​A Former Rikers Island Inmate Is Trying to Fix New York's Dysfunctional Jails

Stanley Richards just got appointed to the NYC Board of Correction, which oversees all the city's jails, including the one he used to call home.

John Surico

John Surico

Rikers Island Jail Complex. Photo via Sfoskett/Wikimedia Commons

When I first got in touch with Stanley Richards, we talked about Rikers Island. The NYC jail complex, which sits just north of Queens, has a reputation for brutality that continues to make headlines despite intense reform efforts. Richards knew the violence wouldn't disappear overnight: As a former inmate at Rikers himself, he told me about the deeply ingrained culture there—and how it engulfs inmates and officers alike.

Now, after being confirmed on Wednesday in a 49-0 vote, Richards joins the Board of Correction, the body that essentially oversees all the jails and inmate activity in the city.

After getting out of prison in 1991, Richards went on to become a leading member of the Fortune Society, which helps former inmates like himself acclimate to regular life and also engages in advocacy for improving jails. Because of his work, Richards was nominated by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has made criminal justice reform a top focus.

"Stanley Richards will be a welcome addition to the Board of Correction, where his unique perspective of personal experience will bring needed oversight to New York City's jails," the Speaker said in an email. Along with confirming Richards on Wednesday, the Council also unanimously voted to establish an Office of Civil Justice, which will advise the mayor and seek ways to establish free legal services for those who need it in the city.

Richards joins the board at a crucial time. In light of the federal investigation into Rikers, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Mayor Bill de Blasio have been on the offensive with changes, like ending solitary confinement for young adults and establishing enhanced supervision units. I spoke with Richards after his confirmation about this moment in correctional history, what his experience brings to the table, and what he wants to do on day one.

VICE: How were you first approached about the position?
Stanley Richards: I was always interested in the Board of Correction service, and, in an official capacity, the changes I could make to the criminal justice system through the board. And I just casually mentioned it to Council Member Daniel Dromm at an event, that I would love to serve on the Board of Correction. He said, "Oh yeah, that would be really nice," and then took it when the opportunity came. With a new Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, she thought it was a great idea. It'd really open up the board, and she agreed. And now it's history.

What was that feeling like—to go from a former inmate to the board that oversees every inmate in New York City?
I can see all of the possibilities. You had a board that, for a long time, hasn't been fulfilling its potential; it hasn't been active in both raising issues and presenting solutions. And I know by my experience, both on the inside and as a part of a social service organization, I can offer them a unique perspective and really start working on the solutions, not just identifying the problems.

When you were an inmate, what was your view of the board? Did that change when you became an advocate?
When I was an inmate, I didn't even know the board existed, and I think that's true today, too. It also wasn't active when I was an inmate, and as a service provider, they weren't so active on issues presented by advocates. The board took no action. The report that came out of the Department of Justice on Rikers Island... that should've come out of the board! The board oversees all of that. The board should've been much more active with their investigative role and in its problem-solving role. And they've just been absent. I feel like we have a progressive City Council who cares about this, who wants a city where all citizens are valued, and they want an inclusive process. We have a mayor who's going to put resources into solving some of the problems. So the stars are aligned to do some creative work on the Board of Correction, and I'm looking forward to it.

Why do you think it's important then that you have someone in your position on the board? What kind of insight and solutions can you bring?
For one is that—and this is what I'm gonna do right away—is when I go out there and I visit, I want to be able to talk to inmates and officers. Because, in my mind, the officers are not the enemy. They work in a really tough system that, for far too long, has rewarded brutality, isolation, custody and control. But now, with Commissioner Joe Ponte and the Council Speaker, we have a team of folks who are willing to have these conversations. And so, my perspective is, when I go out there, I know what to look for. They cannot dress it up when I come out there, and I'm not gonna let them dress it up.

Interested in mass incarceration in America? Check out this documentary on mental health in Chicago's Cook County Jail:

In light of what's happened, or is still happening, at Rikers, what do you think are the biggest issues facing the board right now?
I would start by saying there's not adequate staffing at the board to fulfill its obligations. You take a look at the staff and there are nine investigators. But on the back end, there's not a system to both identify problems and find solutions. They haven't been resourced, and in recent years, it's been diminished. So looking at the board's staffing and the resources the Council has provided for it to do a good job.

The other piece is that the board hasn't been fully conferenced in problem-solving. I met with the Commissioner, and he said he wants the board to be part of initiatives and look for solutions. And I told him, that's what I want to do. I told him I don't want to be on the board to climb ladders; I want to be on the board to find solutions and other alternatives.

And so those two pieces have been so important in the board's role as a partner and taking ownership. The staff has been insignificant. You have nine investigators in total, with two at Rikers, and then their research staff is four or five people. It's ridiculous. You're talking about a system that houses 100,000 people, with 75,000 people going through the system each year. There are ten facilities on Rikers Island. You just can't manage it with a group that small.

So when do you start?
I just reached out to my contact to see when I can get an ID and start, because I'm ready to start. I'm going to stay at the Fortune Society, and I have the support of my staff, who are very excited for me. And as part of my role on the board, as we come up with solutions, I want those advocacy organizations to be part of the solutions. I know they'll all say yes.

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