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New rules for Rikers aimed at reducing violence

Mayor de Blasio visits Rikers Island and gets

Mayor de Blasio visits Rikers Island and gets a tour after he meets with correction officers to thank them for their service and where he also held a press conference at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, March 12, 2015. Credit: Uli Seit

Contraband-sniffing dogs, limits on inmate-visitor touching, and splitting up warring gang members are some of the ways the de Blasio administration hopes to combat a spike of violence in New York City's jails.

Touring a newly remodeled cellblock on Rikers Island that'll soon house some of the city's most violent inmates, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed Thursday that his 14-point plan would stem the slashings, stabbings, beatings and brutality that have put the system under federal scrutiny.

De Blasio and jails commissioner Joseph Ponte blamed much of the trouble on visitors, who under current rules are free to hug, kiss and make physical contact with inmates -- actions believed to help camouflage smuggling activity.

"I don't care if it's their mother, their sister, their brother: No one should be passed a weapon, period," de Blasio said. "No one should be passed drugs, period."

Under new rules still being drafted:

Inmate-guest contact would be limited to a brief physical greeting at the start and end of a visit.

A partition would be added to tables separating inmates from visitors.

Visitors would be prescreened for criminal records and gang ties, and some could be barred from visits.

Although some of the 14 parts are already being implemented, others must be approved by the Board of Correction, which regulates the city's municipal lockups. The board's next meeting is May 12. The department has yet to formalize its proposals, and a spokeswoman for the city jail system said they may not be finished in time for the upcoming meeting.

Ponte said the dogs would also be used with greater frequency to sniff out smuggling both by inmates and guards, medical personnel and other staff.

The city's 11,000-inmate jail system has been under scrutiny by federal prosecutors, who have threatened to sue the city over alleged brutality meted out against inmates.

De Blasio, surrounded Thursday by dozens of jail bosses and rank-and-file guards, touted the new unit as part of his reform plan. Now empty, it will be one of the cellblocks to house as many as 250 men who are considered the system's worst of the worst. Called enhanced supervision housing, the unit is meant to supplant the use of solitary confinement.

Inspirational quotations adorn the cellblock, which houses inmates one to a cell with far more guards watching than in the general population.

"Stop wishing, start doing," said one. "Positive anything is better than negative nothing."

Inmates were kept at a distance as the mayor and reporters visited. Guards ordered one inmate who happened to come close to face the wall with his hands on the concrete.

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