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Situated on New York City’s East River between Queens and the Bronx, Rikers Island has maintained a particular notoriety amongst jails in the United States. Graced by the likes of Tupac Shakur and Lil Wayne, Rikers has become a symbol of the entrenched patterns of violence and corruption that pervade our country’s correctional system. While the jail has previously confronted allegations of inmate abuse and professional misconduct, Rikers is now at the center of a sprawling political scandal that has engulfed Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s administration and augured a federal lawsuit. After a yearlong investigation by the New York Times, investigators discovered not only a surge of violence within the jail over the past several years, but also cover-up efforts on behalf of city officials. Simultaneously, Rikers has seen an increase in inmates with mental illnesses, who have bore much of the brunt of this cascading wave of violence.
Despite the fact that the jail’s population has dwindled by 15%, use of force by correction officers has jumped nearly 240%, which has resulted in a disproportionate rise in solitary confinement, particularly amongst the jail’s adolescent population. While one would naturally expect some level of intra-jail strife, these numbers suggest a culture where violence is not only permitted, but also even ignored and subsequently encouraged. Meanwhile, at least 40% of Rikers’ inmates exhibit some form of mental illness, and are most likely to resist the jail’s zero-tolerance disciplinary measures, making them frequent targets of officers’ brutality. In turn, this wanton violence only exacerbates inmates’ symptoms, thus making them vulnerable to repeated injustices at the hands of corrections officers.
Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, has chalked up the rise in violence to an increasingly hostile jail population, which has tested an overextended corps of officers, who have suffered much of the violence, themselves. Furthermore, Seabrook has resisted politicians’ efforts to reduce solitary confinement, saying that such an action could come at the expense of officers’ personal safety.
However, the officers union’s considerable sway over city politicians, which has prevented any meaningful reforms from taking root, may gradually be eroded in light of new details obtained by investigators. In 2012, warden William Clemons and his deputy, Turhan Gumusdere, manipulated reports of inmate violence, presumably in an effort to airbrush the jail’s image and to protect their fellow officers. Despite these indiscretions, Clemons and Turhan have both been promoted and have yet to receive any sort of disciplinary action.
Thus, in response to the DeBlasio administration’s failure to correct the records and for its saturnine efforts to improve security at Rikers, United States Attorney for the Southeastern District of New York Preet Bahrar recently suggested that the administration may face a civil rights law suit if it doesn’t get its act together. As such, Mayor DeBlasio announced that he would seek to change civil service laws to allow uniformed officers from outside the Corrections Department to apply for, and serve in, promotional ranks. Currently, New York City law requires that the uniformed ranks of the Police, Fire, and Corrections Departments be filled by internal promotion only. This not only helps the unions ensure that their members maintain their careers, but also indemnifies them from reformers who advocate that reshuffling personnel would help remove the most egregious offenders.
If this law were to pass, it would be the most significant step thus far to fix the New York’s broken jail system. While DeBlasio sailed into city hall on the backs of progressive who advocated for a complete overhaul of New York’s justice system, DeBlasio has since fallen short of his supporters’ expectations. In a nod to reformers, DeBlasio appointed Joseph Ponte, previously the Commissioner of Maine’s Department of Corrections, to oversee the city’s department. During this tenure in Maryland, Ponte was lauded for reducing the use of solitary confinement. However, Ponte has yet to make such humane overtures in New York, stating, “[that] viable alternatives must be in place first.”
When we incarcerate people, we take full responsibility for sheltering them, providing them with healthcare, and making sure that their most basic needs are met. While New York’s failure to live up to this contract is not unique, it should also be held accountable for its transgressions. What are needed now are not just improvements in prison security, or a complete bureaucratic overhaul, but also a paradigm shift in how we approach incarceration. Yes, Ponte is right in calling for better officer training and an increased presence of security cameras throughout jails. On the other hand, we would be remiss if we fail to use this as an opportunity to address the deep-seated inequalities that make America’s prison population the largest in the world, despite the fact that the United States contains only 5% of the world’s population. Alternatives to mass incarceration, such as court-ordered rehabilitation for non-violent drug offenders, must be explored. Moreover, like any other prison the United States, Rikers is just another ugly reminder of the socioeconomic disparities that contribute to our sprawling justice system, which disproportionately incarcerates racial minorities.
Finally, Rikers now has roughly as many people with mental illness as all-24 psychiatric hospitals in New York State combined. The movement towards de-institutionalization, while making positive inroads towards treating individuals with mental illness with dignity and respect, left many psychiatrically unstable people with few places to turn to for long-term support and treatment, opening a revolving door that leads from the hospital to the streets, or from the streets to jail and back again. In essence, prisons have turned into de facto psychiatric hospitals, where the mentally ill are liable to languish without receiving the necessary and proper care that would allow them to return to their communities. At this stage, the primary danger to Rikers inmates appears not be the inadequately trained officers, but the hesitant and indifferent union leaders and city officials, who lack the gumption to implement any type of meaningful reform.
Chaya Himmelfarb is a frequent contributor to Painted Brain News.