The Elusive Dream: Closing Rikers Island
by David M. Reutter and Matt Clarke
New York City’s Rikers Island, one of the nation’s largest jails, has a notorious history of violence – both by guards and prisoners. City leaders have long sought to solve the problem that Rikers poses, but resistance by local residents to housing prisoners in other locations in New York has hampered those efforts.
In March 2017, a blue-ribbon panel headed by former state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman was set to call for Rikers’ closure, according to the New York Post. Just before that announcement, though, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his vision for the 200-acre jail complex: To close Rikers within 10 years and replace it with a system of smaller facilities located in each of the city’s five boroughs.
The plan marked an about-face for the mayor, who just a year earlier had rejected calls from Governor Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to shutter the facility. In part, the decision was due to the high cost of operating the jail complex; the city reportedly spent over $132,000 per prisoner to run Rikers in fiscal year 2016, with a total corrections budget of $1.29 billion.
In June 2017, de Blasio presented his first attempt at details with “Smaller, Safer, Fairer: A Roadmap to Closing Rikers Island.” The plan includes $30 million over the next three years to significantly reduce the jail’s population while renovating current facilities.
Presently, the New York City Department of Corrections (NYDOC) houses about 10,200 prisoners at Rikers and jails in Brooklyn and Manhattan, plus a barge known as “The Boat” in the East River. The jail population is down from over 21,000 prisoners in 1992.
De Blasio’s proposal also includes a Justice Implementation Task Force to coordinate with groups both inside and outside of government, to focus on safely reducing Rikers’ population and achieving a smaller jail system.
Previous efforts to close Rikers and disperse its population throughout New York have met with fierce resistance from city residents. A decade ago, then-NYDOC Commissioner Martin F. Horn came up with a plan to replace Rikers with state-of-the-art facilities in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Local activist groups came together to kill the plan.
“I was buzz sawed,” said Horn, who is now a faculty member at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
City Councilman Rory Lancman, who chairs the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, described his opposition to de Blasio’s proposal to close Rikers Island.
“The mayor’s ‘plan’ barely expands supervised release, abdicates responsibility for the siting of the new jails, and is overly reliant for keeping people out of jail on an updated ‘flight risk’ assessment tool that currently does not even exist,” he said. “Let there be no doubt: New York City can close Rikers Island in less than 10 years if we have the leadership and political will required to do so.”
Speaker Mark-Viverito, long a champion of a plan like the one endorsed by de Blasio, said change starts with systemic reform. She led the City Council to establish a $1.4 million fund to secure a bond program to assist poor defendants charged with petty crimes, so they don’t end up losing their jobs while in jail awaiting trial because they can’t afford bail.
“We need to take a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform that ensures a fairer system, improves police community relations, and addresses the fact that too many of our young people ... mostly low income, Black and Latino males, are locked up at Rikers,” Mark-Veverito said in her State of the City address.
The Bronx Freedom Fund runs a similar bond program. A study found that 97 percent of the program’s clients showed up for court dates. On 27 occasions, the bail money was returned before the conclusion of the case. Most importantly, of 188 cases, 62 percent resulted in dismissal of the case, 22 percent in a violation that carried no criminal record and 12 percent with a misdemeanor plea and no jail time.
There is wide agreement that the bail system in New York City contributes to the size of Rikers’ jail population.
“There is a very real human cost to how our criminal justice system treats people while they wait for trial,” Mayor de Blasio stated. “Money bail is a problem because, as the system currently operates in New York, some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose. This is unacceptable. If people can be safely supervised in the community, they should be allowed to remain there regardless of their ability to pay.”
Through the bond program, Mark-Viverito hopes to help make “the population of Rikers so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.”
Another initiative, the newSTART program, launched in October 2017 at a cost of $3.5 million a year, sends certain low-level repeat offenders to counseling sessions and job readiness workshops instead of jail. Adult offenders facing jail terms of up to 30 days are eligible for the alternative sentencing program, which is expected to divert 1,700 defendants from serving time at Rikers.
“Rather than a few-day jail sentence that’s expensive to taxpayers and not likely to turn anyone’s life around, we’re providing services and programming that will lessen the chances low-level, nonviolent offenders commit another crime,” said mayoral spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas.
