo Pinto of Correctional Association of New York , founded in 1844, who advocates for juveniles in the system, being “tough on crime” doesn’t always yield the intended results.

“Years of research shows that putting a young person in an adult system increases their chances exponentially of ‘recidivating’ or reentering the system,” Pinto told IBTimes. “Brain development research has indicated that the brain doesn’t reach significant development until the age of 25. They’re still in the formative stages. What we’re saying when we put a 16-year-olds in with adults, is: We’re going to take you out of the community and put you in a hyperviolent, restrictive environment, and we expect you not to commit any crimes when you get out.”

For Browder, solitary confinement punctuated by hyperviolence, indefinitely imposed, made him turn violence against himself long after he got out, in spite of all the support he got after his case made headlines.

“Rikers should be shut down completely,” said Dromm. “But 16 – to-18-year-olds, they shouldn’t be there. It’s an easy first step for the administration to take. The torture Kalief endured could have an impact if it’s imprinted in people’s minds. Here’s a 16 year-old-kid, accused of a crime he insisted to his own detriment he didn’t commit. The government didn’t even have a witness against him. I say all New Yorkers are responsible for Kalief’s death. We have a moral obligation to speak up.”

Read more here.

DNAinfo: Former White Castle Office Site May Become School, Officials Say

cinco de mayo 020

By Katie Honan

The neighborhood may get something it’s been craving at the site of the former White Castle regional office, officials announced.

The School Construction Authority is in contract with the new owners of the site at 69-01 34th Ave. to acquire the land and eventually build a 450-seat elementary school, they said.

Once the process is completed, the building should open by September 2019, according to officials.

SCA officials presented their plan to the land use and education committees of Community Board 3 Tuesday, and the project is currently in the middle of a 45-day comment period before official approval for the purchase is obtained from the city.

Kenrick Ou, the director of real estate services for SCA, said the availability of the space was shared with them by City Councilman Danny Dromm.

“What’s driving this is need,” Ou said, noting that District 30 is the second most overcrowded in the city.

The former White Castle office building was purchased by a developer last November for more than $5 million, and would eventually become apartments, the broker said last fall.

Dromm, who had been working with the SCA to add more schools, said the new plan was “exciting.”

“It’s such wonderful news for all of us,” he said. “Apartments would have added to overcrowded schools.”

The school, if approved, will be four to five-stories high and have 450 seats from pre-K through fifth grade, including at least 4 dedicated pre-K classes, Ou said.

They haven’t started the design process yet, but would try to match the look of houses nearby and find a “cohesive way to compliment the neighborhood,” he said.

Once they gain approval from the city council and the mayor, they’ll begin environmental impact studies and will eventually demolish the building.

In addition to the new school, Ou said the SCA is eyeing the upper floors of the fire-damaged Bruson Building on 37th Avenue between 74th and 75th Streets as potential space for universal pre-k classes.

The building could not accomodate a full school, but they are in talks about adding some classes there, he said.

The SCA will present the new school plans at Community Board 3’s general meeting on Thurs, May 21 at 7 p.m. at the Louis Armstrong Middle School, 32-02 Junction Blvd.

Read more here.

Capital: Council to introduce Rikers Island package

By Gloria Pazmino

The City Council is introducing a package of bills on Tuesday to require the city’s Department of Correction to provide detailed reports on inmates’ demographic information and the department’s use-of-force policy, and to create a crisis intervention plan at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

In total, the Council will introduce eight bills, with a majority of them being co-sponsored by Councilmen Dan Garodnick and Danny Dromm, Democrats of Manhattan and Queens.

One of the bills would require the department to provide quarterly reports on the jail’s inmate demographics and include specific information such as their gang affiliation and their level of education.

Currently, the department compiles demographic reports, but only on a yearly basis, which council members said does not provide timely information about the inmate population given the high rate of turn over.

“Knowing their age, race, and gender will help us understand who specifically is staying at Rikers Island,” Dromm told Capital.

A second proposal, sponsored by Garodnick, Dromm and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras, would require D.O.C. to publish its specific policies on use of force on a city website and make them readily available to the public.

The document would outline specific circumstances that would warrant use of force on an inmate, as well as how the department responds when there is an inmate disturbance.

Read more here.

Queens Courier: Queens parents decide to ‘opt out’ kids from state testing

THE COURIER/ Photo by Angy Altamirano

By Angy Altamirano

Parents across the city are coming together this week to stand against standardized testing and the effects it has on their children.

Starting Tuesday and running through Thursday, students are scheduled to have to take the English Language Arts (ELA) test at schools throughout the state. The following week, students are scheduled to take the math standardized test.

Parents and education advocates have spoken against the tests, saying it brings too much pressure onto students and is not being properly used to evaluate the students, but rather to assess teachers. This has led some parents to forbid their children from taking the tests, and the schools have been prohibited from taking any action against those parents.

“I’m here as the chair of the [City Council] Education Committee to call into question the validity of these tests and the reason these tests are being given, and actually question why they are being used the way they are being used,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm, who on Tuesday stood with parents who have decided to have their children opt out of taking the tests. “These tests actually are not tests to show our children’s strength, they’ve become tests to make our children look like failures.”

