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New York City Paid McKinsey & Company Millions for Failed Program to Reduce Jail Violence

A December 10, 2019 report from ProPublica said the city of New York paid management consulting firm Mc­Kinsey & Company $27.5 million to reduce violence at jails on Rikers Island. But an investigation by the publication revealed that McKinsey manipulated reform efforts to give an appearance of success, while the data actually showed violence only increased.

McKinsey was hired in 2014 after media reports of an alarming rise in violence at Rikers. In less than two years, serious prisoner violence and use of force by guards had both increased by 50% and the U.S. Attorney’s Office had threatened to take legal action to force reforms.

That September, McKinsey was given a $1.8 million contract to determine the causes of violence at Rikers and propose solutions. But McKinsey had no experience with managing corrections facilities, and it pitched a “proprietary workplace survey” to then-Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, spotlighting how it helped increase productivity at a strip mine by 50%.

Nevertheless, by March 2015 Mc­Kinsey and corrections officials had settled on a “14-Point Plan” to curb jail violence. The plan’s provisions ranged from adding educational opportunities for prisoners to improving staff training. According to Elizabeth Crowley, former chairperson of the City Council committee that oversees the state Department of Correction, the plan’s provisions were things the DOC had come up with before McKinsey was even hired. But top city officials expanded McKinsey’s contract to more than $6 million to assist Ponte with implementing the plan.

By July 2015, eight Restart housing units were in place at the George Motchan Detention Center, one of the 10 jails on Rikers. The Restart units housed 250 prisoners and served as the proving ground for the centerpiece of McKinsey’s work — an algorithm called the Housing Unit Balancer (HUB).

HUB was designed to predict each prisoner’s propensity for violence and then calculate how to distribute prisoners across housing units to reduce the risk for violence. McKinsey provided data to show that in the first few months only one incident of violence occurred in the Restart units, while units without HUB had 32 violent episodes over the same period. Ponte thereby expanded the Restart program to facilities at Rikers.

Touting the apparent success of the Restart units, the city agreed to a contract extension in November 2015 and committed to paying McKinsey another $7.5 million. Then in October 2016, DOC Chief of Staff Jeff Thamkittikasem announced that violence  in the Restart units was “down by over 70% and assaults on staff are down by 82% when compared to other similar units.” The city again extended McKinsey’s contract, bringing the bill to $27.5 million.

However, records reveal that from the beginning, jail officials were cherry-picking prisoners for the Restart units by replacing prisoners that had been selected by HUB with more docile, less violence-prone prisoners selected from a list provided by McKinsey. Instead of mixing troublesome prisoners with docile prisoners throughout the Restart units, the problematic prisoners remained in the regular units while the calmer, gentler prisoners filled the Restart units.

Greg Kuczinski, deputy corrections commissioner at the time, asked, “If you started with ideal inmates ... how is that going to translate into real change when you throw it into the general population?” That question was answered in 2017 when the city terminated its contract with McKinsey, and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that Rikers would be closed by 2026 due, in part, to the 20% increase in violence during the 14-Point Plan period.

McKinsey is also under federal investigation for violating regulations in relation to its consulting with firms undergoing bankruptcy. In July 2019, McKinsey came under fire when it was discovered that the company consulted for ICE, offering plans on saving money by cutting back on immigrant detainees’ food, shelter conditions, and medical care while speeding up the process for deportations. Documents reveal McKinsey’s consultants complained when ICE officials rejected the plans because they violated due process and endangered the lives of detainees.