With a price tag of $5 to 7 billion and a timeline of 10 years, de Blasio’s proposal to close Rikers Island is ambitious. But the mayor and Speaker Mark-Viverito hope to reduce the NYDOC’s jail population to such an extent it won’t make sense not to close Rikers – especially considering the value that the island’s land could add to the city in an expansion of the neighboring LaGuardia International Airport.
Aside from the financial cost of closing Rikers, there has been a “tremendous amount of human carnage” at the jail complex “over the last few decades,” said Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, a non-profit that advocates for criminal justice reform, who has led a campaign to shutter Rikers Island.
“In fact, part of my motivation for closing Rikers was hearing commissioner Martin Horn on his retirement day after 40 years in corrections say that his biggest disappointment of his entire career was his inability to shift the culture at Rikers Island one bit,” said Martin, who once served time at Rikers himself.
PLN has reported on the extensive carnage at the jail complex over the years. [See, e.g.: PLN, Sept. 2016, p.46; July 2015, p.1]. Despite oversight as part of a federal consent decree at Rikers Island, guards continue to engage in illegal and inhumane behavior.
For example, in May 2016, 17 people were arrested as part of a takedown of a Rikers Island smuggling operation. The investigation uncovered two operations run by three NYDOC employees. The largest scheme involved guards Kevin McCoy, 31, and Mohammed Sufian, 25. Also charged were five prisoners and seven civilians.
“Aside from tarnishing his badge by taking bribes from inmates, Corrections Officer Kevin McCoy allegedly smuggled in scalpels,” Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark said in a news release. “Even after his fellow Correction Officer, Ray Calderon, was slashed on his face requiring 20 stitches and photos of his grisly wound were publicized, McCoy allegedly continued to bring in these weapons.”
McCoy, who went by the nicknames “The Plug,” “Ticks and Fleas” and other monikers, was at the heart of the conspiracy. Prisoners would allegedly call friends and family members, and tell them to give McCoy contraband and cash. He would then bring in scalpels, synthetic marijuana (K2) and suboxone strips. Investigators monitored such incidents between September and November 2015; McCoy made at least $10,000 and admitted to smuggling contraband for bribes for about a year.
Sufian confessed to bringing tobacco into Rikers in exchange for $1,000.
The other conspiracy involved Darnell Wilson, 27, a cook at Rikers Island, who admitted to smuggling K2 and tobacco in exchange for $200 a week. He was arrested on February 25, 2016 after contraband was found in his shoes. One prisoner and a civilian were also arrested in connection with the scheme.
Prosecutors filed a total of 84 charges, including bribery, bribe receiving, promoting prison contraband, attempted possession and attempted sale of controlled substances, and conspiracy in connection with the smuggling operations.
“These alleged schemes fed the climate of danger and fear that makes Rikers Island notorious for brutality, and they reveal the true scope of corruption that goes far beyond its shoreline,” said Clark. “But these cases also show our determination to work with DOI [Department of Investigation] to prosecute any and all perpetrators of crime inside Rikers Island.”
Further, in February 2016, a drug sniffing dog named Gunner picked up a scent on NYDOC guard Nicole Bartley, 30, when she reported to work. No drugs were found on her, but a search of her Bronx home uncovered 70 grams of marijuana.
Bartley, who began working at Rikers in May 2014, was suspected of smuggling drugs to a prisoner with whom she was allegedly having a sexual relationship. Prosecutors charged her with third-degree rape, sexual misconduct, official misconduct and attempted promoting prison contraband. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.63].
Her arrest – the 26th of an NYDOC employee for job-related misconduct since 2014 – came just weeks after the January 20, 2016 sentencing of Rikers guard Victor Rodman, who was convicted of third-degree assault and falsifying business records. Rodman was sentenced to 90 days in jail to be served on weekends plus 250 hours of community service for using excessive force on a prisoner resulting in a broken nose and loss of vision in one eye. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.60].
In another incident, Rikers guard Bradford Jones, 37, was captured on video entering a prisoner’s cell and beating him with his radio. The prisoner, who was seen throwing liquid in Jones’ direction, received fractured facial bones and cuts on his head and face. Jones was charged with assault in March 2016; a prosecutor who viewed the security video said it was “stomach-turning” and “shocking.”
