A long-running investigation of the Westchester County Jail has concluded, with the United States Department of Justice stating the facility has successfully implemented reforms that remedy the constitutional violations committed against inmates over the years.
Key findings to a 2007 investigation found the jail used excessive force, failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care, and kept minors housed in isolation in the punitive segregation unit as a form of punishment, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Those issues have since been resolved, with Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss calling the jail a “completely transformed institution.”
“Since the commencement of our investigation in 2007, Westchester County Jail has worked steadily and in good faith to implement sweeping reforms that have significantly improved the treatment of inmates at the facility,” Strauss said. “At every step along the way, the Jail’s leadership and staff have been a willing partner in creating lasting reforms that have significantly improved the quality of life for inmates and detainees within the facility.”
In 2009, the DOJ issued a letter stating the government’s findings regarding constitutional violations and living conditions at the Valhalla jail. Following extensive negotiations between the federal government and Westchester County, both parties in 2015 entered into an agreement to implement sweeping reforms within the facility.
The agreement, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2016, required the jail to apply measures designed to ensure that its use of force is not excessive and consistent with the law; to implement appropriate policies and practices concerning review of all uses of force, training of staff, and supervision of inmates; and to improve the provision of medical and mental health care for both minor and adults.
In addition, the jail was assigned an independent monitor to oversee operations, assist in achieving compliance and make reports concerning progress, the statement said. The agreement was terminated after the jail maintained substantial compliance with all provisions for 24 months.
Officials found that incidents involving force have plummeted more than 80% and continued to significantly decrease with each compliance report. The staff is now consistently and routinely trained in de-escalation tactics; and staff are swiftly disciplined for any deviation from reporting requirements and de-escalation procedures, the statement said.
Furthermore, mental health care and medical care has improved dramatically, officials said, with the jail placing particular emphasis on rehabilitative care for inmates with mental health issues, instead of focusing on purely punitive measures.
“Working with a team of dedicated professionals we developed a number of metrics and identified attributes that would allow the Department to implement sustainable reforms that decrease the use of force, enhance physical and mental health, reduce recidivism and enhance returning citizen’s reintegration to their respective communities,” Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Spano said.
“As evidenced by the Department of Justice press release, our collective body of work during this period exceeded the agreement terms and greatly benefited the population we serve and many aspects of WCDOC operations-something we are all very proud of.”
The facility also entered in a joint venture with Legal Aid of Westchester County, opening an office within the jail and allowing inmates to access to legal resources, the statement said. Additionally, the jail partnered with Westchester County Social Service to grant inmates the opportunity to plan for their lives upon their release from custody.
Rehabilitation efforts also improved, with several educational options for inmates, including culinary, civil engagement, college classes, and nationally recognized parenting programs.
“From innovative programs providing education and life-skills support to actually housing lawyers in the facility for inmates, I am immensely proud of the work being done in our jail,” County Executive George Latimer said. “No one is forgotten in our County, and this work is just more proof.”
The case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen Blain is charge of the case.