Should New York City Just Throw Away the Key to Rikers Island Jail?

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Damien Norman was 17 when he says a Rikers Island guard broke his wrist and sent him to solitary while he was awaiting trial. The jail, experts say, continues to "accelerate misery." Elizabeth Shafiroff/Reuters

Updated | When the mayor of New York City chose a new correction commissioner in 2014, Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail, was notorious for its inhumane conditions and rampant violence. Mayor Bill de Blasio selected as his new jails chief Joseph Ponte, a man with a progressive record of transforming jails in Maine and Tennessee. The New York Times welcomed Ponte with the front-page headline “De Blasio Setting Up a Test: Prison Reformer vs. Rikers Island.”

Three years later, conditions at Rikers are still horrific, and the commissioner was scheduled to step down on June 28 after a city probe revealed he had repeatedly driven his municipal vehicle back to Maine and spent a total of three months there last year, even as conditions at Rikers worsened. So with Ponte’s time as correction head coming to an end, the answer to de Blasio’s test is clear: Rikers won in a rout. And to cap off Ponte’s time in New York, less than a week before his last day, de Blasio released a plan to close the facility in 10 years.

Criminal justice experts argue that it doesn’t reflect badly on Ponte, because reforming Rikers is impossible. “Ponte has tried to do some good things, but Rikers continues to be an accelerator of human misery. You come out worse than when you went in,” says Jonathan Lippman, chairman of an independent commission that in March called for the shuttering of Rikers. Lippman, former chief judge of New York and now of counsel at the law firm Latham & Watkins, tells Newsweek that other cities, like Denver and San Diego, have jails that are safer and more humane. “The only dramatic impact that a commissioner could have would be to lead the charge to close Rikers. Otherwise, it’s all Band-Aids.”

A report the Lippman commission released in March called Rikers a “stain on the city” and described the harm the obsolete facility does to correction officers working in dangerous conditions, the approximately 10,000 inmates imprisoned there on an average day and the taxpayers who cough up billions to fund the facility. It also recommended the facility be replaced with smaller facilities in each of the city’s five boroughs, saying, “Put simply, Rikers Island is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” (The report also raises the issue of race, noting that 89 percent of Rikers’s inmates are black or Hispanic, and that the burden of incarceration, with attendant costs like eviction, unemployment and family dysfunction, falls mainly on those minority communities.)

New York City Councilman Rory Lancman takes a dimmer view of Ponte’s tenure, calling the commissioner’s record “mixed” and noting that “when you start with the ninth level of Dante’s Inferno, the expectation is you’ll do better than mixed.” Stabbings and slashings in city jails increased last year by almost 20 percent, and medical staffers are afraid to care for inmates, he said. “It’s certainly fair to say that if Joe Ponte couldn’t fix it, who can? So let’s start over,” Lancman says, adding that he thinks the “Close Rikers” movement has become the mainstream viewpoint among city leaders. “What was not taken seriously just a few years ago is now the reigning orthodoxy.”

True reform of New York’s jails would require a massive overhaul of the city’s criminal justice system. The police department would have to move away from broken-windows policing, which pulls too many people into city courts, and there would need to be reform of the city’s bail system so that people are not kept in jail just because they’re poor, Lancman says. The report from the Lippman commission also raises this point, stating that every day about three-quarters of the approximately 9,700 people in the city’s jails are awaiting the outcome of their case—nearly all of them behind bars merely because they can’t afford bail.

The report also recommends reforms like moving low-level misdemeanors out of the criminal courts and into civil courts, getting mentally ill people into public health services instead of jail and eliminating short jail sentences. “On any given day, more than 1,200 individuals are serving jail sentences in New York City, with 69 percent involving 30 days or less in jail,” the report states. “Given the high cost and low impact of such sentences, the City should look to eliminate sentences of 30 days or fewer in favor of community-based alternatives.”

While the election of Donald Trump as president and his appointment of Jeff Sessions as head of the Department of Justice doesn't have a direct impact on local jails, a rightward shift in criminal justice policies at the federal level does influence local facilities like Rikers Island. First, moves by Sessions, like his push for mandatory minimum sentencing in prosecutions, influence local prosecutors to follow suit, says Heather Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan who studies mass incarceration. And second, a Sessions-led DOJ will be less likely to file or support civil rights lawsuits meant to force reform on facilities like Rikers, she says. “You’ve got nobody in the feds to bring your state abuses to,” says McDonald, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for her book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.

Thompson says the idea that one can fix a broken institution like Rikers Island by bringing in a savior (like Ponte) is absurd. She cited the example of Tom Murton, who was brought in to reform inhumane Arkansas prisons in the 1960s but was run out of the state when he accused jail guards of abusing the convicts. (Murton inspired the 1980 film Brubaker, in which he was played by Robert Redford.) “We in America have a long history of naively hoping that one guy can come in and fix something that is at its core rotten,” says Thompson. “So why are we surprised when he fails?”

Asked how she would compare Rikers Island to Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where 43 people were killed after prisoners demanded better living conditions and took over the prison, Thompson doesn’t hesitate. “It’s holding American citizens who have not been convicted of a crime as animals. On those grounds alone, it’s much worse than Attica.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said that New York City Councilman Rory Lancman was a member of the Lippman commission. He is not. 

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