This article appears in VICE Magazine's October Prison Issue
In February 1988, Stanley Richards was in the jail complex on Rikers Island in New York City, awaiting trial on robbery charges. Richards had been in the facility for nearly two years, and he had been in and out on lesser charges before. In that time, he had figured out how to maneuver through the system to soften the blow of being in jail. "I had always believed that my life would be about hustling on the streets, going to jail, getting out of jail, and repeating the cycle again," he said.
One Wednesday morning that winter, seven state inmates being temporarily held at the jail for parole violations interfered with a violent search, unused to the rough conditions at the facility. They soon precipitated an uprising in which more than 550 detainees used beds and lockers to barricade themselves in their cells, presenting a list of demands to the staff. Two hundred guards armed with clubs and tear gas stormed the jail in response. Richards was working in the kitchen when the alarms went off in the unit, and he witnessed the riot unfold. During the uprising, the fourth at Rikers in just three years, an inmate called United Press International to alert them to violent conditions at the jail. "People are fed up with the way police are beating inmates here," he said. "This is the only way to bring the problem to light."
Twenty-seven years later, conditions at Rikers are still in need of exposure and reform, and Richards has found himself in the facility to witness them again. But this time he comes not as an inmate but as a regulator. In May, he was appointed to the New York City Board of Correction, the civilian watchdog group that establishes the minimum standards at the city's jails. Richards has been dedicated to improving the lives of the incarcerated ever since he was released from prison in 1991. By the time he finished serving a four-and-a-half-year sentence on the robbery charges that landed him in Rikers at the time of the '88 riot, he had spent more than ten years in New York's prisons and jails. Inside he earned a GED and college degree (he was lucky to receive a Pell Grant before Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill eliminated them for prisoners), and he realized that he didn't have to be resigned to a life of constant incarceration. When he got out, he got a job at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that provides reentry and job services to people coming home from prison and jail, beginning a 24-year career there devoted to helping reform the system that tried to keep him behind bars.
When Alexander Rovt, a billionaire real estate investor who had served on the Board of Correction since 2005, submitted his resignation earlier this year, advocates pressured City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to appoint someone who had actually spent time in jail to replace him. For most of its 58-year existence, the board has made decisions about the conditions of confinement at the city's jails without a currently or formerly incarcerated person among its nine members. "In order for criminal justice policy to be effective, you want to always find a way to include the voices of people who are inherently affected by the same policy," said Johnny Perez, a member of the Jails Action Coalition who was detained on Rikers Island when he was 16 years old.
This spring, council member Daniel Dromm introduced Mark-Viverito to Richards, and she soon selected him to replace Rovt, citing his experience both inside and outside New York's jails. Richards is the first member appointed by the City Council to have once been incarcerated. "What I hope to bring to the board is a voice of reality," Richards told me. "I'm going to tell them what it's like to be on the island. I'm going to tell them what it's like when you impose additional restrictive behaviors. I'm going to tell them what it's like when you put somebody in punitive segregation, because I was in punitive segregation."
The Board of Correction was created in 1957 to oversee the city's Department of Correction at a time when there was concern and speculation that overcrowding in the city's jails would result in riots. There had already been a number of smaller disturbances. The board's first nine civilian members, all nominated by then mayor Robert Wagner, held prominent positions in the city's philanthropic, political, and religious institutions.
The issues the group was considering at the time show how little has changed in New York City's justice system in the past 50 years. In its first report, published in 1958, the board recommended eliminating bail and only detaining people who were accused of committing a crime against another person. In 1960, the board called for a "renewed effort to bring all prisoners to trial at the earliest possible date." Today, about 45,000 people are remitted to Rikers each year only because they can't post bail at the time of arraignment, and 1,500 of the about 9,000 inmates currently at Rikers have been there for more than a year without a trial. Out of the five boroughs, the Bronx, where Richards was being prosecuted in the late 80s, has the worst delays in the city, with more than 70 percent of cases violating the state's speedy-trial guidelines.
