RIKERS: THE CASE FOR CLOSURE (BRIEFS 1 & 2)
For decades, Rikers Island has been marked by violence and corruption. Stories regularly emerge documenting the abuse, brutality, and death in the institution. The #CLOSErikers campaign was formed in 2016 to break political gridlock and achieve solutions guided by directly impacted communities. Led by JustLeadershipUSA, in partnership with the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice, the #CLOSErikers campaign includes community groups, researchers, business leaders, faith and human rights leaders, criminal justice experts, health and housing service providers, advocacy and legal groups, and more. Through the campaign, more than 125 organizations across New York City have joined the call for Mayor Bill de Blasio to close Rikers Island. Its very existence violates New Yorkers’ belief in equality, humanity, and fairness. By closing Rikers, New York City can focus on healing and rebuilding the communities where Rikers has brought suffering. The campaign to #CLOSErikers is calling for New Yorkers to boldly reimagine the city’s failed criminal justice system and become a national leader in ending mass incarceration.
THE ISOLATION OF RIKERS – BRIEF 1, March 21, 2017
This is the first of four briefs in an ongoing series designed to highlight the persistent dysfunction on Rikers Island, a penal colony defined by its resistance to reform. The briefs are released weekly and the entire series can be found on the CLOSErikers.org website.
Located in the East River, between LaGuardia Airport in Queens and Hunts Point in the Bronx, the Rikers Island Correctional Center (Rikers) contains 10 jails, holding approximately 8,000 individuals, over 80% of them waiting for their cases to be tried. For generations, the jails on Rikers have been characterized by geographic isolation, poor conditions, inadequate services, overcrowding, and violence. The isolation of Rikers reduces the quality of life for the justice involved, correction officers and civilian staff, and limits access to a range of services for NYC’s most vulnerable. The island’s isolation has allowed a toxic culture to take hold since its very inception.
• The location of the island makes it difficult to access, separating individuals from their families, social services, loved ones, and communities.
• Cases are more difficult to defend, as lawyers refuse to travel to Rikers, and court services prove inaccessible.
• Individuals are disconnected from community supports that prove useful, including bail funds, treatment, and medical services.
• Punitive segregation and solitary confinement create more severe forms of isolation and have negative behavioral and mental health effects.(i)
An Island Apart from New York City
New York City has long invested in the physical separation of those in need of rehabilitation. Before Rikers, Blackwell’s Island—currently known as Roosevelt Island— was home to New York City’s physically sick, mentally ill, and local jail population, a deliberate plan to keep the City’s most vulnerable out of sight and out of mind. Rikers Island continues that approach today.(ii)
One bridge connects Rikers Island to New York City, nicknamed the “Bridge of Pain.”(iii) The Island’s separation from the five boroughs leads to unnecessarily excessive costs and difficulties.Travel to Rikers Island from parts of Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Staten Island takes several hours. The single route between the Island and the boroughs creates transportation problems, negatively impacting court date transit and specialty medical visits. Every day, more than 800 people held on Rikers Island are bussed to court. Delays are more likely because foot traffic is disallowed on the Island. These mobility restrictions and limitations deter individuals from wanting to visit, including family members and loved ones as well as legal representation and social workers.
The isolation not only inconveniences those traveling to Rikers Island but in some circumstances, can prove deadly. In 2014, an individual died after experiencing a seizure and waiting twenty-five minutes for an ambulance.(iv) In 2014, the average city response time of emergency ambulance services was six and a half minutes.(v) This was not an isolated incident. In January 2016, an individual died on the Island because his ambulance was delayed in a snowstorm.(vi)
Stay Home: Rikers Island’s Restrictive Visitation Policy
If Rikers Island’s remoteness did not make family visitation difficult enough, the DOC’s visitation policy further isolates individuals. Two days of the week have no visitation, and four days of the week restrict visits by last name. Only on Friday are all those being held eligible for visitation. Needless to say, due to the difficulties of reaching the Island, and the time commitment necessary, those on Rikers receive fewer visits than individuals held in other New York City facilities. In 2017, the visitation rate at Rikers was roughly half that at the borough facilities.(vii)
Getting to Rikers is frequently described as complicated, overwhelming and oppressive. When the Q100 bus arrives at Rikers from Queens Plaza, it is boarded by corrections officers who frequently communicate instructions with raised voices and a gruff tone. There are numerous reports of detection dogs boarding these buses and surveying visitors before they are transported to their destination.(viii) Visitors go through numerous metal
detectors, where they report corrections staff often express frustration, yell and make disrespectful comments. The rules and limitations regarding attire for visitors are not clearly stated and, according to interviews, may change depending on the day and the officer.(ix) At any point, an officer can delay or deny access to visits. Furthermore, there have been reports of visitors being required to endure strip searches to continue their visit after setting off metal detector sensors.(x) The experience of visiting those held at Rikers is, at best, inconvenient and time-consuming, and at worst, traumatizing and offensive.
