Rikers Island has never been just another jail. The compound, which sits between the Bronx and Queens, is a metaphysical and literal island surrounded by New York City's towers of wealth and industry. It's a way station for those awaiting trial, a penal colony for the poor and the criminal, the unlucky and the fucked, a void of misery that it's hard to believe sits in the middle of America's richest metropolis.
The jail's problems are well-known and longstanding: bureaucratic brutality, corruption, pain and injury inflicted upon inmates who have not even been convicted of committing a crime. In August 2014, when his office released a scathing investigation of the jail, US Attorney Preet Bharara wrote that a "deep-seated culture of violence" is embedded in the very fabric of Rikers. To fully understand how Rikers became what it is today, one has to look closely at its past, what it was long before calls for investigations and reforms.
I asked the city's Department of Correction for a tour, and to speak with captains and their resident historian, but all requests were denied or not answered. (A not surprising response for those of us who cover the city's penal system.) So I spoke with those who know Rikers best: the people who've lived and worked there, and those who have worked to change the place. In their own words, this is how a tiny island floating in between Queens and the Bronx became synonymous with everything wrong with America's criminal justice system.
This past summer, Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, grabbed a few headlines with a petition to change the name of Rikers Island. His reason? The Rycken family—the wealthy, prominent Dutch clan that purchased and settled the island in the 1660s, when New York was still New Amsterdam—were inextricably linked to a slave legacy the city has been shrugging off for centuries, particularly through its patriarch, Richard Riker. (The name was Anglicized during British rule.) Or as Morris calls him, "the spider at the center of the web."
Intermittently, from 1815 to 1838, Riker was the recorder of New York City, a term then used for a municipal officer who oversaw the city's criminal court, once called the Court of Special Sessions. According to Morris, and a litany of accounts from that time period, the island's namesake was responsible for deeming handfuls of free black men, women, and children "fugitive slaves"—thereby enabling their kidnapping and sale in the South without trial. (This phenomenon is well known to anyone who has seen or read 12 Years a Slave.)
According to historical accounts, Riker received a kickback from kidnappers and was apparently so renowned for these actions that he and two other policemen, whose primary goal then was catching slaves, were labeled the "Kidnapping Club" by local abolitionists. Therefore, any association with him, Morris argued, is an ugly blemish on the Big Apple.
To hear Morris tell it, the island is inextricably linked to the racist history of its former owner, and the name reinforces this. He was spurred to demand the name change by the case of Kalief Browder, who was notoriously stuck on Rikers for three years without a trial and committed suicide after his release.
"I had heard the Kalief Browder story, and that was it," Morris told me. "I said, 'Fuck this, let me write the petition.' I saw it as a perversion in the structure of our criminal justice system. That symbolism, and that relationship of the symbolism, is what motivated me."
In other words, injustice was in the island's DNA before it became a home for the incarcerated.
In 1884, years after Riker had passed away, the city bought his estate for $180,000, splitting the cost with Queens County, which had not been incorporated into New York City yet. It was a purchase of convenience: Hart Island, where the city's deceased indigent population was getting buried by inmates, was a boat ride away. And, having been used as a training ground for Union soldiers during the Civil War, Rikers's land seemed valuable to a growing city.
So in the charter that created the Department of Correction, in 1897, Rikers's eventual fate was written. It would, one day, become the city's main jail. Officials kept the name "Riker's Island" by default.
The idea was to eventually build a facility that could accommodate the runoff from the city's two main overcrowded jails at the time: the notorious Tombs in Manhattan and the Blackwell's Island Penitentiary, a jail that was described back then as "the Alcatraz of the East." In order to do that, the city began to build up the island in the 1920s, pulling up shoals from marsh in the East River and piling on garbage from the city. By the end of the 1950s, this would expand Rikers Island from 87.5 acres to 451 acres.
It's seriously like going to hell. The minute you cross that bridge from Queens, you can feel the fire. —Former guard Robin Kay Miller
According to CorrectionHistory.org, the website of DOC historian Tom McCarthy (who would not be interviewed for this article), the predecessor to Rikers, Blackwell's Island, was home to a 600-foot-long penitentiary that once held roughly 7,000 inmates. For years, it was where the Commission of Public Charities and Corrections' (the agencies would be split in two) central operations were situated. And nearby, an insane asylum and hospital were built for inmates to work in. Eventually, the eerily named Blackwell's Island was tainted by scandal, and, in 1921, it was rechristened Welfare Island, then Roosevelt Island.
