I spent over 40 years working in corrections. I wasn’t ready for Rikers.
I started as commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections in June 2021. In this role, I was responsible for running New York’s prisons, including the legendary brutal Rikers Island. Having spent 42 years in the criminal justice field, I thought I was professionally and emotionally prepared for what I was about to encounter. But even though I had run a probation service and a youth correctional system; served as a lawyer, academic and nonprofit director; and visited correctional facilities around the world, nothing could have been further from the truth.
During my seven months as Commissioner of Corrections, the conditions at Rikers constantly fell below my already low expectations. Staff absenteeism skyrocketed, use of force increased, scheduling and visitation decreased, shanking attacks soared, and fatalities increased. Not much has changed since I left last December. In my view, the chaos reflects our nation’s racist and destructive fixation on imprisonment. This is Exhibit A of why we need to end mass incarceration.
The United States has not always imprisoned or otherwise detained nearly 2 million people. Our unofficial march toward mass incarceration began in the 1970s with President Richard Nixon’s cynical War on Drugs. From 1972 to 2009, the country’s incarceration rate increased more than fivefold. With the passage in 1973 of the New York Punitive Act Rockefeller Drug Laws, the state’s rate exploded alongside the nation’s. In 1996, the rate of people in its jails and prisons exceeded that of the country by 30%.
Between plummeting violent crime rates, sophisticated defense, open-minded officials and a strong service network, New York’s average daily prison population has shrunk – by approximately 22,000 in 1991 at about 5,600 in January 2020. Unfortunately, our willingness to throw money at corrections seemingly knows no bounds. From 2011 to 2021, while the city’s prison population has shrunk by more than 60%, the prison budget grown up $200 million.
And New York prisons have long been brutal. Conditions declined to the point where, in 2015, the city entered into a consent decree requested in Nuñez v. City of New York, a class action lawsuit brought by prisoners. Plaintiffs Nuñez accused the New York City Department of Correction using excessive force, failing to adequately protect inmates from violence, and inappropriately placing adolescents in solitary confinement.
AWhile I haven’t witnessed many outright beatings by corrections staff during my tenure as commissioner, I have heard retired officers brag about brutalizing people they incarcerate. . Most of the atrocities I saw reflected more the banality of evil, the daily, ritualized degradation of people living and working in prisons.
When I set up my office on Rikers Island last June, morale was so low and staff feared so much for their safety that thousands of people called in sick, either because they were really sick or because they pretended to be ill. Others were AWOLing – simply failing to come to work without calling.
Many correctional officers who actually came to work refused to interact with incarcerated people, indicating that they had already been “imprisoned” and now intended to work in civilian positions such as administrative assistant, driver or baker until their retirement. And when ordered to work in prisons, many of those who were healthy moments earlier used their indefinite sick leave to claim their illness and return home.
This created a destructive cycle. Inadequate staffing of living units meant that the people we incarcerated were denied basics like showers, recreation, visitation and housekeeping. Neglect fomented frustration and violence, contributing to already dire conditions and further exacerbating absenteeism.
Absences peaked last summer when thousands of employees were sick – a number that increased on weekends and holidays. Hundreds more were on light duty and still others AWOLed. Despite having the richest squad in the country – and costing almost $557,000 to incarcerate a person in New York for a year – many people worked triple shifts on weekends. Dozens of living units remained unstaffed to the point that inmates could not attend medical appointments. For example, in April of this year, residents of Rikers almost missed 12,000 medical visitsaccording to Gothamist.
In these unmanned units, homemade shanks proliferated, medical needs went unattended, and people died. There was more 400 stabbings and stabbings at Rikers facilities in 2021, more than triple the previous year. Sixteen people died at Rikers last year – at least six by suicide and four by drug overdose. At the time of publication, 17 people have already died there this year, and cuts and stabbings are on the rise.
BOn the other hand, I was proud of the many officers who came to work despite COVID-19, the violence and the risk of working triple shifts. These staff members and many incarcerated people challenged the stereotypes of “Shawshank Redemption”.
The people we were incarcerating were urging me to send their unit officer home because she was exhausted. On several occasions, when staff members have been assaulted, those incarcerated have stood up for them.
Other times, corrections officers would plead for stewardship to be handed over to those incarcerated and for something as simple as haircuts to resume. They also begged us to send people to recreational or religious services.
During midnight shift on the Friday before Father’s Day, I encountered an exhausted correctional officer working a triple while overseeing two separate living areas. The day before, a man from his unit was expecting a visit from his daughter which seemed to have to be canceled because there was no escorting officer. When she informed him of the cancellation, he burst into tears, which is something no one likes to do in prison. She gathered all the men and asked them to “be good” as she left the unit unattended to escort her to her visit. If a fight had taken place, she knew she would be punished, maybe even fired, for this act of insubordinate decency.
Many correctional officers have come to us as honest, hard-working people who want to make a difference. But during my tenure, dozens of officers have been arrested for crimes including drunk driving, dangerously unloading their weapons, and domestic or child abuse. In my opinion, somewhere between onboarding new recruits and these arrests, the trauma they suffered on Rikers contributed to their illegal behavior.
Similarly, research by the Center for Court Innovation found that sentencing people to New York prisons increase the likelihood of being arrested again within two years of 7%compared to others with similar charges and backgrounds who have not been imprisoned.
Rikers aggravates almost everyone who encounters him.
AAfter years of rampant brutality, deplorable conditions, stark racial disparity and high costs, Rikers Island is set to close in 2027. The current plan is to replace the sprawling island complex of eight prisons with four smaller, more decent prisons in all the city. But we need to radically change the culture of violence and apathy that pervades Rikers Island so that it does not migrate to these borough jails.
Decades of freebies to corrections officers’ unions — like unlimited sick leave and a ban on hiring supervisors from outside the city’s Department of Corrections — have contributed to the destructive culture. The only path I see to real change is for the federal court that is already overseeing the Rikers Island Consent Decree appoint a receiver run the system while we reduce its population.
As the city’s prison population declines, officials should reinvest money from the corrections department’s bloated budget into the communities hardest hit by crime. Imagine if we spent the nearly $557,000 a year it takes to incarcerate a neighbor as part of community safety and rehabilitation efforts. And if even a part of the $1.34 billion the city budgeted for corrections in 2022 has been reallocated to communities heavily impacted by incarceration?
We must also pay attention to the shocking racial disparities in our city’s prisons. Blacks and Latinx make up 52% of New York’s population but about 90% of prison admissions. Building resources in neighborhoods of color disproportionately impacted by incarceration will help those communities support their returning neighbors as we reduce incarceration.
Elie Wiesel once wrote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. Rikers and prisons like that all over the country are indifferent. It’s time for the city I love to close this place and treat the staff and incarcerated people as we would want our own sons or daughters to be treated if they were working or confined on Rikers Island.
The New York City Department of Corrections Public Information Office did not respond to questions about staffing at Rikers Island at the time of publication. No more than a spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
Vincent Schiraldi is a senior researcher at Columbia Justice Lab and Senior Fellow at the Columbia School of Social Work. He served as Commissioner of the New York City Probation and Corrections Departments.