In addition to existing barriers, the DOC proposed additional limitations to visitation in 2015. The proposal included measures to eliminate most physical contact—allowing for only brief contact at the beginning and end of a visit—as well as the installation of Plexiglas dividers at visitation tables. Such practices damage the mental health of both individuals held at Rikers and family members by weakening existing bonds between the justice involved and community. The resulting disruption to lives and support systems can have a lifelong impact that hinders families and com
“[Visitors] should be informed that an underwire bra or any metal inside your body will cause the metal detectors to ring. When it rings the visitor is sent to a body search by untrained officers who invade privacy by asking you to unzip pants, show undergarment, expose body parts, have the bra squeezed, the hair searched when it’s curly or in an hairdo, be touched in private parts and be embarrassed in front of other people.”
— Anna Pastoressa
One story illustrates the difficulties many visitors face. Anna Pastoressa’s son spent six years on Rikers Island awaiting trial, and because of the experience, she is intimately familiar with the restrictions and restraints that characterize visitation. Pastoressa believes “visitors should be informed that the whole process from leaving your home to leaving Rikers Island after a visit can tke 5, 6, 7 hours. It is time-consuming, mentally deteriorating and expensive when you visit each week. I had to endure it every weekend of my life for almost 6 years of my son being detained on Rikers while waiting for trial. Six years with no trial?”(xi) The experience of visiting a loved one in jail is traumatic enough without the added inconvenience of transportation delays and restrictive conditions.
Visits are so important because we are so disconnected. Just thirty or forty-five minutes can change your whole perspective.
— Maria Elena Morales, JLUSA Fellow, Underground Scholars Initiative Ambassador (xii)
Maintaining contact with friends, family, and a supportive network while detained is vitally important to overall well-being, as well as the safety of the jail. Research on those returning home from jail and prison demonstrates that family members are a valuable source of support, both during and after incarceration.(xiii) Individuals who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after release.(xiv) These opportunities are reduced by Rikers’ isolation, limiting occasions for community connection and reducing public safety.
Beyond its location, Rikers presents a number of challenges for New Yorkers who care about fairness and justice, challenges exaggerated by the jails’ geographic isolation. However, it is of the utmost importance that efforts to repair the failure of Rikers Island not be separated from the broader context of criminal justice reform. Rikers Island is the physical manifestation of the failed policies and practices that have led to mass incarceration. Attempts to reform Rikers Island consistently fail to address the issues that have led to the creation of this failed institution, in one of the most progressive cities in the US: lack of investment in low-income communities and communities of color; the criminalization of poverty, addiction and mental health issues; and systemic racism that helped propel the War on Drugs. Decades of attempts at reform prove that there is no way to simply “fix” Rikers Island – it must be closed. To truly support all New Yorkers and advance public safety, we must shift our resources and priorities toward investment in people and communities, not isolated physical structures that attempt to hide away public health problems. With the support of New Yorkers, and under the leadership of people who have suffered on Rikers, we can close Rikers and create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system in NYC.
For more on the issues of visitation on Rikers Island, see the work of the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a signatory to the #CLOSErikers campaign. The organization has also produced a guide to visitation, linked here.
A number of other organizations, including the Legal Aid Society, the Urban Justice Center, Brooklyn Defender Services, and the Bronx Defenders, have addressed the isolation of the facility and limited access to services, visitation, resources, medical facilities individuals experience, through legal representation.
i Grassian, Stuart. “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement.” Washington University Journal of Law and Policy. January, 2006. http://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1362&context=law_journal_law_policy
ii “Across the Bridge of Pain.” PacificStandard. July 27, 2015. https://psmag.com/across-the–bridge–of–pain–9985b40bf581
iv Small, Eddie. “Rikers Inmate Dies After Ambulance Takes Half-Hour to Arrive, Reports Say.” DNAInfo. October 3, 2014. https://www.dnainfo.com/new–york/20141003/hunts–point/rikers-inmate-dies–after–ambulance–takes-half–hour-arrive–reports–say
v The Associated Press. “DeBlaiso Aims to Improve Medical Response Times.” New York Times. February 8, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/nyregion/de–blasio-aims–to–improve–medical–response-times.html?mtrref=www.google.com
vi Gartland, Michael. “Rikers Island inmate dies during Winter Storm Jonas staffing chaos.” New York Post. February 1, 2016.