At first, the transfer of inmates to Rikers, which officially opened in 1932, was supposed to be gradual and partial. But in the 1930s, under populist Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a major corruption scandal was uncovered on Blackwell's, when the city found out that organized crime and gangs had essentially taken the place over. A raid found conditions to be abysmal at the jail, and so it was closed—permanently—in 1935.
"The original intention to move to Rikers was to clean up Roosevelt Island," Morris pointed out to me, laughing. "Oh, the irony."
But trouble came quickly: In 1939, a Bronx court found Rikers to be nearly unlivable. Quarters were cramped, conditions were declared unhygienic, and there was already a running belief that contraband was being smuggled in.
The jail hadn't even been open five years.
A guard at the entrance to Rikers Island, circa 1955. (Photo by Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images)
Nevertheless, Rikers's first few decades were dedicated to expansion. There was a jail built for additional men in 1964. There was a jail built for women in 1971. There was a jail built for adolescents in 1972. Yet another was built for yet more men, and to provide methadone and mental services, in 1978. And there was even a housing unit built for LGBT inmates, often victims of harassment, in the late 1970s.
In those years it was other New York State penitentiaries attracting unwelcome attention. An inmate-led riot at the Tombs in 1970 led to five COs being held hostage; eventually, a bargain was struck with Mayor John Lindsay for their freedom. Then, a few years later, the famous riot at Attica broke out (some argue that its provocateurs were the same crew from the Tombs). And in 1974, due to a class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society, the Tombs was forcibly shut down for a time, its inmates moved to their new home on Rikers Island.
Then the 80s happened.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
When I asked Robin Kay Miller—a retired correctional officer who worked for two decades in the city's jails and is the author of an upcoming account about her job—the simple question "what is Rikers Island?", she responded effortlessly, like she had heard the question time and time again.
"It's seriously like going to hell," she continued. "The minute you cross that bridge from Queens"—a passage known as the Bridge of Pain—"you can feel the fire."
In 1983, Ms. Miller graduated from the DOC academy and began her two-year career on Rikers at the tender age of 21. She said she was among the first few female COs who were stationed in all-male dormitories. She was street tough, having grown up in the housing projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn. But that didn't prepare her for what lay ahead.
"They were training us for war," she told me. "Like we were being sent to Guantanamo Bay."
The scene at Rikers Miller paints is like a hyper-sexualized version of public school—a description I have heard before—with the male officers acting as hybrids between jocks and bullies. In this "Who's gonna hook up with you?" culture, officers, she said, would try "to get into any woman's panties," including hers, all the time, and drugs and booze were constantly being snuck in by officers.
At the beginning of shifts, she told me, female officers were trotted out in front of captains like pageant contestants. "This way, the bosses got their pick," she explained. "You're on display." Sometimes, female officers were complacent with being objectified; in certain situations, some would even perform oral sex on captains, Miller said, just so they wouldn't have to work in certain areas or with certain inmates. Male officers were equally reluctant to do their duties.
"I would hear an inmate ask a CO something," Miller said. "And just hear, 'Shut the fuck up! Don't talk to me.' But like, that's your job!"
The inmates, she said, were used by officers as "punching bags." Hitting those who had interfered with the COs' flirting, or just to impress female officers, was routine. The cruelty towards them was rewarded—if not encouraged. "The problem wasn't the inmates," she told me. "The problem was always the officers."
She recalled one instance, in her first year on the job, where one of her inmates was being jumped in the hallway by a handful of COs. They were kicking and hitting him; she said she could see his blood on the floor. "It still haunts me," she recalled. From that day forward, she sought to protect her inmates from her coworkers.
"Before we'd go out into the hallways," Miller explained, "I'd tell them, 'Don't say shit. Because they'll fuck you up.'" She warned them that their complaints were worthless—they would go nowhere, or just be covered up.
