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Dialed In: City Hall Set to Supply Free Phones to People Newly Released from Rikers

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By; Reuven Blau via The City

Rikers Island detainees fresh out of lockup — including some with serious mental illnesses — will soon receive free smartphones to better connect them with health care and other community services, THE CITY has learned.

The plan to distribute phones comes after a 2003 court settlement in which a federal judge appointed a monitor to ensure the city would provide a discharge plan for the newly released that included continued mental health treatment and assistance with public benefits and housing. 

But two decades later, the city has failed to meet those basic requirements, according to the monitor overseeing the case. It grew out of a 1999 lawsuit that accused the city of violating state law by releasing mentally ill people from jail in the middle of the night with little more than $1.50 and two subway tokens.

“We definitely support the [phones] initiative,” Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project told THE CITY. “But it doesn’t make up for the fact that they are not connecting people with the services that they need.” 

The smart phones, donated by T-Mobile, will be pre-programmed with applications and phone numbers to help the newly released stay in touch with doctors and connect with other community services, according to a draft of the plan obtained by THE CITY.

Correctional Health Services, the division of NYC Health + Hospitals which oversees medical care in city jails, will distribute the phones to the neediest former patients.

Cell Phone Plan

The phones will be held in lockers inside the Samuel L. Perry Center near the MTA Q100 bus stop at the entrance of Rikers, according to a flier that will be distributed to eligible detainees. The lockers will be stocked with basic toiletries and a prepaid MetroCard with an unknown sum, the flier said.  A flier for inmates at Rikers Island shows instructions for lockers that will be stocked with basic toiletries and a prepaid MetroCard for eligible people who are leaving jail.

The “re-entry service center” — which will be open to friends and family members visiting loved ones — will help link people with community-based health and social services and offer naloxone training and fentanyl test strips designed to prevent overdoses.

The cell phone and service center initiative comes as the Adams administration struggles to reduce recidivism and assist people with complicated mental health needs, according to a recently released court-ordered monitor’s report in the so-called Brad H. case

Some of the city’s formerly incarcerated go straight to the city’s packed homeless shelters upon their release from jail or prison, according to Department of Homeless Services records.  

Inmate advocates and multiple elected officials are also pressing a federal judge to appoint a third party “receiver” to take over a part of, or the entire, jail system. The receiver would potentially have extraordinary power and could ignore previously negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the unions representing jail officers and supervisors. 

A separate federal monitor earlier this week cited the “pervasive dysfunction” behind bars in announcing that he wants the Adams administration held in contempt in order to force jail officials into implementing much-needed reforms. 

“During this reporting period, production by DOC of class members for mental health and discharge planning appointments remained low,” said federal monitors Henry Dlugacz and Erik Roskes in the June 23 report, the 51st to be filed in the case.

Mental health patients in jail were brought to medical clinics just 52.8% of the time, according to records cited in the report. 

“Additionally, this reporting period saw increased vacancies in all job categories providing or supervising social work services except for caseworkers, which remained 67% staffed,” the monitors said. 

Correctional Health Services declined to comment on the latest report or to say how many many free phones would be distributed and the length of their service plans. Spokesperson Jeannette Merrill said more information will be released Thursday.

Approximately 50% of the roughly 6,000 people in city jails have some type of mental health diagnosis, according to the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR). Of those, 16% have a serious mental health diagnosis, the report noted.

‘The Biggest Lifeline’

Some inmate advocates hailed the initiative but cautioned that more needs to be done to assist people with mental illness or other medical needs. 

“The biggest lifeline people have is their loved ones and this will help keep them together,” said Melanie Dominguez, the lead community organizer with Katal Center, a nonprofit focused on ending mass incarceration. “However, that’s not going to solve the issues at Rikers. It’s being used as the largest mental health facility.”

That population needs more government assistance before they are ensnared in the criminal justice system, she said. 

Michael Jacobson, who served as Correction Commissioner during the Dinkins and Giuiliani administrations, said cell phones are a vital link for those re-emerging after spending time behind bars.

“The use of smartphones for people leaving prison or jail for like a hundred purposes is incredibly clear,” he said. “They are great vehicles to provide information to keep in touch with people and to make referrals to all sorts of organizations.”

The initiative does not mean the city is rewarding people accused of breaking the law, he added.  

“Of course people can say crime pays,” he said. “But the reason they are getting this is they are people with a lot of needs who require programs and health and counseling. 

“What’s better than that?”

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