vii “Visitation Quarterly Report.” Department of Correction. https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/doc/downloads/pdf/INTRO_706_FY17_1-30-17.pdf. viii Public Testimony; Board of Correction Meeting, June 14 2016
ix Maria Elena Morales, Personal Communication, May 2016.
x Public Testimony, Board of Correction meeting, June 14, 2016
xi Public Testimony, Lippmann Commission, January 27, 2017.
xii Maria Elena Morales, Personal Communication, May 2016.
xiii “The Family and Recidivism.” Vera Institute of Justice. September, 2012. http://www.vera.org/files/the-family–and–recidivism.pdf
THE VIOLENCE OF RIKERS – BRIEF 2, March 28, 2017
This is the second of four briefs in a weekly series designed to highlight the persistent dysfunction on Rikers, a penal colony defined by its resistance to reform. The first brief focused on the isolation of the jails. This brief describes the “culture of violence” at Rikers, and the entire series can be found on the CLOSErikers.org website.
Violence has characterized Rikers Island for generations, earning it the nickname “Torture Island.” The “culture of violence” is in the very DNA of the jails. Gruesome stories have spilled out of Rikers and into the public consciousness, from the ghastly deaths of Bradley Ballard and Jerome Murdough while housed at Rikers, to the tragic suicide of 22-year-old Kalief Browder after his release. The heartbreaking and appalling treatment of people held at Rikers continues despite reforms intended to improve conditions.
I went to Rikers when I was 16, and that was the toughest time I probably ever had in my life. I have like, three stab wounds that came from spending time in what they call the ‘gladiator school….”
— Glenn E. Martin. Founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA
Individuals held in U.S. prisons and jails experience high rates of violence and assault. For generations, this violence has been a way of life at Rikers. Insufficient staff training, excessive isolation, insecure facilities, mistreatment of individuals with mental health issues, and poor accountability create an environment where violence is rampant. Rikers “culture of violence” permeates every aspect of daily life – not only for those held there but also for the people who work on the Island. A 2017 story reported medical staff were afraid to do their job because of violence in the facility.(i)
• Rates of violence have increased on Rikers every year from 2008 to 2016.(ii)
• The suffering of women is extraordinary. Women at Rikers report sexual harassment and abuse at rates far higher than the national average.(iii)
• According to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a truly staggering 100% of transgender and gender non-conforming people surveyed on Rikers reported experiencing sexual violence in 2015.(iv)
• Correctional staff contribute to the “culture of violence” either by directly engaging in assaultive behavior or by allowing and sometimes encouraging violent behavior by others.
Rikers is unfixable. Violence prompted a 2015 plan from the Mayor’s office to “aggressively combat violence and promote a culture of safety on Rikers Island.”(v ) The Mayor’s reforms have been unsuccessful. A 2016 report from Comptroller Scott Stringer revealed an increased rate of assault or fight infractions at Rikers, increasing 25% from 2015, and nearly 50% from 2014.(vi)
The case of Jahmal Lightfoot is a testament to the violence that plagues Rikers Island.
Lightfoot was assaulted by a group of correction officers in 2012. He was tackled to the ground and kicked until both eye sockets were fractured and his nose broken.(vii) In June 2016, a Bronx jury convicted five of the correction officers who assaulted Lightfoot.(viii) The charges resulted from an 11-month investigation by the Bronx district attorney’s office and the NYC Department of Investigation. One convicted individual, Eliseo Perez Jr., was the assistant chief of security, the third-highest ranking officer, at the time of the assault. Mr. Perez was accused of instructing officers to “knock his f—teeth out” after Lightfoot allegedly gave him a “glance.” The officers then tried to cover up the assault, resulting in another charge for those involved.
Sexual Assault: An Invisible Epidemic
Sexual assault and rape are a part of life at Rikers. Shockingly, one City official referred to the sexual violence at Rikers as inevitable.ix Rates of violence and sexual abuse are far more common at Rikers than at the national level, particularly for female and LGBTQI individuals. Data from the U.S. Department of Justice showed that 8.6% of individuals held at the Rose M. Singer Center – the women’s facility on Rikers – reported being sexually harassed or abused, compared to 3.2% of people in jails nationwide.(x) Both these numbers are believed to grossly underrepresent the actual number of assaults.