"I didn't like it," she continued. "But there wasn't anything I could do. The only thing I could do was [try to] correct it."
Miller stayed on patrol as a CO at Rikers until 1985, when she left for a few years to have her daughter. She returned to work after at the Brooklyn court pens and the Tombs and retired in 2005. But the brutality she saw on Rikers has stuck with her all of these years: The problems would only grow worse, she said, and what we're seeing these days is the culmination of what she witnessed then.
"That's why you see all of these officers getting arrested," she said. "That's the culture left over from the 1980s."
Just a few days before the Christmas 1988, Carole Eady woke up in Elmhurst Hospital Center, in Queens. A corrections officer was standing behind a team of doctors and nurses. She was in labor with her daughter, Jahmil, but still an inmate of Rikers Island.
"In recovery, I was still shackled to my bed," she told me. "They placed my baby in the one arm that wasn't shackled, so I could hold her. Later on, I couldn't feed her, because I only had one arm. I had to call the nurse, just to hold my baby.
"Even in the ambulance to the hospital," she continued, "I was in handcuffs."
On Christmas Day, Eady had to return to Rikers, but her baby couldn't go with her for health reasons. When she refused to leave her child's side, she said, the female officer fumed—it was Christmas, and past the end of her shift. "She said to the nurse," Eady recalled, "'If she really wanted that baby, she wouldn't be in jail.'" The nurse reassured Eady that the baby would be fine, and she went back over the bridge, to Rikers, alone.
"Atrocities would happen all the time, and nobody would say a thing." —former mental health employee Mary Buser
In the late 1980s, as the crack epidemic commanded everyone's attention, Eady was one of the thousands of women thrown behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses due to New York's harsh Rockefeller drug laws. She claimed she spent nearly a year on the island for stealing $5 to buy crack. And many of the women in her cell, at the newly built Ross M. Singer Center, were there for the same reason.
"We didn't understand how our lives had fallen apart so quickly," she recalled. "Almost all of us were there for nonviolent drug offenses... They were scooping us all up."
As Rikers's population began to soar, conditions worsened for its residents—so much so that inmates say the re-opened borough houses, like the Tombs, were seen as safer alternatives. Like Miller, Eady said she witnessed a woman getting beaten by a CO in her unit. "Seeing someone getting hit with a club?" she recalled. "That's not something I'll ever forget."
And for inmates with drug problems, rehabilitative services on Rikers, Eady said, were minimal if they existed at all. "There was no talk of rehab," she told me, almost laughing. "It was like a joke. It was like, 'Crackheads are gonna go to jail, and that's that.'"
Eady had started using crack in 1985, when she was still a teenager. She dedicated the next 12 years of her life to battling her addiction, a dependency that landed her back on Rikers in 1998. She left after two months, enrolled in a program that would put her on a pathway to recovery. Now she's an adjunct professor at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and has since helped form an organization known as Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), which advocates for public health approaches for those behind bars dealing with drug issues.
Former Rikers inmate Carole Eady with her son in 1999. Photo courtesy Carole Eady
When Eady thinks back on her time on Rikers Island, she said she wishes someone had been there to help her, either with therapy—Eady said she had a prior history of domestic and sexual abuse—or getting clean. "I remember visiting a doctor before getting arrested," she told me. "And telling him, 'Doc, I'm addicted to crack. I need to stop.' You know what he told me? 'So, just stop.' That was his advice!"
"If that was what a doctor was telling me," she asked, "what was the Department of Correction gonna do for me?"
BROKEN WINDOWS, CROWDED CELLS
In 1993, former US Attorney and Republican candidate for mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed his way into City Hall on a platform of law and order. The city's violent crime was out of control—infamously, in 1991 the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights erupted in a racially-tinged riots—and its denizens were eager for calm. So Giuliani beefed up the NYPD with more cops (thanks in part to an infusion of federal cash), and adopted what was then still a lesser-known theory for how to police cities called "broken windows." The idea was to target low-level infractions, which in reality meant focusing on low-income communities of color. Giuliani vowed to sweep the streets clean, and, as a result, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were thrown behind bars for petty crimes and misdemeanors.