Having served as a teacher for 25 years, Dromm added that he is not opposed to tests being used as “one piece of a child’s overall evaluation” but he believes that too much time is spent on taking and preparing for these tests.

“We have heard stories about children who have collapsed under the pressure, who get sick from the pressure, who wet their pants from the pressure of these tests. This is not what education should be about,” Dromm said. “I do not believe that our students should be used as guinea pigs in the governor’s battle against teachers.”

Danny Katch, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at P.S. 69 in Jackson Heights, decided to have her opt out of the exams last year and believed the decision served as an educational experience for his daughter because it showed her about standing up for what you believe in.

Katch also said he is not opposed to tests, but the standardized tests do not come from the teachers or schools. Instead, they are being used as a form to evaluate teachers rather than assessing the students.

“If you tell teachers that 50 percent of their evaluation is going to be based on two standardized tests, then you are going to believe that most of what the kids are going to be doing all year is preparing for those standardized tests,” Katch said. “If you want to improve our schools it’s not about shoving more tests down their throats, it’s about improving the resources that they need and they deserve.”

Read more here.

Chalkbeat: De Blasio signs bill requiring annual special education reports

By Sarah Darville

Parents and advocates will have access to new data about how well the city is serving its special-education students next year, thanks to a new city law.

Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the bill, which requires the Department of Education to produce an annual special-education report, on Monday. He was flanked by City Council education committee chair Daniel Dromm and Corinne Rello-Anselmi, the Department of Education’s deputy chancellor in charge of special education.

The annual reports will detail how long students wait to be evaluated and to receive services, as well as the percentage of students whose needs are being partially and fully met across the city and in each of the city’s school districts.

The reports will also break down those statistics by students’ race, gender, grade, English language learner status, and free or reduced-price lunch status, which advocates have said will provide a better look at exactly who is receiving required special-education services and where schools, or the city, are falling short.

“This will help us to determine what changes are necessary to create better, more responsive special education services and ultimately, benefit many thousands of students,” Dromm said.
The city’s first report will be released in February 2016 and will include statistics for the 2014-15 school year. Subsequent reports will be released each November.

Read more here.

Legislative Gazette: NYC council members trek to Albany to push public schools agenda


By Richard Moody

A caucus of New York City Council members is showing state level officials where they stand on education issues in this year’s budget.

On Wednesday, members of the city council’s Progressive Caucus, including Councilman Daniel Dromm, chair of the Education Committee, came to Albany asking state legislators to adopt a budget that provides funding mandated by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court decision, excludes additional resources for charter schools, leaves the charter school cap at current levels and provides more local control over the city’s schools.

“We are deeply concerned as council members about the governor’s lack of commitment to provide adequate funding to our public school system,” Dromm said. “The state owes [public schools] about $2.6 billion in funding. We need that funding because, without [it], we will not be able to provide an adequate education.”

Earlier this month, the Assembly proposed an increase to education funding by $1.8 billion, and soon after, the Senate proposed a $1.9 billion increase. Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in his Executive Budget to increase funding by $1.1 billion, with stipulations that the Legislature pass reforms he proposed as part of the budget, including placing failing schools into receivership.

The Massachusetts receivership model takes failing schools and hands over control to an expert or program for turning schools around.

“We’re also deeply concerned about the governor’s proposal to place our schools into receivership,” Dromm said. “We need and want local control over our schools. We have always believed that in New York City. We do not believe that the state knows better than the local folks.”

Cuomo’s Executive Budget would extend the New York City mayor’s control of the school system which is set to expire this year.

“We’re not here to tell the folks in Utica or Buffalo or Schenectady how to run their cities. We’re simply here to ask for the ability to control our own destiny in New York City,” said Councilman Mark Levine.

Dromm said the Senate and the governor are taking the wrong approach to fixing the public education system by lifting the charter school cap and increasing funding for charter schools. “You cannot improve our public school system simply by funding charter schools. We need adequate funding for our public schools and opening charter schools is not going to help that problem.”

Read more here.

Times Ledger: Dromm urges Albany to give $2.6B to city schools

Mayor Danny PS69

By Sadef Ali Kully

The Community Education Council for District 28 hosted a legislative networking event last Friday where principals, parents, school superintendents, and elected leaders met in Jamaica to present resources and address the state education budget.

The state education budget proposal, a $1.1 billion increase, includes raising tenure to five years and increase in the state’s role in teacher’s evaluations. Cuomo also wants to raise the charter school cap by 100 schools, put $100 million towards tax credit for private school, and establish a state-takeover model that could affect teachers working in more than 90 of the city’s lowest-performing schools. Cuomo’s overhaul of the education system has led to aggressive actions such as threatening to withhold funding from the budget.

“It is essential that we reach out and seek whatever we need for our schools,” said Dr. Vera Daniels, president of the CEC for District 28, which covers schools in Jamaica, Forest Hills, Ozone Park and Richmond Hill.

The keynote speaker for the event was Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who was a teacher in the public education system for about 25 years before he joined the City Council.