Rikers’ culture of sexual assault and rape is not only pervasive but also invisible. In 2014, Department of Correction (DOC) staff failed to report 98% of sexual abuse allegations to the New York Police Department (NYPD).(xi) In May 2015, a lawsuit was filed against the City and Benny Santiago (Rikers Correctional Officer) for the abuse, harassment, and rape of two women. The petition details repeated acts of rape and other sexual abuse during their incarceration, along with experiences of torture and harassment.(xii) Thiswasnotanisolated incident. Hundreds, and most likely thousands, of either currently or formerly incarcerated individuals at Rikers, as well as female correctional officers have made allegations of rape, sexual abuse and assault.
Power and Violence: Correctional Staff Contribute
Rikers Island is a broken institution. It is a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort.
—Preet Bharara, Former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York
The Santiago case is far from the only example of correctional staff abuse.(xiii, xiv) New York City has been sued by dozens of individuals who have survived beatings and violence at the hands of correction officers, as well as violence instigated by officers.(xv) In one instance, an officer unlocked the cell of Camillo Douglas to let three gang members enter. Douglas was beaten with brooms and metal shanks. In 2008, Bronx prosecutors charged a Rikers officer with ordering six individuals to beat two other individuals. One survivor was hurt so severely he had to be hospitalized due to a collapsed lung. In January 2009, the Bronx District Attorney’s office shed light on the systematized violence that occurs on Rikers when two officers were charged with enterprise corruption for recruiting individuals to become “managers, foot soldiers and enforcers” to uphold order in a housing unit for male adolescents.(xvi) The officers were accused of teaching restraint and assault tactics and allowing individuals to coordinate the time and location of attacks against others. The lawsuit was brought forward following an investigation into the death of 18-year-old Christopher Robinson, who was beaten to death upon refusal to cooperate.(xvii) A lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, co-counsel on the 2009 lawsuit stated “these are institutions where inmate activity is monitored 24 hours a day, and it’s astonishing that this kind of behavior should go on for so long unchecked.”(xviii) According to the New York Times, the pattern of legal cases filed suggests DOC officials have long been aware of Rikers corrections officers encouraging and facilitating violence.(xix) This violent pattern has had a tremendous cost to taxpayers. In 2015 alone, New York City spent more than $ 13,000,000 dollars settling claims of wrongful death and injury.
The current DOC Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has declared that “the excessive use of force, unnecessary and unwarranted use of punitive segregation and corruption of any kind are absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated under my watch.”(xx) The Commissioners words do not generate optimism. Unfortunately, even genuine efforts at reform have not been enough to reduce the violent culture that defines Rikers.(xxi)
Rikers presents a number of challenges for New Yorkers who care about fairness and justice, challenges exaggerated by the brutal, violent nature of the jails. However, it is of the utmost importance that efforts to repair the failure of Rikers Island not be separated from the broader context of criminal justice reform. Rikers Island is the physical manifestation of the failed policies and practices that have led to mass incarceration. Attempts to reform Rikers Island consistently fail to address the issues that have led to the creation of this failed institution, in one of the most progressive cities in the US: lack of investment in low-income communities and communities of color; the criminalization of poverty, addiction and mental health issues; and systemic racism that helped propel the War on Drugs. Decades of attempts at reform prove that there is no way to simply “fix” Rikers Island – it must be closed. To truly support all New Yorkers and advance public safety, we must shift our resources and priorities toward investment in people and communities, not isolated physical structures that attempt to hide away public health problems. With the support of New Yorkers, and under the leadership of people who have suffered on Rikers, we can close Rikers and create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system in NYC.
To get involved in the #CLOSErikers campaign, check out our website and follow us on social media.
CLOSErikers @CLOSErikers @CLOSErikersNOW
Two signatories to the CLOSErikers campaign have emphasized the need to reduce community violence. The Center for NU Leadership on Urban Solutions has created a new justice and public safety paradigm that emphasizes a human centered approach. Gangsta’s Making Astronomical Community Change, Inc. (G-MACC) works to change lives by focusing on individuals and providing them with tools to reduce violence, including positivity and activism.
Additional allies working to reduce violence through community and peer driven programming, include the Crown Heights Mediation Center’s Save Our Streets (SOS) program and Common Justice. SOS implements a powerful violence interruption model, training community leaders known and respected in their neighborhood, engaging in preventative trainings and responding to immediate crises to address violence and harm in a holistic way. Common Justice focuses on data-driven, restorative justice practices, which address harm, and achieve accountability and healing for all parties.