Crime did indeed drop, as New York gradually rebounded from one of its darkest periods. (The phenomenon repeated itself across the country; whether broken windows contributed to this decline is still being debated). While New Yorkers cheered Giuliani into a second term in 1997, they were slow to realize what was happening on Rikers.
When Robin Miller returned to work after her pregnancy in 1995, after having been away for a few years, she was assigned to the Brooklyn court pens, where inmates would be shipped back and forth from their trials and cells. There, she could see the writing on the wall.
"You had 200 inmates in a room for 50," she said. "I remember it being crowded before I left, but this was something else. This was massive."
In the numerous interviews, most subjects agreed: The 90s was, by far, the worst time to be on Rikers Island.
Mary Buser first arrived on Rikers in 1991, under the administration of Giuliani's predecessor, David Dinkins, as a social work intern in the women's jail. By the time she left, in 2000, she was the acting mental health chief of the solitary confinement unit, or what's known as The Bing, inside of the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC), which VICE visited last year. And what she saw in between was a lesson learned in how Rikers descended into absolute chaos.
"It was a very turbulent time, the 1990s," she said. "There was such a high demand for beds—every bed had to be filled. We were packed beyond capacity, with nearly 24,000 people on Rikers at one time. These were record numbers; we'd never seen anything like that."
For comparison, she added, a state prison like Attica Correctional Facility can usually fit upwards of 2,200 inmates.
Faced with unprecedented overcrowding, the jail administration had to find ways to accommodate them. A barge, called the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, was docked nearby in the East River, where it still remains functional today. What were known as "sprungs," or makeshift jail tents prone to flooding should a storm come, began to pop up around the island. And dorms inside facilities were stacked with beds.
Inmates drill in the courtyard of the 'Sprungs' area where 16- to 18-year-old detainees lived and attended school in 1991. (Photo by Nicole Bengiveno/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
But it went beyond that—into much more dangerous territory.
In an interview, Buser—the author of the memoir Lockdown on Rikers and subject of a Broadly profile last year—said COs and the administration would send inmates to solitary confinement just to open up a bed in general population. Punitive measures like this, she argued, didn't take into account the mental impact that sitting alone for 23 hours, for days on end, could have on an adolescent.
"They'd tell me, 'I swear I did nothing,'" she told me. "And after a while, there's so many of them that you have to start believing it."
The soaring numbers also had an unintended, if perfectly natural, consequence: an outbreak of uncontrollable violence. By the end of the 1990s, Rikers was on the verge of riots—the smuggling in of weapons, even guns, was rampant; inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-CO fights had skyrocketed; and jail searches began daily occurrences. Correction commissioners like Michael Jacobson and Bernard Kerik, following Mayor Giuliani's lead, employed strict measures to get things under control. They were successful, but it came with a price.
"The searches were brutal," Buser recalled. "Some just caused real terror in inmates. I'd talk to people who were crying, and shaking." The former social worker said inmates would come to her with slashes from razors smuggled in, or wounds from beatings incurred by COs. But the administrative explanations for what had happened, she said, were always blurry. "I'd see glimpses of beatdowns at OBCC," she noted. "But the DOC was very good at preventing us from seeing anything."
For years, Rikers mental health services were managed by Montefiore Medical Center, a hospital network in the Bronx. But to cut costs, Mayor Giuliani put the Rikers contract—which, at that time, was the largest correctional healthcare contract in the country—up for bid in 1998, selling it to St. Barnabas Hospital, which saved the city $7.4 million a year. While lauded by city officials for streamlining services, the deal was immediately criticized by human rights groups, particularly because of a contractual clause wherein critics said St. Barnabas would save money by not sending an inmate to medical care.
Buser recalled the switch to St. Barnabas as being an absolute disaster. The hospital had "zero experience" handling jail health care management, she claimed, and within the first year on the job, inmate complaints rose a whopping 400 percent. Furthermore, the rate of deaths was already on the way down under Montefiore's management, even though St. Barnabas took the credit. And in the first few months of its administration, an investigation was launched into whether or not medical negligence on the part of St. Barnabas led to the death of four inmates.
