Rikers Island Reform: the Good, the Bad and the Omitted


After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.

Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.

The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”

In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report:

  • Training for correction officers in dealing with people with behavioral health issues
  • Universal screening of incoming prisoners for physical and mental health issues
  • Diversion for ‘low-risk’ individuals who suffer from behavioral health issues or are veterans
  • Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training
  • Ending solitary confinement for adolescents and changing the policy for other populations
  • Assistance in enrolling eligible persons in Medicaid upon release
  • Expanding existing discharge programs to help inmates transition upon release
  • Connecting released prisoners to Health Homes for supported housing
  • Enhancing coordination between various agencies involved in discharge

There are other aspects of the reform package that are still being investigated, developed and tested by the task force. These works-in-progress include some of the most important parts of the reform plan, and are expected to come to fruition sometime in the next six months to a year. They include:

  • Developing and opening Community-based Diversion Drop-Off Centers across the city for those who are ‘low risk or flight’ prior to arraignment
  • Creating a ‘risk assessment instrument’ for identifying those who have ‘high risk of re-offending or flight’ prior to arraignment
  • Monetary bail reduction strategy
  • Shortening case processing times
  • Training for substance abuse disorder treatment
  • Expanded in-jail programming and a reduction in idle time
  • Housing planning teams for newly released inmates
  • Supported employment and paths to self-sufficiency for newly released inmates
  • Behavioral health teams in the Department of Probation

The New York Times says that “nothing of such scale had been tried by a municipality before, and that putting the plan into effect would be difficult.” And it will undoubtedly take time to see how many of these reforms pan out. That being said, some parts of the plan may raise red flags for civil liberties and prisoner rights advocates:

  • New unit for transgender women: On its face, the introduction of this unit might seem like a good idea. Transgender women do, after all, face higher levels of violence at the hands of guards and other prisoners. But in practice, this kind of ‘protective’ segregation for transgender inmates often ends up being a ticket to indefinite solitary confinement, as inmates find themselves restricted from accessing important programming and recreation opportunities provided to other inmates in general population. Given Rikers troubling history with human rights, this seems more like a risky proposition than anything else.
  • “Enhanced supervision housing” for violent inmates: The alleged 2.2% of inmates responsible for nearly all inmate violence at Rikers have undoubtedly been subject to lengthy stints of isolation and punitive treatment before now. I’m not sure what makes de Blasio think that more isolation and punishment will do the trick for them now. Rather than doubling down on controlling these inmates, I would have liked to see de Blasio engage more innovative and imaginative strategies, such as those that involve examining the root causes of violent episodes (such jail conditions, health issues, prior abuse etc.) rather than simply increasing their punishment.
  • Training NYPD officers in dealing with people with behavioral health and substance abuse issues: Another reform that, on its face, seems like a no-brainer. But I’m worried about the task force’s reliance on the LAPD model, especially since the LAPD is currently and rightfully being criticized for executing a mentally ill unarmed black man named Ezell Ford. OLAASM has done great work criticizing the evangelization of the LAPD model and the rise of ‘copaganda,’ and I would carry that same skepticism when expecting NYPD officers to show more care for the mentally ill. It’s a good step forward, but I question the wisdom of a reform that relies so much on an officer’s choice and discretion.
  • Changes to the “use of force” policy: This is, without a doubt, one of the most critically important parts of this reform package. And yet it is also one of the most brief and vague sections of the entire report. Curiously, the link in the footnote to this section references the NYT article on the hiring of a corporate consulting group to craft the city’s reform plan. Does this mean consultants at McKinsey & Co. — with zero prior corrections experience — are drafting the new “use of force” policy in city jails?
  • Specialized Mental Health Care Units: I have a similar problem with these kinds of specialized ‘medical’ prison units as I have with transgender segregation. They are well-intentioned plans that ultimately lend themselves to extreme abuse and isolation. Prisons are not conducive to serious and prolonged medical and mental health care. Rather than figuring out how to make prisons more therapeutic, we should instead reconsider the incarceration of people with mental illnesses.
  • ‘Specialized services for adolescents’: Aside from declaring an end to solitary for adolescent prisoners, the report calls for a vague smattering of reforms geared towards improving the conditions facing young inmates. These reforms mostly take the form of training for officers, upgraded facilities and more cameras. But I was hoping de Blasio would be bolder than that. Just as prisons are antithetical to medical treatment, so, too, are they disruptive to adolescent development and growth. De Blasio would have done a lot better for young prisoners in the city had he pursued radical changes to the juvenile justice system and sough to end the incarceration of young people as other states have, rather than simply spruce up the island’s juvenile detention center.
  • No end in sight to punitive segregation for other inmates: While the report does seek to eliminate the use of solitary confinement for young prisoners and small segments of other ‘at-risk’ prisoner groups, it only vaguely mentions changes to policies for the rest of the population. It will be important to watch how solitary continues to be used after this set of reforms takes place.

But none of these investments, policy changes and programs are worth a damn to the mentally ill if we don’t challenge the harmful presence of Corizon Health Services on Rikers Island. You just cannot address the seriousness of the mental healthcare problem in that prison without first cutting ties with the infamous private health care operator.

If the city is now committed to investing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in overhauling mental health care in the prison system, it should first take a look at the money it’s already spending (and wasting) on its mental healthcare provider. Corizon has been sued over 660 times in the last 5 years, and was recently fined by OSHA for failing to protect its Rikers Island employees from violence and abuse. Taxpayers are the ones that pick up those tabs. Their workers have been present in nearly every shocking story of abused and killed mentally ill inmates at Rikers, and are therefor contributing to the dangerous, reckless and costly environment de Blasio is seeking to change.

The de Blasio administration has taken a promising step forward by pursuing a reform plan like this. However, as former NYC jail commissioner Martin Horn recently told reporters, “There’s no silver bullet for fixing Rikers,” and the failure to address some of the system’s biggest challenges — such as its ‘use of force’ policy, its vetting of staff and leadership, the incarceration of adolescents and the privatization of its health services — creates more obstacles than solutions. It will be difficult to take on something as entrenched as a culture of brutality without removing the individuals responsible for perpetuating it. Time will tell if this will all be enough to bring fundamental change to Rikers Island.

Brian Sonenstein
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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein is a Berkeley-based writer, activist and former Campaign Director and Associate Publisher for Firedoglake.com. Learn more at http://briansonenstein.com
Brian Sonenstein
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