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Court Issues New Injunction Mandating Education for NYC Prisoners at Rikers Island

Prisoners’ rights advocates know that education is a key element of reducing recidivism, and the federal Bureau of Prisons and most state departments of corrections agree. However, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has had to continue its decade-long oversight of the infamous Rikers Island complex to ensure that school-eligible prisoners between the ages of 16 and 21 receive educational services that were agreed to after six years of litigation that concluded in 2002, in a lawsuit brought under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. [See: PLN, June 2007, p.39; Nov. 2000, p.15; May 2000, p.40].

The injunction that ended the lawsuit against the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) required jail officials to work with the New York Board of Education (DOE) “to implement procedures to bring the educational services at the Rikers Island prison complex into compliance with state and federal law.” See: Handberry v. Thompson, 219 F.Supp.2d 525 (S.D.N.Y. 2002). After allegations arose that despite the injunction many prisoners had “received no educational services for significant lengths of time” and “hundreds of adolescent inmates held in special housing areas ... received absolutely no schooling during many semesters,” the Second Circuit revisited the case in 2006. Following nine years of further litigation, on December 2, 2015 a federal magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation to approve an amended injunction.

In an attempt to initially resolve the lawsuit, the district court appointed Peter E. Leone, Ph.D., who was charged with investigating and reporting on the city’s compliance with the injunction and suggesting solutions to any problems identified.

Based upon Dr. Leone’s findings, the magistrate recommended the adoption of an amended injunction with the following provisions: “1. All eligible inmates shall receive a minimum of 3 hours of educational services every school day. 2. Placement in a restricted housing unit does not change an eligible inmate’s entitlement to educational services under any provision of this Order. 3. Unless stated explicitly to the contrary, any and all requirements set forth in this Order shall apply to all of the schools, programs and methods of instruction operated by DOE in DOC facilities. 4. DOC shall ensure that each eligible inmate is provided access to educational services ... in a timely manner, including if necessary providing escorts for travel to and from his or her place of educational instruction. 5. Inmates who are disabled and identified as in need of special education or related services shall receive such services, including when placed in a restricted housing unit or method of instruction.”

Further, the magistrate judge recommended that the court appoint Dr. Leone for a two-year term to monitor and ensure compliance by the DOC and DOE. The district court judge overruled the city’s objections and adopted the magistrate’s recommendations in full on March 31, 2016, closing the case. It remains to be seen whether the DOC will abide by the amended injunction, considering that it ignored the initial injunction. See: Handberry v. Thompson, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:96-06161-GBD-JCF; 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 162557. 

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Related legal cases

Handberry v. Thompson

Handberry v. Thompson