Until 2000, the year Buser left Rikers—coincidentally, the same year St. Barnabas lost its contract, due to mounting investigations and charges of malpractice—things only got worse. "It led to a big deterioration in mental health services," she told me. "The city gutted the social services department, and whittled it down to one person per jail." The clinic she worked in had already been standing room only, but now, there was barely anyone even working there, Buser recalled.
"It was harder for me to function without support," she continued. "Everything was just gone."
Toward the end of her time there, Buser said, suicides and the abuse of mentally ill patients at Rikers began to rise, and she felt like there was nothing she could do about it. She had a guilty conscience. "It didn't take much for someone to die here," she told me. Buser had entered Rikers as a self-described "idealistic intern," and in the face of wanton brutality, she departed a hardened veteran of American mass incarceration's greatest woes.
Rikers had officially broken her down.
"It's not enough to be a good person," she admitted to me. "You can celebrate mental health, and work with good people, but I couldn't help but see the larger picture, whether it was issues with pre-trial detention, or bail. I became really disillusioned with it all."
So when she heard about more recent scandals involving mentally-ill patients, she wasn't surprised at all. "What surprises me is that it wasn't leaking out to front pages everywhere," she said. "Atrocities would happen all the time, and nobody would say a thing."
'JAILS ARE SECURE'
In the twilight of his tenure in late 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the Rikers inmates' safety as Superstorm Sandy approached. The island jail, after all, was floating in the middle of the East River, without proper protection against a storm that would ultimately wreak havoc on the city's shores. It was vulnerable.
"Jails are secure," the mayor told the reporter. "Don't worry about anyone getting out."
The response, which garnered its fair share of criticism from civil rights groups citywide, was telling—not only of how the Wall Street billionaire might have perceived the city's lowliest citizens, but how its administration handled (or neglected to handle) Rikers throughout his time in office. "There was very little interest in expending political capital and financial capital on the jails," Martin Horn, the correction commissioner during Bloomberg's first two terms, told the New York Times in 2014.
I guess the more you try to escape, the more you see. —former inmate William Evans
In many respects, Bloomberg had upheld the law-enforcement legacy of Giuliani, particularly when it came to stop-and-frisk tactics in minority communities. Crime rates continued to drop precipitously, and so did the population at Rikers, where inmate numbers fell to 10,000—about where it stands today. For that reason, officials cut 3,000 COs from the city's payroll early on in Bloomberg's tenure. But the gap—alongside the earlier cuts in mental health services Buser witnessed under Giuliani—permitted horrid conditions to percolate in the city jails.
And as Rikers imploded, Bloomberg was remarkably silent. The island had apparently fallen to the bottom of his priorities list, when, many would argue, it needed to be at the very top. But it wasn't until the end of Hizzoner's reign that the shell around Rikers began to break open into public view.
William Evans did everything he could to stay busy on Rikers. He worked at the intake, in the kitchen, and in the Grievances Department. When he was off work, he would seek refuge in the library, staying away from the violent halls and dormitories as long as he possibly could. "You could look at someone wrong, and there'd be a problem," he said in an interview. "That's a reason to be attacked. So this is how I survived."
Evans was still in college when he said he was arrested for a gun possession charge—for which he claimed to later be acquitted—and sent to Rikers from September of 2009 to August 2010. Just months before he arrived, an investigation by the Village Voice had exposed a secret society known as "The Program," where COs forced the inmates to participate in a "fight club," resulting in one prisoner's death.
It was the first pronounced media spotlight on the island in years; newspapers would always report on violence, which was a common thread by this point, but something of this caliber—in terms of coordinated brutality—hadn't been detailed in recent memory. Rose Gill Hearn, the city's Department of Investigations commissioner at the time, called it "the worst" scandal she had ever seen in local jails. Little did she—or anyone in city government, for that matter—know, it was just the first of many exposés to come.
But Evans didn't need to read the reports to know Rikers was rotten. His jail jobs landed him front row seats to the deep issues at the place. "I guess the more you try to escape," he said, humorously, "the more you see."
His first gig was at intake in the North Infirmary Center (NIC)—one of the oldest facilities still in use—where broken showers and flooded bathrooms meant there was one shower for numerous men. His role was in the kitchen, where he said he saw COs throw inmates' food on the floor if they talked back.