Today, the board remains the chief overseer of Rikers and the city's other jails, but it also has increased powers thanks to the 1977 City Charter. The board sets minimum standards and regulations by which the DOC, which manages the facilities, must abide. Richards has joined the board at a time when the public scrutiny of Rikers is higher than it has been in at least a decade. Last year, the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York issued a report calling Rikers "a broken institution... where brute force is a first impulse rather than a last resort; where verbal insults are repaid with physical injuries; where beatings are routine while accountability is rare; and where a culture of violence endures even while a code of silence prevails." Four months later, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the city for the pervasive, "deep-seated culture of violence" at its jails.
This March, feeling the pressure to do something, Mayor Bill de Blasio and DOC commissioner Joseph Ponte introduced a package of 14 reforms intended to "promote a culture of safety" at Rikers. Among the proposed changes were restricting inmates' physical-contact visits and limiting their rights to receive packages, which they argued would reduce the number of weapons in the jail. Because the plan proposed to change the minimum standards regulating conditions at Rikers, it would require the board's approval.
On the morning of July 14, correctional officers, advocates, and lawyers filled an auditorium in lower Manhattan for Richards's second meeting as a member of the Board of Correction. The group was considering whether to open up the rulemaking period on the DOC's proposed changes to visits and packages at Rikers, and the board's chair, Stanley Brezenoff, invited the advocates in attendance to comment before the board decided whether they would even consider them. One by one, an attorney at Legal Aid Society, a City Council member, a social worker from Brooklyn Defenders Services, and others told the board they disagreed with the proposed change and urged them to vote against it.
When it came time for members of the board to express their opinions, Richards opposed the change. While some of the other members said they were voting yes out of a sense of trust in the commissioner's reputation as a reformer, Richards asserted that rulemaking was among the board's most special functions and that the DOC hadn't justified "infringing on the many, many visitors who come to see their loved ones in jail." What's more, analysis by the city's Department of Investigation has shown that the real problem at Rikers is weapons smuggled in by correctional officers, not visitors. Richards later told me that Ponte was "trying to implement a maximum-security-prison mentality into what is in effect a detention facility." Most of the people at Rikers have not been convicted of a crime and are being detained because they cannot post bail, he reminded me. They "should be afforded the notion of being innocent until proven guilty and should be afforded the rights and privileges of every other citizen," he said.
When Richards was incarcerated at Rikers, inmates were free to move from one place to another without being escorted. Now, they're dependent on guards to get around. Returning to Rikers as a member of the board after 30 years, Richards noticed how much policies like these have changed the atmosphere. "It's much darker in the sense of hope," he said. "There's less movement and focus on second chances, and much more on punishment. So when you walk into a facility, you see the inmates don't believe that life or anything is going to be different. They believe that their future is that cell, that incarceration."
In the end, only two other members joined Richards in opposing considering the changes. Despite outlining their concerns and worries with the DOC's proposals and rule violations, the board consistently votes in their favor. And while the board has the power to make minimum standards, little happens when the DOC is in violation of those same standards. "Our recourse for [the DOC] violating those standards is a conversation and only a conversation," Richards told me a few weeks after the July board meeting. "We make sure they are adhering to our standards, and when they're not, we call them on it." Sometimes the DOC apologizes and immediately stops violating the standards. Other times, the DOC apologizes and board members will see the same problem when they visit Rikers again weeks later. When I asked how that could change, Richards suggested giving the board the power to administer sanctions against the DOC when conditions at the jail don't meet its standards, but that idea has gained little traction.
Last December, the very first executive director of the Board of Correction, John Brickman, testified before the board at a public hearing on the creation of an Enhanced Supervision Unit at Rikers. Brickman, like many advocates, considered it a new solitary confinement unit and urged the board to oppose it. He also used his testimony as an opportunity to offer the group some advice. "You, as a board, are most effective and you have the best chance to bring about change when you maintain your distance from the Department of Correction. There needs to be a tension, a healthy tension," he told them. "The board's greatest impact has come when it has asserted its independence from the department and, indeed, from City Hall as well."
Despite Richards's frustrations with how the board operates, he disagrees with Brickman. In order to fix Rikers, he told me, he believes he'll need to work together with the commissioner and the mayor. Richards's experience at the jail hasn't made him into the "activist foil" that Brickman wants to see on the board. He's gone from inside the jail to inside the system, and it's from that position that he's banking on being able to change Rikers for the better.