Inside and Out: A Two-Part Special Report on Prison and Its Aftermath
This year, the United States achieved a dubious distinction: It surpassed Russia as the world leader in imprisonment, with one in every 130 people living behind bars. The U.S. prison population has soared above 2 million, and most of those inmates are locked up for nonviolent crimes. People are also leaving prison in record numbers; in 2000, an unprecedented 600,000 prisoners will return home. The imprisonment boom, fueled largely by the nation’s war on drugs, has generated new industries and jobs. It has also devastated neighborhoods, fractured families, and created a new class of stigmatized people who will one day return to society. To explore the human cost of America’s growing punishment industry, The Village Voice is publishing a two-part special report. This week: an in-depth portrait of the nation’s largest penal colony. Next week: one ex-con’s struggle to rejoin her family.
idden between the boroughs of New York City, a two-lane bridge rises from the northwest shore of Queens and extends more than a mile over the East River. Planes descending into LaGuardia Airport roar overhead constantly, while thousands of cars and buses commute each day across this steel-and-concrete roadway. Still, the bridge remains unknown to most New Yorkers. A mere 11 miles from Lady Liberty’s raised torch, it dumps passengers at the front door of the nation’s largest penal colony: Rikers Island, where 10 jails sprawl across an area half the size of Central Park.
The island is the heart of New York City’s jail system, home to 80 percent of its 14,600 or so inmates, with nine jails for men and one for women. Rikers’ daytime population—including prisoners, employees, and visitors—is enormous, nearly 20,000. All residents are temporary. Two-thirds of the inmates are detainees—legally innocent and waiting for their cases to crawl through the courts—while one-third have been sentenced and are waiting for an empty bed in an upstate prison or are serving a year or less here.
As New York City’s jail system has grown over the decades, Rikers Island has become something of a small town, with schools, medical clinics, ball fields, chapels, drug rehab programs, grocery stores, barbershops, a bakery, a power plant, a track, a tailor shop, a bus depot, and even a car wash.
Despite these signifiers of civilization, it is notoriously difficult to get onto Rikers Island without a gold badge, a visitor’s pass, or a pair of steel cuffs around one’s wrists. A reporter’s notebook or television camera, moreover, will likely get one only nervous glances and a polite refusal of permission to tour the jails. But here I was one summer morning, riding in a shiny black Mercury Grand Marquis belonging to Bernard Kerik, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction.
Kerik would later become the city’s police commissioner, but on this day his promotion was still only a whispered possibility, a rumor that had been spreading through Rikers’ jails for nearly a year. In August, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani picked Kerik to lead the nation’s largest police department, he pointed to the jail chief’s performance managing prisoners and guards; though the mayor didn’t mention it as a selling point, perhaps equally attractive to him was Kerik’s demonstrated ability to manage the city’s media.
On this day, as his driver steered his car toward the Rikers Island bridge, Kerik looked like a corporate executive on his way to the office, wearing a gold Rolex, his thinning hair slicked straight back, a silk tie knotted tightly, and shoes buffed to an obsessive shine. Kerik, 45, has six holes in his left earlobe—evidence of a prior stint with the NYPD, when he worked undercover as a ponytailed drug dealer. But today his spit-and-polish image seemed part of his effort to paint over the jails’ lingering reputation of overcrowding and violence.
Beginning in the late 1980s, riots injured hundreds of inmates and guards on Rikers Island. And after the Bloods, an African American gang, began recruiting members here in 1993, a vicious turf war erupted between the Bloods and the long dominant Latino gangs, the Latin Kings and Ñetas. Prisoners’ blood regularly decorated jail hallways, and officers dubbed the jail for teenage boys “Vietnam.” For some wardens, jail management meant shipping their most violent inmates to another facility under the pretext of reducing overcrowding. At the time, it seemed that the prisoners ran Rikers.
Kerik had surprised me by approving my request to roam around Rikers. Although he rarely granted journalists more than a few hours of access, he permitted me to spend a total of eight summer days on the island, presumably because he was eager to show how he had tamed Rikers, how he’d reinvented leadership on an island where crime—slashings and beatings and stabbings and riots—had once seemed beyond control.
Even before he became the leader of the NYPD, Kerik liked to draw comparisons between his job and the police commissioner’s. “People just assumed New York City was out of control and could never be changed,” Kerik said. “But look at the drop in crime. All of the things people said five years ago could never, ever, ever be done—they told me the same thing about Rikers Island.”