“I survived my experience with the Department of Education and I am hear to speak about it,” said Dromm, jokingly. “One thing that I learned as soon as I walked into those doors was when the principal said to me to get the parents as your allies. I have to say parents were always there for me.”

Dromm, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Education, addressed concerns that parents, principals, and teachers have had across the city.

“The total education budget oversight is a little over $38.5 billion. Almost half of the city’s budget goes to education. That is a tremendous amount of money – that’s more than some countries,” Dromm said. “But we still desperately need the $2.6 billion from Albany.”

He addressed conflicts with charter schools, LGBT students, guidance counselors for college preparation, state funding, school trailers, school networks, and the celebrated return of arts program in public school

In attendance were Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest); Frank Guilluscio, district manager for Community Board 6; Adrienne Adam, chair of Community Board 12; state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach); and state Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-Jamaica).

Read more here.

New York Daily News: (EXCLUSIVE) City lawmaker demands that charter schools show how they use tax money

Councilman Daniel Dromm noted that charter schools 'receive over a billion dollars in taxpayer funds and we don’t know what’s going on.'

By Ben Chapman and Lisa Colangelo

A lawmaker is asking the city’s charter schools to hand over paperwork showing how they use millions of dollars in tax money. And they have five days to do it.

City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who chairs the Education Committee, said he is troubled by the “lack of transparency and accountability” of charter schools.

“They receive over a billion dollars in taxpayer funds and we don’t know what’s going on,” Dromm, a Queens Democrat, told the Daily News on Monday.

Dromm sent a letter to all 197 charter schools in the city asking them for copies of their committee board minutes and fraud prevention policies. He also asked if they would voluntarily submit to the city Conflict of Interest Board to examine relationships between school board members and developers.

Dromm’s action comes after The News reported in November that an analysis by the Center for Popular Democracy found more than $28 million in questionable spending and probable financial mismanagement in 95% of the charter schools examined by state auditors since 2002.

James Merriman, CEO of the New York Charter School Center, dismissed Dromm as an “attack dog” for the United Federation of Teachers, which is opposed to charter schools.

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Western Queens Gazette: Tour Unkempt LIRR Overpass, Demand Improvements

(L. to r.); Christian Cassagnol, district manager, Community Board 4 Queens; Councilmember Daniel Dromm; state Senator Toby Ann Stavisky; Rosemarie Daraio, president, COMET Civic Group; and Geraldine Walsh, treasurer, COMET Civic Group.

State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Flushing); Councilmember Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights); Christian Cassagnol, district manager, Community Board 4 Queens; Rosemarie Daraio, president, COMET Civic Group; and Geraldine Walsh, treasurer, COMET Civic Group, toured the 55th Avenue/Elmhurst Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) overpass with LIRR and Department of Sanitation officials to discuss the unkempt conditions and demand immediate improvements to address the situation.

“This site must be cleaned and made safe for pedestrians,” said Stavisky. “There is no substitute for an on-site visit to see conditions first-hand. Councilmember Dromm and I will continue to monitor the problem.”

“Quality of life issues are vitally important to the growth, strength and happiness of the community,” said Dromm. “Monday’s walk-through hopefully marks the start of a stronger commitment from the LIRR to keep their property clean. I thank the railroad, Senator Stavisky, the Department of Sanitation and the many community activists for working on this issue.”

Times Ledger: Jackson Heights middle school opens much needed annex

By Bill Parry

Relief has come for one school in District 30, one of most overcrowded in the city

Elected officials joined educators and students of IS 230 for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a new middle school annex, at 74th Street and 34th Avenue, that contains science labs, an art studio, a library with computers, classrooms, a cafeteria and bathrooms on every floor.

“This new annex will help alleviate overcrowding at the main IS 230 middle school building,” City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights said. “These rooms are essential to a well-rounded education. It will go a long way to improving education in our district.”

The School Construction Authority also bought two lots on 74th Street that will be utilized as an outdoor play and exercise area. In addition to other amenities, the SCA made sure the new building fit in with the aesthetic of the surrounding historic district.

“The new IS 230 annex is not just about giving students a new state-of-the-art building, it’s about creating an environment that fosters learning and gives every child that walks through these doors and opportunity for endless growth,” SCA President and CEO Lorraine Grillo said. “We have created a new outlet for students to pursue their dreams in wonderful Jackson Heights.”

Construction on the new annex took two years and cost $22.8 million. It will add 400 seats for the students at IS 230.

“Over the years, there have been some creative approaches to dealing with the overcrowding crisis in this district,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said. “But the bottom line is until there’s a seat for every child, it’s a game of musical chairs. “No matter what you do, or how you zone or rezone, someone is left standing. This community desperately needs this annex. And this community desperately needs more annexes and more new schools. We are enormously appreciative of the commitment of the mayor, schools chancellor and School Construction Authority to ending this decades-long overcrowding crisis in this part of Queens.”

State Assemblyman Michael Den Dekker (D-East Elmhurst) took the opportunity to push for legislation. “I hope also that voters will vote in favor of the Smart Schools Bond Act in November, so we can get more school space, and equip all of these classrooms with state-of-the-art technology. Our children deserve better than overcrowded classes and we will keep working to eliminate this problem.