Roaming Rikers

Stun Shields, Stray Cats, Buck-Fifties, Boofing: The Top Brass’s Tour of America’s Largest Penal Colony

Kerik announced a 15-minute break, and the crowd drifted toward the table in the back with trays of prisoner-made pound cake from Rikers' bakery. Two video monitors, which had shown charts and graphs during the wardens' interrogations, now flashed a revealing slogan: Great players win games. Great teams win championships.

Kerik invited his visitors into a back room. "There are five issues that inmates can really rally around to the point of a riot," he said. "One is commissary, one is visits, one is telephone, one is food, and one is mail." He explained that any disruption in these services—if the flow of letters stops or the phone lines go dead—could spark a rebellion. Analyzing statistics to figure out exactly how much hardship his prisoners would endure, Kerik seemed to have transformed the practice of punishment into an elaborate mathematical equation.

Despite the faltering of his last warden, the commissioner assured the visitors that his employees were excelling. Kerik's message was simple and seductive: He had regained control of Rikers with his version of corporate accountability—charts, statistics, intimidation. Indeed, Kerik has shrunk the number of stabbings and slash-ings by 93 percent in the last five years—an impressive accomplishment heralded by even his harshest critics.

View through the razor wire: Otis Bantum Correctional Center, home of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing
photo: Andrew Lichtenstein
View through the razor wire: Otis Bantum Correctional Center, home of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, better known as the Bing

But in a penal colony, even when there's good news, there's plenty of bad news, too. Over the three months I visited, two officers and two captains were arrested for beating an inmate and trying to cover up the assault. Three prisoners escaped. A guard committed suicide by flinging himself in front of a subway. At the same time, the Department of Correction was still reeling from a spate of news stories exposing sloppy medical practices, including charges that inmates had died because the city's handpicked health care provider was trying to cut costs by sending fewer patients to the hospital.

Like any statistics, Kerik's numbers told only part of the story of Rikers Island. The numbers that the Department of Correction doesn't collect may be just as revealing. Questions never asked at these management meetings include "How many of your prisoners are repeat visitors to the city's jails?" and "How many of the prisoners you released left with a referral to a drug rehab program?" In these low-crime times, Kerik's focus remained fixed on perfecting the art of jail management, not on improving services for the drug addicts and mentally ill people who stream back and forth over the Rikers Island bridge.

As I learned more about Rikers Island, in fact, the place began to resemble not so much an efficiently managed corporation as a city-run superghetto kept out of the public eye. Statistics don't tell the whole story, but they do suggest that just beneath New York's media-hyped boom lies a world of poverty, suffering, and chaos: About 30 percent of prisoners report they were homeless at some point within three months before they were locked up. Twenty-five percent receive some mental health services. Twenty percent of the women and 7 percent of the men are HIV-positive. And 90 percent are high school dropouts.

Statistics show that more than 80 percent of people arrested in Manhattan test positive for illegal drug use. Each year, the city's jails get about 130,000 admissions. Nobody knows exactly how many different people this number represents, but half have made at least one prior trip to a city jail within the last fiscal year. So many prisoners are Rikers regulars that guards welcome them by name when they arrive, and inmates congratulate the officers when they get promoted.

Three-quarters of the detainees in New York City's jails are locked up solely because they cannot afford bail. Perhaps the most revealing indicator of these prisoners' poverty is the fact that 42 percent have bails of $1000 or less. For many thousands of them, a few extra hundred dollars is enough to determine if they live at home as their case goes through the courts—a process that can last anywhere from two days to occasionally more than two years—or wait, whether innocent or guilty, in a concrete cage.

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