Kerik’s strategy for rehabilitating Rikers included improving its appearance as well as its crime statistics. “I’m an image guy,” he said. “Somebody in uniform . . . is supposed to earn respect. [If] you walk up and have mustard stains on your tie, your hat is on sideways, you have keys all around you—people think you’re a joke. . . . Some of these guys looked like they ironed their clothes with a hot rock.” Kerik paused. “If it’s my agency,” he added, “you look the way I want you to look.” Kerik’s campaign to win respect for Rikers, and for himself, involved not only well-pressed uniforms but also good press. At this, he excelled, landing positive stories in the New York Post, the Daily News, and The New York Times.
As the car nosed across the bridge, LaGuardia appeared on our right, so near that we drove over a pier of lights pointing pilots to Runway 13-31. And then once past the gates, here we were, heading down a quiet two-lane street lined by high-tech modular jails and aging brick jails and razor-tipped wire twisting around 12-foot fences.
Rikers prisoners refer to their home as “the Rock,” but from an archaeological point of view it’s more accurate to call this place a dump. Long before Rikers Island housed the accused, it served as the repository of what the city proper had no use for—broken boilers, old sofas, horse manure, garbage, tin cans, street sweepings, and earth from subway excavations. First arriving on the island’s south side in 1893, the refuse burned all day, attended by hordes of rats feasting on the city’s leftovers.
As the garbage grew, so did the island. Only 87 acres when New York City bought it from the Riker family in 1884 for $180,000, the island had, three decades and thousands of boatloads of trash later, swollen to nearly five times its original size, reaching some 415 acres. The island was transformed into a different sort of dumping ground in 1935, when the Rikers Island Penitentiary opened.
Sending prisoners to Rikers continued New York City’s Victorian strategy for dealing with undesirables. The islands rising from the East River in the middle of New York City have long been receptacles for the sick, poor, violent, and mentally ill. Over the last 200 years or so, they’ve housed insane asylums, a paupers’ cemetery, tuberculosis tents, a home for delinquent teenagers, and a hospital for such infectious diseases as smallpox and yellow fever.
Now our drive ended in front of Commissioner Kerik’s office, a pale yellow trailer, the seat of his power. His path here began in 1993, when he moonlighted for Giuliani’s mayoral campaign, managing the cops who worked as the candidate’s bodyguards. After Giuliani won, he appointed Kerik head of the Department of Correction’s investigations division. Kerik rose to the agency’s number two position in 1995, despite the fact that he lacks a college degree.
When Michael Jacobson, a budget expert with a doctorate in sociology, resigned in 1998, Kerik became the leader of the $860-million-a-year agency, and now, in his office, I was staring at the framed photographs adorning its fake wood-paneling—one, of Giuliani, was obligatory, but another, of Oliver North, I imagined might indicate quite a bit about the well-groomed commissioner. On his desk, a blueberry-scented candle burned, an attempt to override the stench left by the stray cats that resided beneath his trailer.
“We try to run the agency like corporate America,” explained Kerik. “In corporate America, if you can’t do the work, you have to go.” I didn’t doubt his sincerity. A little later I watched about 120 deputy commissioners, assistant commissioners, bureau chiefs, assistant chiefs, wardens, deputy wardens, assistant deputy wardens, captains, and officers stand as their boss marched into another trailer-turned-conference room at 8:03 a.m. On Rikers Island, management meetings always start the same way, with the sound of chairs scraping the floor in unison.
Kerik took his seat on the dais next to William J. Fraser, an enormous, ruddy-faced former guard who was then the agency’s highest-ranking uniformed member, the only person in the room with four gold stars pinned to each shoulder. Fraser’s official title was “Chief of Department,” though he could also have been described as Kerik’s enforcer. (When Kerik left for the NYPD, Fraser was named to succeed him, ensuring his boss’s legacy.) Now, from their perch at the front of the room, Kerik and Fraser surveyed their managers.
Some wore uniforms; others were civilians in business suits with graduate degrees and titles like “Assistant Commissioner, Assets Management.” Glancing around the room, it quickly became apparent that the racial composition of this agency darkens as one descends the pyramid of power. The four top officials on the dais were white, while the managers they oversee were a racially mixed group. The populations these managers supervise—the city’s prisoners and guards—include few whites. African Americans and Latinos make up 80 percent of the agency’s staff and 92 percent of its prisoners.