“CRIPA Investigation of the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island,” The United States Department of Justice, May 18, 2015. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/usao–sdny/legacy/2015/03/25/SDNY%20Rikers%20Report.pdf
Kalief Browder Series
Gonnerman, Jennifer. “Kalief Browder.” The New Yorker. 2014-2016 http://www.newyorker.com/topics/kalief-browder-in-the-new-yorker
Public Advocate Report on Sexual Violence
Public Advocate Letitia James. “Sexual Assault on Rikers Island.” http://www.pubadvocate.nyc.gov/rikers-island
Published March 28, 2017 6
i Blau, Reuven. “Medical Staff Afraid to Treat Rikers Island’s Worst Inmates.” March 14, 2017. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/medical-staff-afraid-treat-rikers-island-worst-inmates-article–1.2998118.
ii Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “NYC Department of Correction FYS 2007-2016 Operating Expenditures, Inmate Population, Cost Per Inmate, Staffing Ratios, Performance Measure Outcomes, and Overtime.” November 28, 2016. http://comptroller.nyc.gov/reports/nyc-department-of-correction-fys-2007-16–operating-expenditures-inmate-population-cost-per-inmate-staffing-ratios-performance-measure-outcomes–and-overtime/.
iii Public Advocate Letitia James. “Sexual Assault on Rikers Island.” http://www.pubadvocate.nyc.gov/rikers-island.
iv Sylvia Rivera Law Project. “Reducing Sexual Violence on the Road to Abolition.” March 29, 2016. https://srlp.org/reducing-sexual-violence-on-the-road-to-abolition/.
v “Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Ponte Announce 14-Point Rikers Anti-Violence Agenda.” March 12, 2015. http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the–mayor/news/166-15/mayor-de–blasio–commissioner-ponte-14-point-rikers-anti-violence-agenda#/0.
vi Stringer, “NYC Department of Correction FYS 2007-2016 Operating Expenditures, Inmate Population, Cost Per Inmate, Staffing Ratios, Performance Measure Outcomes, and Overtime.”
vii Hu, Winnie. “Trial of 10 Rikers Officers Charged in Inmate Beating is Set to Begin.” The New York Times. March 12, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/14/nyregion/trial-of-10-rikers-officers-charged-in-12-inmate-beating–is-set-to-begin.html.
viii Ramey, Corinne. “Five Rikers Officers Convicted in Beating of Inmate.” The Wall Street Journal. June 7, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/five-rikers-officers-convicted-in–beating–of-inmate–1465333102.
ix Malinowski, Nick. “NYC Official Says Rape is Inevitable at Rikers Island.” June 26, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nick-malinowski/nyc-official-says-rape-is_b_10600320.html
x Public Advocate Letitia James. “Sexual Assault on Rikers Island.” http://www.pubadvocate.nyc.gov/rikers-island.
xi James, “Sexual Assault on Rikers Island: Exhibit 1.” October 9, 2015. http://pubadvocate.nyc.gov/sites/advocate.nyc.gov/files/james_declaration_exhibits.pdf.
xii United States District Court Southern District of New York. http://www.legal-aid.org/media/193137/05.18.15_complaint_jane_doe_version.pdf.
xiii Schwirtz, Michael. “Corruption Sweep at Rikers Island Leads to 22 Arrests.” June 24, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/25/nyregion/2-officers-and-20–inmates-are-arrested–in-corruption-sweep-at-rikers-island.html?_r=0.
xiv Hu, Winnie and Kate Pastor. “Rikers Island Guards and a Cook Took Bribes, Officials Say.” May 19, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/20/nyregion/rikers-island-guards-and-a-cook-took-bribes-officials–say.html.
xv Weiser, Benjamin. “Lawsuits Suggest Pattern of Rikers Guards Looking Other Way.” February 3, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/nyregion/04rikers.html?_r=0.
xx Meredith Clark and Rachel Kleinman, “DOJ: Violence Rampant against Teen Prisoners at Rikers Island,” Msnbc.com, August 05, 2014, accessed June 19, 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/doj-violence-rikers-island.
xxi Neil Barsky, “Shut Down Rikers Island,” The New York Times, July 18, 2015, accessed June 19, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/19/opinion/shut–down-rikers-island.html.
RIKERS: THE CASE FOR CLOSURE by Paul is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.