Rikers Island Is Still Fucked, and It’s Terrifying
Despite some noises late last year about reform at New York's notorious jail, conditions remain brutal, as a series of recent incidents make clear.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Institutionalized, Fight Club–esque beatings—some fatal—of inmates, especially mentally ill ones, by corrections officers. "The Box," a decrepit solitary-confinement cell reserved for the bad prisoners. Teenagers lost in a Kafkaesque abyss for years on end, having only been charged with minor crimes.
And the lawsuits, against not only the guards but the whole damn city.
In August, the US Attorney's office described what it saw on Rikers Island as a " deep-seated culture of violence" against teenagers. It was a portrait of doom at New York's most notorious detention complex that ultimately led to a federal lawsuit against New York City and plans to end solitary confinement (starting next year) for teenagers held there under the age of 21. In addition, Mayor Bill de Blasio's office plans to swap punitive segregation—which places young inmates in a separate unit for disorderly conduct—with positive rehabilitation. And separate housing for the most violent inmates was finally established last month, though just 20 people have been moved there so far.
Back in November, the mayor and his correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, swore that dealing with Rikers abuse was a top priority of the administration. Change, it seemed, was in the air for a place that some of us might prefer to believe is not actually part of the United States of America. But as Glenn E. Martin, a prison reform advocate at JustLeadership USA, tells me, "The problem is that incremental fixes for Rikers is like prescribing Tylenol for cancer."
Now the disease that is violence at Rikers Island is rearing its ugly head again.
Last week, Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz, the two journalists at the New York Times who broke the Rikers abuse story in July, highlighted 62 new cases since August, suggesting in a story that this is a system of abuse that just won't go away—even with intense scrutiny from all tiers of government. They related stories like those of Tracy Johnson, an inmate who was pepper-sprayed and had his eye socket broken by being slammed against the floor the very month de Blasio vowed to reform Rikers, and Ambiorix Celedonio, an inmate with a low IQ who was beaten to a bloody pulp by officers in December.
While it might seem impossible, things actually took a turn for the worse this week. According to the New York Daily News, an inmate named Raleek Young had to be ripped off of an unnamed female officer by other inmates and officers as he attempted to rape her on Saturday. Young was serving a five-to-ten-year sentence in state prison for raping a 17-year-old, and, as happens in the cases of many other inmates, had been temporarily placed at Rikers while awaiting an unspecified court date. Now he's facing a whole slew of charges in Bronx Criminal Court, and the matter is being investigated by the Corrections Department.
To top it all off, 6,800 inmates at the island's four jails were confined to their cells, beginning on Tuesday morning, for 34 hours. The largest operation of its kind in recent Rikers history is a response to what officials say has been a spike in gang violence, notably between two groups of Bloods. (The Times also reports that after 93 stabbings or slashings at the complex in 2014, there have already been 24 this year.) Corrections officers meticulously searched each inmate for gang-related drugs and weapons. Inmates were only allowed to leave for court appearances or medical treatment. The search resulted in the discovery of a dozen homemade weapons, which, according to the Times, "included sharpened plexiglass, metal rods and shoe shanks."
Given all the media scrutiny and political attention to Rikers, how is this sort of thing still happening?
To Stanley Richards, the "culture of violence" at Rikers "is a pretty entrenched problem that has been building for many, many years." It has been been the norm since he was an inmate at Rikers himself.
"You knew which officers were hot-headed, short-tempered, or aggressive, and you knew which officers would lend you a hand," he told me. "But, as an officer, you don't get recognized for your help. You get recognized for keeping inmates in line, and that means using abuse or violence."
Richards serves as the Senior Vice President of Fortune Society, a Queens-based group dedicated to helping inmates re-enter society after imprisonment. He's been recognized by the White House for his 20-plus years of work in criminal justice reform, which started with his own incarceration.
A key problem at Rikers, he said, is the obvious one: Bad officers manage to get a badge and usually face no repercussions or punishment once in positions of authority. Borrowing a phrase from NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, Richards described these officers as "bad apples."
"Everyone in the department knows that these officers should not be uniform," he told me. "Some officers are good and do their jobs. But there are also some who should not be in prisons. And the administrative protocol that would weed out these bad apples, and lead to their swift removal, doesn't allow for this."
When he first read the Daily News story on Wednesday morning, Richards was confused as to why Young was even at Rikers in the first place. "Why didn't we have the perp in a program?" he asked me. "How could we have missed the need to have him in treatment to manage what was going on in his mind? It's a shame that a corrections officer was a subject of this."
To that end, Richards praised the "significant investment" placed by the de Blasio administration in mental health initiatives, and believes the mayor and Commissioner Ponte have a "vision about what's right." These gestures, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent ruminations on criminal justice reform, are good signs for Rikers, he said, but just a start.
"In time, we can build a jail that does two things," he concluded. "It holds officers accountable for their actions, and helps inmates rebuild their lives."
A Department of Correction (DOC) spokesperson told us via email, "Under Commissioner Joe Ponte, the New York City Department of Correction has pursued an unprecedented comprehensive reform agenda to make our jails safer. The cornerstone of that agenda, Enhanced Supervision Housing for the small number of inmates who are responsible for most of the violence in our jails, opened February 23rd. It takes time to undo years of mismanagement, and change can temporarily exacerbate conditions as people adapt to new practices and standards. We are, however, well on our way to a jail system that is safer and more humane and that produces better long-term outcomes." (Officials at the mayor's office were reached for comment but did not get back before press time.)
On Tuesday, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Director Donna Lieberman testified to the City Council about Rikers in a tone that suggests nothing much has changed at New York's very own mini-Guantanamo.
"The systemic failure to address the health care needs of those incarcerated on Rikers Island—a population challenged by mental health and medical issues so severe that many shouldn't be incarcerated in the first place—exacerbates the culture of brutality that plagues Rikers Island," she said in a statement.
"That culture itself is inexcusable and has to be met head on, but at the same time, it must be acknowledged that corrections officers are simply not prepared or trained to deal with the level of suffering they are forced to confront at Rikers," she continued. "Defining the magnitude of the problem will be a crucial first step toward ending it."
When I reported on Rikers reforms in January, Martin of JustLeadership USA deemed that magnitude unsalvageable. In the end, he said Rikers must be shut down by the city, and stands by that notion today.
"With the momentum created by the recent scathing Department of Justice report and the existing lawsuit, the mayor needs to finally muster the courage to spend the political capital necessary to make comprehensive and immediate changes in Rikers, with a longer-term vision for shutting down the entire facility and redesigning the way we handle crime and corrections in NYC," he said. 'What we need now, more than ever, is leadership and vision.
"Entire communities are suffering in the meantime."
Follow John Surico on Twitter.