Nassau residents should know more about what goes on inside the sprawling county jail — and the facility should be under more stringent oversight to keep those incarcerated, and staff and correction officers safe, said the former chief medical officer and assistant commissioner of correctional health services for the NYC Health and Hospitals System.
Dr. Homer Venters, who wrote a book, "Life and Death in Rikers Island," about his experiences working at the New York City jail complex, said the Nassau jail functions as a kind of “black box” without appropriate oversight and cooperation between the community and facility.
Venters — the senior health and justice fellow for Community Oriented Correctional Health Services, a national organization that promotes health care connectivity between jails and communities — commented during a forum Thursday night at Elmont Memorial Library. About two dozen people, including activists, local residents and people who have served time, attended the event.
The forum was sponsored by Elmont Cultural Center and Nassau County Jail Advocates, a coalition of groups seeking a variety of reforms and greater accountability at the East Meadow facility where several incarcerated individuals have died in recent years from causes that state oversight officials have identified as ranging from poor health care to violence.
Venters identified four measures that could improve outcomes at the jail: standards and rules; accurate data; accountability for actions; and an effective investigative mechanism.
“The only way to short-circuit these problems is through transparency,” he said.
The event also took place amid a history of attempts to improve the jail. The flashpoint was the death in 1999, at the hands of correction officers, of Thomas Pizzuto, 38, an inmate who was beaten to death after he loudly begged for methadone to treat his drug addiction. Pizzuto had been serving a 90-day sentence for traffic violations at the time of his death.
That incident sparked a federal investigation and nearly a decade of oversight of the jail’s medical and mental health care, as well as the conviction of several officers for the killing.
In recent years, advocates such as the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union have pressed for the formation and empowerment of a Board of Visitors that would keep watch over the jail’s operations.
Critics, such as Susan Gottehrer, director of the NYCLU, have said the Board of Visitors formed under the administration of former County Executive Edward Mangano did not have any teeth to do the job for which the county legislature intended — to investigate and recommend reforms — since it was established several years ago, after the NYCLU sued the county and won.
“It’s not OK for them to let the Board of Visitors to have such limited scope,” Venters said, adding that New York City’s oversight mechanisms tend to have more authority.
Gottehrer said Thursday that a new Board of Visitors has been empaneled under County Executive Laura Curran, adding that it has reviewed only a few grievances from inmates.
Claire Deroche, coordinator of the social justice program at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, said, “The Board of Visitors needs to be a genuine oversight board.”