Stanley Richards could be called the face of reform at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex. On May 27, 2015, Richards was appointed to the city’s Board of Correction by a unanimous vote. What makes his appointment unique is that he is a former prisoner. Released in 1991, he experienced firsthand the violence that has given Rikers its unsavory reputation and resulted in federal oversight. [See: PLN, July 2015, p.1].
Upon his release, Richards became a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform; as a member of the non-profit Fortune Society, he assisted prisoners with transitioning into life on the outside. It was during his work as an advocate that Richards mentioned his desire to serve on the Board of Correction to City Councilmember Daniel Dromm.
Richards said his time on the inside will provide a unique perspective that will help the Board reach its full potential, and hopes his input will allow the Board to implement solutions, not just identify problems.
Richards had never heard of the Board of Correction during his incarceration, and said he feels many of the problems at Rikers addressed by the U.S. Justice Department should have been addressed by the Board.
Part of Richards’ agenda is to make personal visits inside the jail complex. He believes that talking with guards, as well as prisoners, is key to moving reforms in the proper direction. He also believes that his experience as a former prisoner will make it harder for those inside to dress up the truth.
In September 2015 the New York City Council passed eight bills to enhance transparency in the way the city’s jails are run. One of those bills was called an “Inmate Bill of Rights and Code of Conduct,” designed to educate prisoners about their rights and responsibilities. Mayor Bill de Blasio signed all of the bills into law.
While recent changes seem promising, the fallout from past brutality and corruption at Rikers remains an issue. On October 13, 2015, former jail guard Austin Romain was sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison for smuggling marijuana and contraband; the following month his co-conspirator, fellow guard Khalif Phillips, was sentenced to three years. Former Rikers guard Victor Rodman was found guilty of assault and sentenced to 90 days in jail in January 2016. He had struck prisoner Carlos Sanchez in the face so hard that it left him permanently blind in one eye. Guard Michelle Hubert, convicted of filing false reports to cover up the incident, was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.
A report released on October 16, 2015 found that violence at Rikers had increased over the past year, in spite of the fact that the city is spending more money per prisoner.
“We are not seeing any real results, or improvements,” observed New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.
In a meeting with Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, Richards stressed that he had no personal political ambitions, and that his only desire is to help find solutions and alternatives to the conditions at Rikers. He intends to keep his position with the Fortune Society and believes advocacy organizations will play a key role in solving persistent problems at the jail complex.
City Council Speaker Mellissa Mark-Viverito welcomed Richards to the Board of Correction, saying, “his unique perspective of personal experience will bring needed oversight to New York City’s jails.”
Sources: www.vice.com, www.news.yahoo.com, www.reuters.com, www.gothamist.com, New York Daily News, www.observer.com, www.newyork.cbslocal.com, www.sfgate.com, www.gothamgazette.com
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