Kerik’s monthly meetings formed the centerpiece of his management strategy, a blueprint for leadership that he borrowed from the NYPD. Modeling his program on the NYPD’s Compstat, Kerik called his version the “Total Efficiency Accountability Management System,” or TEAMS. At these TEAMS meetings, Kerik quizzed wardens on topics ranging from the names of their jails’ Latin Kings gang leaders to the temperature of their potato salad. Wardens who didn’t have answers sometimes found themselves without jobs.
This morning it was Anthony Serra’s turn. Serra, who was then the boss of Rikers’ second-oldest jail, the North Infirmary Command, stood stiffly before a microphone in the middle of the packed room. Fraser began the questioning.
“You’ve had three slashings over the last two months,” the chief said to Serra. “Can you tell me about them?”
“The first incident occurred on May 29, up in housing area 6 South,” Serra dutifully reported. “We had an inmate, Hop, who went to retrieve a cup from in front of the television. Other inmates were watching the television. He blocked their view. They got mad at him. They didn’t like his response when they confronted him, so they attacked him.”
Serra continued his grim recitation, explaining that the second slashing occurred when one prisoner tired of another inmate shaking him down and urged friends to attack his extortionist. In the third incident, a Bloods gang member sliced the follower of a rival gang, the Five Percenters. To prevent further violence, Serra promised to erect more outdoor pens to separate his high-security inmates.
“Overall, you’re doing a good job,” Fraser said.
“Thank you, sir.”
A few years ago, these interrogations didn’t always go so smoothly. “I recall times in this agency when I asked [wardens], ‘How many inmates do you have in your facility?’ ” Kerik said later. “And they didn’t know. They’d have to get on the phone and call a captain.” Such lapses infuriated the commissioner. “I’m not asking about brain surgery,” he noted. “I’m asking about your job. You’re supposed to know.” One warden stumbled so badly that he lost his job before the meeting ended. In this jailhouse version of corporate America, fear is the ultimate management tool, a way for guards to control the prisoners, and for the agency’s top officials to control their wardens.
The door to these meetings remained closed to outsiders back when wardens were fumbling basic questions. But today, violence on the island is at an all-time low, the door has swung open, and the parade of visitors is nonstop. Giuliani has sat on the dais next to Kerik. Prison officials from Hawaii, Singapore, and South Africa have observed these meetings. Vladimir Yalunin, who runs Russia’s prison system, has visited. And on this morning, a few officials from the New Jersey state prison system filled chairs near the front. Rikers’ sheer magnitude and notoriety make it a popular tourist attraction for out-of-town prison officials.
With so many visitors passing through, these question-and-answer sessions seemed to be as much about impressing outsiders as about monitoring wardens. By now, Kerik’s managers had learned what questions to expect and usually spat back well-rehearsed responses.
The morning’s only nerve-racking moment came shortly after John Basilone, then the warden of the Anna M. Kross Center, stepped behind the podium. With 2305 men in his jail, Basilone supervised a population larger than Maine’s entire state prison system. Fraser glanced down at his copy of the wardens’ report cards, stapled into a 60-page packet known as the “Primary Indicator Report.” There aren’t any A’s or B’s in these report cards, but there are plenty of monthly numbers designed to measure the wardens’ performance, from how many of their prisoners escaped or hanged themselves to how many visited a hospital or got caught with a homemade shank.
Fraser grilled Basilone about his slashing statistics, then homed in on the number of times prisoners visited the jail’s commissary, the mini-grocery store where popular purchases include Keebler cookies and Newport cigarettes.
“You had 5600 people from January to May go to commissary, and [in June] that figure doubled to 11,792,” Fraser said to the warden. “Is that an accurate number? If so, tell me we’re not having a riot or something.”
“I believe the numbers have—” Basilone stopped. Everyone in the room waited. Finally, Basilone responded. “No, Chief.”
“Listen, forget the answer,” said Fraser, his voice growing louder and his cheeks redder. “This is something for everyone. When you see spikes [in your numbers] in certain areas, go see what’s wrong. A spike in commissary is very critical because it can indicate a number of things, from an inmate strike to an inmate food boycott to a potential disturbance brewing. That’s when people stock up on commissary, because they know they ain’t going to be leaving their cells to eat.”
“We had looked into this,” the warden insisted. “We didn’t have anyone hoarding.”
Fraser wasn’t satisfied. “If 11,000 is accurate, then the 5600 number is not a good answer, because that means you didn’t have sufficient stock [in the commissary],” the chief said. “You’re lucky you didn’t have more stabbings and slashings because, if I’m an inmate and I can’t get anything, then I’m going to be a little upset. This is serious stuff, guys. Take it serious!”
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.
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.