Around this time, Evans was transferred from the "sprung" (where, if it rained, he said the water would seep in through the door), to the Anna M. Kross Center, which was dedicated to substance abuse. Even though he didn't have a drug problem. "I was forced into treatment, and I'd go to The Box [solitary] if I said no," he said. "So I stayed for a while."
He soon landed a job in Grievances, where inmates were allowed to drop complaints off in a box. A civilian employee would then read the complaints, and hand them off to someone in DOC who could possibly help. Or at least, that's the idea. "The woman who I worked with had no issue in tearing up complaints," Evans told me. "If someone kept complaining about something, or if there were too many. I had seen it happen multiple times."
And that was what pissed Evans off the most: the suffocation. If you complained to the administration, the cogs in the bureaucratic machine would grind real slow to fix it, if they ever actually did. If you snitched on someone, especially a CO, you could expect much worse: either a trip to the Box, or a beatdown. Besides, you'd be labeled weak by other inmates—as opposed to Rikers Tough.
So inmates rarely complained, and almost never snitched.
"People decided, 'If that's the case, I'm here X number of days, so I'll just deal with it,'" Evans said. "You don't want to piss anyone off, because of what's gonna be taken out on you. And most people just wanted to make it out."
That mentality, he argued, was instilled in the very essence of Rikers, and incarceration in America, for that matter—the perception that this was the norm: violence, negligence, crackdowns. And that's why the culture was able to persist for so long. Nobody said a thing, because nobody could say a thing. In other words, systematic issues exist for so long because the system allows them to.
"The psychological piece is not only not feeling safe, but the fear to speak out," Evans explained. "Once you're there, they have you there."
At the end of our interview, Evans, who now works for the Fortune Society, an organization dedicated to inmate re-entry, thanked me. I asked him why he felt he needed to, and he said he was so happy to know that, after all of these years of silence, people had started to pay close attention to his former home. Because even if the problems at Rikers are still there—which, he said, is very likely the case—it's different now.
"Most of the time, while you're on the island, it's really about the information," he told me. "If that information can't leave, it'll never be heard."
"If men were heard," he continued, "this wouldn't have happened."
CAN RIKERS BE FIXED?
When Bill de Blasio took office on January 1, 2014, the new mayor of New York City couldn't hide from Rikers Island. Barely six months into his term, an extensive New York Times investigation uncovered 129 cases of serious abuse resulting in severe injury there, including ones that involved the mentally ill. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Justice released a 79-page report into the "deep-seated culture of violence" towards teenagers. It was the result of a two-and-a-half year investigation into a problem literally decades in the making.
"For adolescent inmates, Rikers Island is broken," US Attorney Preet Bharara said at the time. "It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries, where beatings are routine while accountability is rare."
Then, in October of 2014, the world learned the full story of Kalief Browder—a young black man who was stuck on Rikers for three years without trial. All because he allegedly stole someone's backpack.
The Browder story exemplified everything wrong with Rikers and American criminal justice writ large—the brutality, the Kafka-esque pre-trial process, and the psychological impact of it all—and rendered it all tangible and real. Here was a kid who was recorded being beaten by both COs and inmates, sent to solitary confinement for no good reason, and released with barely a shred of himself still left. His suicide in June 2015 capped off what had been Rikers's most infamous, and tragic, case study.
NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio visiting Rikers in December 2014. (Photo by Susan Watts - Pool/Getty Images)
All of these factors have forced the de Blasio administration to pay attention to Rikers. Reforms have finally come, however slowly: Solitary confinement has been banned for 16- and 17-year-olds. Mental health programs, and a new wing for high-risk individuals, have been created. A class-action settlement has resulted in a federal monitor, more cameras on the grounds, and a flagging system for violent COs.
Outside Rikers, there have been attempts to reduce or even eliminate the bail burden on poor people and to speed up the trial system, which should help stem the flow of inmates going and staying there in the first place. And this most recent graduating class of COs was the largest in decades—even as the officers' longtime union head, Norman Seabrook, has tried his best to thwart reform measures. (A plan to ban solitary confinement for inmates between 18 and 21 years old has reportedly been stalled by the Department of Correction.)
