I Went on a Media Tour of the Cells Where Rikers Island's Most Dangerous Inmates Will Be Kept

A new "Enhanced Supervision Housing" unit is just one of the measures in a series of reforms New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes will reduce violence at the hellish jail complex.

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Mar 13 2015, 4:00pm

An inspirational quote for some of New York City's most violent prisoners. Photos by the author

For whatever reason, something about having croissants, carrot cake, and coffee in a complex designed for Rikers Island's most violent inmates seemed a bit off.

The corrections-bus-turned-media-transport had just brought us over the East River from Queens to the notorious jail complex, with New York City's early-morning skyline in the distance. We passed drab detention facilities and barbed wire before arriving at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center. A person was brought out onto a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance right as we were being let off the bus.

All photos by the author

A box that instructed officers to unload their guns and a room labeled "Arsenal" preceded the TSA-style security check. Once inside, we were led by corrections officers down a long, gray hallway that passed a barbershop, a courtyard where inmates played basketball, and a bare "Inspirational Moments in History" bulletin board.

Finally, we reached ESH—Enhanced Supervision Housing.

The two-floor complex has 50 empty units, 25 on each side, outfitted with a small sink, toilet, and cot. Its interior is blue and white, with freshly painted insignia on the ground right when you enter. On the stairs are motivational quotes like, "It's always seems impossible until it's done," and, "Positive anything is better than negative nothing."

I wasn't sure if the quotes were for the benefit of officers or inmates.

Cracked windows face Manhattan, and a mural of the Freedom Tower, emblazoned on an American flag, is on the opposite end. The coffee and desserts for the media were in a room next to the showers. In three weeks, the inmates will move in.

This unit—the second of its kind after another opened in February—is just one of the measures in a series of Rikers reforms set forth by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration since he took office. Rather than placing the most dangerous prisoners in solitary confinement, enhanced segregation effectively separates them from the general jail population. It's these 7 percent of the inmates that, the mayor has argued, drives the horrendous violence at Rikers.

According to the New York Times, 2014 was one of the most violent years at Rikers on record, with 4,074 beatings of inmates by guards. And, in the few first months of this year, the numbers are still real bad: Between January 1 and March 10, a Department of Corrections spokesperson said, there have been 26 slashings and stabbings, 823 uses of force, and 189 assaults on staff—a 13 percent increase from last year. Twenty-eight of those uses of force resulted in serious injury, which is a 22 percent decrease from last year, and there were 745 inmate-on-inmate fights on the island, a mere 5 percent decrease. As we reported last week, an inmate recently had to be ripped off of a female guard—with an assist from other inmates—as he attempted to rape her.

The persistence of the chaos led Mayor de Blasio, who said he was "fundamentally dissatisfied" with results so far, to return to Rikers and tour the EHS facility on Thursday afternoon. He brought with him a new 14-point agenda that aims to counter what the local US Attorney's office has called a " culture of violence"—one that, even in the face of intense scrutiny, a federal investigation, and a lawsuit, has not shown improvement.

In essence, the mayor needed a new plan, and he needed one fast.

"Everything we're talking about today is about fundamental reform, is about launching a new era here on this island where violence will decrease steadily. It is about changing the culture of this place," the mayor said against a backdrop of corrections officers. "And it's about addressing, bluntly, years of neglect—neglect suffered by everyone who was here—and that neglect has ended because everyone knows the Department of Correction is now a focal point for our administration and for all of us at City Hall."

De Blasio's plan, centers on five specific provisions as the greatest hope for stemming the tide: restricting visitation, installing security cameras throughout the island, enhancing classes for inmates, establishing new emergency response teams, and, of course, the new housing, which we were sitting in. But the visitation policy is what received the most attention.

Currently, there are no restrictions on the contact levels between visitors and inmates, or who may visit them. And when visitors do come for a conjugal visit, they're allowed to embrace the inmate and sit at a normal table with them.

"Right now, a gang member who is not a family member can visit his fellow gang member," Mayor de Blasio explained.

As New York officials see it, this is a major access point for drugs and weapons to enter the prison. Per a Department of Corrections press release, ten weapons and 69 narcotics were taken from 26 visitors between last November and this January. And that's just the contraband that was found: after a 34-hour lockdown last week, guards found a dozen handmade weapons, which "included sharpened plexiglass, metal rods and shoe shanks."

In fact, when you first enter this correctional center, many of those confiscated weapons are on display, like correction officers' bounty.

Going ahead, restrictions will be tighter. For example, inmates with known gang affiliations will not be allowed to embrace non-family members with felony convictions. Visitors will be forced to pre-register, and interactions with inmates who have known records of violence will be limited to a glass window, so smuggling is easier to spot. Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Ponte said the visitations will be "individually driven"—or on a case-by-case basis—but not hinder family support.

"That family tie is a number one reason that people get out and do well," he added. "We want to everything we can to support that, but at the same time keep things safe."

Before punitive segregation was limited, inmates only had one hour a day not behind bars. Now, although inmates housed in ESH are moved everywhere else on Rikers in restraints, they're allowed to have seven hours of outside time. By March of 2016, five hours of programming will be available for all inmates above the age of 16. Workshops will include workforce training, and father and family development classes.

"Positive use of the time of the inmates not only helps in the rehabilitation process, it helps to reduce violence," the mayor added. "Those who are occupied in something constructive are much less likely to be involved in violence."

By July 2015, 300 new Emergency Service Unit officers will be trained in crisis response, conflict de-escalation and TSA-style screening procedures, as well as armed with more K-9 units to sniff out drugs. And, by February 2018, all of Rikers Island will be strapped with cameras (why this isn't already the case, I don't know). The Board of Corrections will hear the visitation standard revisions this May, and then vote on them soon after.

"To say that much work needs to be done would profoundly be an understatement," Mayor de Blasio declared. "You don't have years and years of things going in the wrong direction, and then change it overnight." But with a timeline in place, the mayor compared the speed of progress to Frank Serpico's notorious whistleblower efforts against NYPD corruption in the 1970s.

"The NYPD proceeded to greatly professionalize its operation, to improve its leadership, to improve its integrity. It's now a model, nationally and internationally," he argued. "So, it is important to remember that agencies—those that have been neglected or had historical problems —can turn around and turn around quickly with the right leadership and with the right investments and with the right strategy."

Of course, the NYPD is not exactly a poster child for beloved institutions. In light of all the violence and dysfunction that's hovered around the city's law enforcement structure over the past 12 months, the sign on the way out of the jail complex was only fitting.

"Have a safe trip home!"

Follow John Surico on Twitter.

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