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When former Rikers Island detainee Mateek McCall got into a fight with another inmate over phone time last summer, he got hit with a dual punishment: solitary confinement and a $25 fine.
“It was hard for me,” he recalled. “I don’t have too many people in my corner. Money was tight.”
All told, the city Correction Department has levied nearly $1.2 million in inmate fines for infractions since 2015, records obtained by THE CITY show.
Inmates can be punished for everything from failing to listen to a direct order to attacking another detainee. They are allowed to dispute the charges before an internal tribunal.
If a detainee is found guilty, the money is yanked from commissary funds and put into the city’s general coffers.
The city’s Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, has proposed eliminating the fine system as part of a broader rule revamp that includes limiting the use of solitary confinement.
Board members and inmate advocates contend the monetary penalty does little to curtail violence, and primarily punishes low-income family members who end up covering the fee.
“It hurts those trying to help their loved ones the most,” said Stanley Richards, a Board of Correction member and executive director of the Fortune Society.
‘One Thing After Another’
One union leader wants the fines to remain in place, arguing their elimination would send the wrong message to inmates who act out.
“It’s one thing after another,” said Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association, who is also vehemently opposed to recently enacted bail reforms.
“It seems like their intention is to remove all consequences,” he added. “So now it’s another little step in that direction.”
Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents frontline officers, did not respond to a request seeking comment.
One former top jail official said the fines did not stop inmates from serious attacks against officers or fellow detainees.
“The inmates committing violence are not concerned by a $25 fee. It’s not a deterrent,” said Mark Cranston, the former acting correction commissioner.
“The real deterrent is separating those violent inmates,” added Cranston, who is now the warden of the Middlesex County, N.J., jail, where fines have already been eliminated.
Support for Nixing Fines
Some of the fees assessed New York City inmates are never paid, records show.
Since 2015, $920,383 — 76.7% of the fines levied over the last five-plus years — has been collected. Another $249,867 remains outstanding, data shows.
The de Blasio administration supports eliminating the fee.
“We have agreed with the board as part of their proposed rulemaking to eliminate the infraction surcharge as we continue to realize a larger mission of culture change within our jails,” said Peter Thorne, a Correction Department spokesperson. “These changes are a part of ongoing reforms that are moving the department in a more meaningful direction when it comes to addressing in custody behavior.”
But the department has continued to collect the penalty from inmates this year as the board proposal makes its way through a review process. The public comment period ended on Friday, and the board will soon go back to look over the proposals, a process that is expected to last at least several weeks.
Meanwhile, the Correction Department has fined 620 inmates a total of $21,875 this year, records show. Inmates have paid $17,137 so far, the department data indicates.
Advocates are pressing the department to eliminate the fine right away.
“DOC’s role as police, prosecutor, judge and beneficiary of these alleged infractions is a huge conflict of interest,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Everytime the DOC writes a ticket, they make money, and they take it from people and their families who can least afford it.”
Crystal Votor, whose boyfriend is in jail as he awaits trial, has struggled to pay his fines so he can still buy food from the commissary.
“That’s unfair,” she said as before boarding a bus in downtown Brooklyn to Rikers to visit him. “They are already incarcerated. Their life is already taken away from them.”
McCall, 25, who got out of jail in August, said he had no choice but to fight to make a call. The unit he was in was filled with gang members who controlled that area, according to McCall.
“I’m no gang member,” he said. “I had to join or fight the gang members.”
His family paid the fee for McCall, who now lives in a Brooklyn shelter.
Some inmates were afraid of the fine, he acknowledged.
“It probably slowed a few people down,” McCall said. “But you have people who flat-out don’t even care.”
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