"We've got to rewrite the story of Rikers Island," Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the latest graduation ceremony in December. "We simply have to, and you will be the authors of that new history."
When Mark Peters was appointed Investigations Commissioner by de Blasio in February 2014, he quickly discovered that, somehow, the Fire Department, the Department of Sanitation, the Department of Correction, and a handful of other city agencies had only one inspector general. In other words, all of Rikers Island—which is, arguably, the city's blackest eye—was under the watch of one extremely busy bureaucrat. So he reshuffled the ranks: 24 investigators are now solely dedicated to Rikers oversight, several of whom are stationed on the island itself, he told me.
Peters' agency, the Department of Investigation (DOI), is essentially the police of Rikers Island now. They are strictly in charge of law enforcement there as it pertains to COs, administrative officials, and even inmates. It is their job to sniff out corruption on Rikers, and they have the power to arrest individuals who are accused of graft.
And they do that—fairly often. But how good is a police force if the city is crumbling?
"If [arrests] were all we do, you're not gonna make any real change," Peters told me. "Yes, we need to arrest people, and we will keep arresting people. But what we haven't done is try to look at the system and see what issues led to this, so we can deal with them in a more effective way."
One of the main issues the DOI has tried to tackle recently is smuggling. So in order to see how it's still possible for COs to bring in drugs, weapons, and other contraband, Peters' investigators outfitted an undercover inspector and sent him packing through six security checkpoints on Rikers in 2014. The guy was carrying 250 packets of heroin, a half a pound of weed, a shit-ton of Suboxone, and a razor blade. In his hand was a water bottle filled with vodka.
When the metal detector went off, one CO, according to the report, asked if he could empty his pockets. He said he had already, and the CO let him through. And that's it: he breezed right in, with enough narcotics to book someone for years.
After their findings, Peters demanded that the Department of Correction ramp up its screening process to airport security levels, with drug-sniffing dogs and pat-downs—something that the Department had said would happen (but didn't) for years. Commissioner Joseph Ponte, de Blasio's appointee, complied.
Another problem was hiring. Many COs involved in wrongdoing—whether it was beatdowns, or smuggling—had criminal histories and gang affiliations that went under the radar. Yet somehow, they were working on Rikers. So, to see how deep this issue went, DOI scanned the applications of the Class of 2013. The results, Peters said, were startling.
According to a report released last January, over a third of the soon-to-be COs failed the test. The reasons varied, but all were red flags: felonies, gang ties, prior encounters that clearly deemed them violent, or not psychologically fit for the job. But they were all hired; some for nepotistic reasons (one applicant's folder was stamped for being family friends with a union boss). "These people should not be COs," Peters told me.
Contraband snuck into Rikers by city investigators in 2014. Photo courtesy NYC Department of Investigation
Since then, new measures and stricter hiring procedures have been put into place. In addition to criminal histories, every applicant is now supposed to be checked for gang tattoos—and their social media accounts scoured. In addition, the DOI's cutting critique of Corizon, the Rikers health care provider—which, some say, is the worst the jail has ever had—led to the end of the company's contract.
"It's fair to say that there's a new direction," Peters later declared to me. "In the past, the changes were less systematic. Now, we're using these new arrests not just to get individuals, but to make broader, systemic changes."
In other words: Cut the tree down so the bad apples stop growing.
Unfortunately, even with these reforms, Rikers is still as violent as ever. With 21 slashings and one stabbing, all allegedly among gang members, July 2015 was considered to be one of the bloodiest months there in years. Jail-wide lockdowns have become regularities, and prosecutors are having a hard time keeping up with the sheer influx of violent cases there.
Lately, there have been calls from critics to shut down Rikers entirely and have the inmates transferred to borough jails, where they'd be closer to their families and the courts. The penal colony has become such a blemish on the citywide collective consciousness, they argue, that it's not worth the cost, or upkeep. In other words, some say, the place is doing more harm than good.
Given what we've seen over the years, Rikers abolitionists have a point. Because all of this bloodshed and brutality begs the ultimate question: Is this simply how New York City's biggest jail will always be? Can it ever really change? If those are the questions we're asking about a place where residents have yet to be found guilty, Rikers might have been doomed from the very beginning.
Follow John Surico on Twitter.