More recently, on March 20, 2017, jail guard Rodiny Calypso, 38, was arrested for severely beating a naked, handcuffed prisoner in a shower stall for “disrespecting” him, then falsely claiming the prisoner had spit on him to cover it up. The beating was recorded by security cameras; Calypso, charged in federal court, was found guilty of filing a false report in August 2017. He has not yet been sentenced.
Of course not all brutality and misconduct involves guards; Rikers is well-known for prisoner-on-prisoner violence, too, including stabbings and slashings with razors or scalpels. Twenty-nine Rikers prisoners were indicted on assault charges in August 2017, and Governor Cuomo used that as an opportunity to call for the jail’s immediate closure.
“Saying it will take 10 years is tantamount to saying we have no real plan to close it,” said the governor’s counsel, Alphonso David. “Ten years condemns thousands more young people to be abused by Rikers,” he added. “How many people have to die and how many lives have to be ruined to make government act? We need action now.”
Mayor de Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips responded to that criticism by saying, “As attorney general, Andrew Cuomo was silent on Rikers Island. As Governor, Andrew Cuomo leads a state prison system marred by abuse, neglect and escapes. He runs a state court system responsible for many inmates being on Rikers Island too long. His new-found concern is welcome, but unless the governor is willing to reform his own embattled state prison system and court system, it’s impossible to see his outburst as anything but political theatre.”
Then-NYDOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte claimed on May 9, 2016 that efforts to reduce violence and contraband trafficking were proving successful. In the first four months of 2016, he said, use of force by guards dropped 50% compared to the same period the previous year, while use of force incidents causing injury were down 17%, he told the City Council.
The council members questioned that data, however, and a comptroller’s report found the rate of fights and assaults at the jail had increased by over 20% in fiscal year 2016.
“The numbers we actually have are quite different.... In every area of violent inmate on inmate incidents, we see a major increase,” Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley told Ponte. “So, it’s hard to look at what you’re saying here in your testimony.”
In fact, in early April 2017, shortly after Mayor de Blasio called for the closure of Rikers Island, a report published by a federal court-appointed monitor to oversee the jail complex, covering the time period from August through December 2016, criticized Rikers guards for their continued use of unnecessary physical force against prisoners. The report said guards used force against prisoners at “an alarming rate,” including head strikes, slamming them into walls, violently taking them to the floor and kicking them, usually while they were handcuffed and not resisting. Guards sometimes falsified reports after such incidents, claiming the prisoner assaulted or spit on staff members, triggering the beating.
The monitor also reported there were “significant delays in disciplinary action” against guards, even when their excessive use of force was caught on camera. The only praise the report had was the installation of 6,681 of the 8,000 cameras required by the settlement. At the same time it criticized staff for the improper use of handheld cameras, including pointing them away from an incident or leaving them turned off.
And in May 2017, the New York Times reported the “State Commission of Correction recently ordered a halt to all inmate transfers to Rikers from county jails outside the city, on the ground that the jail complex had become too dangerous” and failed to meet minimum safety standards.
Ponte retired in May 2017 amid allegations that he had misused his city vehicle and spent too much time out of state, away from his job duties.
“He’s leaving this agency in a worse condition than when he found it,” complained Elias Husamudeen, president of the union that represents NYDOC guards, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. Husamudeen took over after the union’s former president, Norman Seabrook, was indicted in a federal bribery case in June 2016. [See related article on p.24].
“Joe Ponte is a decent man and I wish him well,” said City Councilman Rory Lancman, “but correction commissioners come and go while the nightmare that is Rikers Island is eternal.”
That nightmare may finally come to an end, however, if Mayor de Blasio’s long-term plan to close the massive jail complex is ultimately successful. Though that will not solve all of the city’s jail-related problems, as more systemic reforms are required.
“Closing Rikers does not close the jail system, and we need to fix what’s inside these buildings ... wherever we put [prisoners],” noted New York City first deputy mayor Anthony E. Shorris.
Sources: www.abc7ny.com, www.metro.us, New York Daily News, www.wtop.com, The New York Times, www.dnainfo.com, The Atlantic, www.gothamgazette.com, www.timesledger.com, New York Post, www.reuters.com