Friday, December 9, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

At pivotal time for Rikers, experts say federal control is best path forward

"Lives are at stake, both officers and incarcerated people,” said Stanley Richards, a former correction department deputy commissioner who was previously detained at New York City's most notorious jail complex.

RIKERS ISLAND (CN) — Perils plaguing the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City have existed for decades. But pressure to reform the dangerous and unsanitary conditions has mounted in recent months as the city-operated facility faces a potential takeover by the federal government, and rates of violence against detainees and correction officers topple those in recent years. 

Plans are on track to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with borough-based jails, the city says, but there is widespread agreement that the facility needs serious fixes in the meantime. 

On Thursday, a panel of city experts weighed in on the potential of federal receivership, addressing the issue within the same week that the city released a plan to reform the jail and the fifth person this year died in the custody of the city’s Department of Correction. 

Slashings and stabbings at Rikers are occurring at four times the rate in 2020, according to one panelist. Exhausted staff are forced to work triple shifts, while some floor officer posts remain empty. Flooded toilets and faulty plumbing lead to severe medical problems. Bits of crumbling buildings are turned into makeshift weapons. 

“Put simply, we have reached rock bottom,” said Liz Glazer, founder of the policy-focused organization Vital City and former director of the New York City Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.

Glazer advocated for the federal government’s control of Rikers, as did others on the Columbia University-hosted panel who said it’s not an ideal solution, but a last resort in a clearly untenable situation.  

“The 'polycentric' dysfunction [a court-appointed] monitor has vividly described is the result of structural deficiencies, like complex personnel and procurement rules, that the city lacks the power to address adequately,” Glazer said. “A receiver is specifically empowered to cut through these chronic dynamics and work with city leadership, over the longer term, to create viable changes for years to come.”

That’s in part because a receiver would be able to circumvent state laws and contracts with correction officers that include terms that allow for unlimited sick leave and, according to senior status, choosing preferred posts — namely those outside of housing units. 

Some of the more than 200 directives dictating how the department operates haven’t been reviewed or updated since their 1996 implementation, said panelist Stanley Richards, deputy CEO of Fortune Society and the former first deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction. 

Rules around collective bargaining, job descriptions and officer recruitment could all change under receivership, said Richards, who was also formerly incarcerated at Rikers. Officers could be appointed to posts based on skill and competence, rather than seniority. 

“We don’t want five borough-based Rikers Islands,” Richards said. “And if we don’t do the fundamental changes that we need to do, that’s what we will have.”

Though it would still take effect on the order of years, not months, receivership may be the fastest way to overcome the barriers in place now, Richards said, stressing that the time to do so is “right now.” 

“Lives are at stake,” Richards said, “both officers and incarcerated people.” 

Last week, a correction officer stationed at Rikers died by suicide. The president of the city correction officers’ union pointed to dangers facing its members in a response to the loss, according to the New York Daily News

“This tragedy is also a solemn reminder of the enormous stress correction officers face on a daily basis,” said Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr.

“The worsening conditions in our jails doesn’t just affect the inmates. Our officers go to work every day not knowing if they will return home the same way they left. They go to work every day not knowing if they will miss time with their loved ones because they are forced to work a double or triple shift.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The union has pushed back on receivership, as have the department and Mayor Eric Adams, saying the city already has the power it needs to meet the recommendations of a court-appointed monitor in the matter Nunez v. City of New York in Manhattan federal court.

On Tuesday, the city filed its plan to reform Rikers following a letter by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams presenting the option of a federal takeover. 

The action plan includes specific functional updates like installing new cell doors and window coverings in some units. It also proposes revisiting staff sick leave policies, piloting electronic scanning to monitor uniform staff serving on priority posts, hiring senior commissioners to oversee operations and adjusting the chain of command so wardens report directly to the Department Commissioner Louis Molina. 

Whether the plan is sufficient to sway the judge overseeing the yearslong civil suit against receivership is to be determined.

Less than a day after the plan was released, 31-year-old Rikers detainee Mary Yehudah died of a drug overdose. She was the first woman at the jail to die this year, housed at the Rose M. Singer Center, known as Rosie’s. 

Sharon White-Harrigan, the executive director of the Women’s Community Justice Association, was previously incarcerated at Rosie’s. 

“This tragedy is both heartbreaking and infuriating. No one belongs at Rikers, especially women and gender-expansive individuals when there is a clear and viable alternative that would end the decades of torture and suffering,” White-Harrigan wrote in a statement. 

The association launched a campaign called #BEYONDRosies in response to a lack of women represented in the campaign to close Rikers. It cites three major goals: Close the facility immediately; release the majority of women from detention into community-based alternative programs; and secure a permanent downstate facility for those who would remain in jail. 

The campaign proposes repurposing the dormant Lincoln Correctional facility in Harlem to build a new facility that is more humane. Based on previous renovations of state juvenile facilities, that process could take as little as a year and a half. 

“It should be an easy decision,” Michelle Feldman, campaign director for the association, told Courthouse News in a recent interview. 

Incarcerated women have a 60% higher rate of mental health concerns compared to men, Feldman said. Rates of experiences with domestic violence, and physical, sexual and emotional abuse are high. In some cases, it was self-defense that landed detainees at the jail in the first place. 

Many of the women at Rosie’s are also primary caregivers for their families — whose visits are burdened by the full day of travel it takes to get to the island.

It’s not just the remote location: “It's so bad in there that women don’t even want their children to visit,” Feldman said.  

Last year, hundreds of women were transferred from Rikers to three state facilities in Westchester County, just north of New York City. But they were quietly moved back to Rikers after the city’s administration turned over at the beginning of this year. Feldman doesn’t know why. 

“It’s really unfortunate that it was a missed opportunity for the women,” Feldman said. “They shouldn’t be at Rosie’s in the first place.” 

Yet across the country, more women are entering jail: Between 2008 and 2018, the proportion of women detainees grew by 15%, according to data from the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, and women had a 7% higher death rate compared to men. 

Suicide is the leading cause of deaths in jails nationwide, accounting for about 30% of the total.  

At Rikers, at least three deaths this year were due in part to gaps in staffing and supervision, including delayed medical attention, according to a recent oversight report. And in a Bronx County court order this week, a judge found the state correction department in contempt for failing to ensure that detainees have access to medical care. 

The same day as that Bronx order, though, the federal court monitor heralded improvements in medical care at Rikers, Liz Glazer noted during Thursday’s panel, which opened with a moment of silence for the recently deceased correction officer and detainees. 

That speaks to the complexity surrounding reforming Rikers.

“How do we know what the facts on the ground are to make these judgments? When is there progress?” Glazer asked. “Who drives it to the end, and to its goals, without fear or favor?” 

It’s a gamble, she said, whether the city has the power to fix decades-old structural problems; whether the current mayor will see through reforms during his administration; whether city and federal parties can reach consensus moving forward. Even the question of receivership is up in the air as it rests in the hands of one federal judge.  

“To me, we seem to be in a kind of ‘boiling the frog’ moment. The water’s been boiling for a long time, and it’s time to address it with a different kind of power, that has a different kind of durability and a different allegiance than our current structure has,” Glazer said. 

“Otherwise, we all know what happens to the frog.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...