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Rikers Island in the Crosshairs of Reform

Can a borough-based system of jails improve conditions for inmates and officers alike?

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In What to Do About Closing Rikers, a recent Vital City report, co-authors Elizabeth Glazer and Michael Jacobson call Rikers Island a “humanitarian crisis,” and recommend numerous fixes, eventually leading to a borough-based jail system with 2,200 beds. (Vital City is a venture dedicated to actionable ideas that will strengthen New York City’s social fabric, and issues reports each quarter in advance of the city’s budget.) The report also calls for 250 medical and/or mental-health beds in city hospitals, in order to place inmates in treatment-appropriate settings. (Jacobson told the Voice he was hoping for an eventual total of 1,000 hospital beds.) According to NYC Department of Correction deputy commissioner of public information Patrick Gallahue, the current census at Rikers hovers between 5,300 and 5,500.

Glazer previously served as former governor Andrew Cuomo’s deputy secretary of public safety, and led Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Criminal Justice. Jacobson spent the 1990s serving as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s probation and corrections commissioner, and is currently executive director at the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. As their report went to press, this past September, the humanitarian crises at Rikers burst into public view. That month, New York State Attorney General Letitia James did an official tour of the facility, telling Fox 5 News the jail is “plagued by dysfunction, neglect, and violence.” Amidst staffing shortages, de Blasio has relieved corrections officers of performing courtroom accompaniments with 100 NYPD officers. At one point last summer, as the DOC faced a surge of corrections officer resignations, as many as 3,000 of the 8,000 officers were not reporting to work at Rikers. Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Benny Boscio told radio host John Catsimatidis about dangerously long hours and unsafe working conditions: “We’re having the roughest time in my 22-year career ever. Officers are working triple shifts, which includes … in some cases 30 hours straight. It’s a really unsafe situation for us…. My corrections officers are suffering.”

In October, Governor Kathy Hochul and de Blasio arranged transfer to two state prisons for about 230 women and transgender individuals, as one measure to remedy officer shortages. Melvin Collins, 39, told CBS New York in early October that he’d been detained for three years awaiting trial on felony-burglary charges. “Officers’ lives are in jeopardy, it’s true. And the inmates’ lives are in jeopardy too,” he said. “You have so many violent people coming into jail because of what they’re getting picked up for off of the street. I’ve gotten jumped. I’ve gotten sexually assaulted.” He has 13 stitches in his face from stabbings and was on suicide watch at the time of his television interview. By early December, 15 inmates had died while in custody, according to Pix 11 Live News.

These conditions exist in spite of numerous policy-reform recommendations coming from every direction. The problem is, there’s no coordination. “The NYC criminal justice system is not a system. No one part answers to any other part. Every group involved has their own views on how to proceed with everything, including reform,” Glazer tells the Voice in a phone call. Jacobson explains, “We’re going from a highly concentrated system into a dispersed one spread throughout the city,” adding that this means “several things need to happen simultaneously, involving many city departments—labor relations, budget, staffing.” Calling the current imbroglio a “structural problem” with “no figure whose central job is to focus on closing Rikers,” the Vital City report recommends that Adams create two new leadership positions: a deputy mayor for justice policy and operation, who would manage the interacting parts of the justice system and oversee Rikers’ infrastructure, construction, and social programming, and a second position that would report “to the new deputy Mayor, with an unswerving commitment to the transformational goals of the project—with day-to-day responsibility for the project.” Political insiders whisper that Mayor-elect Adams will indeed ‘elevate’ the profile of the city’s corrections services by having it managed at the deputy mayor level, as called for in the report.

Would better coordination through new mayoral positions with teeth make a difference? Reverend Sharon White-Harrigan, executive director of the Women’s Community Justice Association, thinks so. She serves on Adams’s transition team and his Public Safety Committee. “Our movement to decarcerate, advocate, and organize was created because the women of Rikers were often treated as an afterthought,” she tells the Voice by phone. WCJA’s mission is the closure of Rikers’ Rose M. Singer facility housing women and gender-expansive New Yorkers—“We must work to get them home,” White-Harrigan says. A justice-impacted woman of color herself, she served time at Rikers in 1992 while being adjudicated on manslaughter charges resulting from a death that occurred while she was being raped: She stabbed her assailant in self-defense, leading to her rapist’s death. Echoing Glazer, White-Harrigan says, “Coordination would help. Why do we keep calling it the ‘criminal justice system’ when there’s no seamless system in place?” She admires Vital City’s report, “but unless the buck stops with someone with authority in the mayor’s office, it’s just another report.”

Sasha Ginzberg, executive director of the Borough-Based Jail System within the DOC, is tasked with constructing jails in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that can house 3,300 residents in smaller-scale housing facilities that are near their communities of origin. Moving forward, her core principles involve “building smaller, safer, and fairer facilities with no more than 32 residents housed in single cells,” she tells me in a phone interview. The new construction will have modern air conditioning, heating, and natural light. “We are intentionally developing a new model setting that includes adequate space for interviews, counseling, lawyers, educational programs, and outdoor recreation directly in the housing unit,” Ginzberg explains. “We want to provide residents with what they need, and deserve, as they move through the system.”

On better coordination of reform efforts through the two specifically tasked mayor’s office positions called for in Vital City’s report, Ginzberg says, “Centralized is always better, but doesn’t often exist in a city and bureaucracy our size.” Even so, reform efforts have come into better focus due to “the impressive movement formed by justice advocates, former​ly incarcerated individuals, and the DOC,” she adds. So passionate about her goal, Ginzberg tells the Voice she’s already filed an application to have the island designated a “public space” when the 2027 hoped-for closure of the jail finally occurs. “Rikers Island needs to close,” Ginzberg stresses.

Regarding the media reports that on some days last summer as many as 3,000 corrections officers were not available for work, Gallahue states, “Efforts to get staff back have reduced absenteeism by 81% and have reduced the number of ‘triple shifts’ by 93%.” In mid-September, City Hall issued an executive order declaring that any officer who is AWOL will be suspended without pay for 30 days.

A former public defender who represented thousands of cases, NYC City Council member Tiffany Cabán, District 22, who represents all of Rikers Island, tells the Voice by phone that she doesn’t believe shifting to a borough-based system is the answer. She explains, “We should be pursuing a multi-pronged public health approach that is empirically proven to increase public safety where policing and incarceration have failed.” Cabán wants “the public to know that, for example, released-on-bail data indicates less than 1% of those released are rearrested and a small number within that percentage for a violent crime. That’s empirical evidence showing that downsizing and eventual closing is the proper approach.” She concludes, “We need to finally acknowledge that the system of incarceration itself is part of the problem.”  ❖

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