New York City jails can be fixed. It will take time. It will take money. And the recent investments announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and the changes requested of the city’s Board of Correction are only a beginning.
In a series of self-congratulatory editorials, The New York Times takes credit for bringing needed attention to conditions at the jails, calls for the appointment of a federal monitor, and identifies the longtime president of the correction officers union as an impediment to reform. But the Times is missing the point. If a federal monitor is appointed, and if Norman Seabrook were no longer the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the problems and failures of the city’s jails would continue to exist.
There have been monitors in the past, and the problems abated but did not disappear. Mr. Seabrook is only the most recent in a long line of colorful union leaders. The problems of the city’s jails have been there for all to see. One wonders where the Times — and other news organizations that discovered Rikers Island in 2014 — have been for the last 20 years. Will they be there for the next 20? Will their interest in the conditions of the city’s detainees continue?
New York City government is actually a remarkably transparent organization. Twice each year, the city publishes the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), detailing performance indicators for every agency, including the Correction Department. The warning signs of the deteriorating conditions in the jails have been there for all to see, if only they had looked. There was a substantial and demonstrable increase in the incidence of violence in the jails beginning in 2009. It is reflected in the numbers of stabbings and slashings, and the uses of force by officers reported in the MMR.
The problem with the New York City jails is the jails themselves. Despite the best efforts of monitors and mayors, the only way to solve the jail problem is to address the underlying issues.
Reduce the Jail Population
The single best thing for New York City would be to have fewer prisoners. The criminal justice system in New York, the birthplace of pretrial detention reform, works slowly and relies too heavily on money bail. This disadvantages poor defendants and leads to more prisoners than need to be confined.
“New York City judges almost always set bail in the form of cash or secured bonds,” Human Rights Watch said in 2010. They observed, “Thousands of people accused of minor crimes are held in pretrial detention in New York City each year solely because they cannot afford to pay even small amounts of bail… they disregard other bail options that do not condition pretrial liberty on financial resources; for example, an unsecured bond, for which a defendant promises to pay a specified amount for failure to return to court.”
This problem is worsened by the time it takes to dispose of a criminal case in New York City courts. The size of the city’s jail population is determined by only two factors: how many people enter the jails, and how long they stay.
Since 2001, the number of people admitted to the jails has decreased dramatically as a result of the overall decline in crime. However, the length of time people remain in jails has grown by 50 percent. In 2001, the average inmate was in custody for 41 days. By 2012, that length of stay had grown to 61 days.
Despite the fact the courts have a lower workload due to the drop in crime, they are taking longer and longer to dispose of criminal cases, at great cost to the city. Which is not surprising since none of the decision-makers in the court process are responsible for paying the bill for this longer length of stay. Not the judges, not the prosecutors, and not the defense attorneys. None of the players has any incentive to expedite the disposition of criminal cases in the courts. Each additional day of confinement costs the city millions of dollars.
For example, the average daily population of the city jails in 2012 was 12,287 prisoners. The average length of stay of prisoners was 53 days. Had the length of stay been at the same level it was in 1995, there would have been 1,662 fewer prisoners, or only 10,625 people. As a result of the drop in crime and arrests, and the recent police slowdown, the jails held fewer than 10,000 prisoners, well below the 22,000-plus held in 1991.
We can further reduce the number of prisoners by shortening court processing time and reforming the city’s bail practices. By diverting the mentally ill, as the mayor has proposed, reforming bail practices, and speeding up court dispositions, the city might well see a jail population lower than 9,000. This would expose fewer people to the hardship of jail, save millions of dollars, and create opportunities to restructure how we operate our jail system.
Rikers Island IS the Problem!
A second problem is Rikers Island itself. The Island perpetuates a culture at odds with the reforms we want to see. It is not a single jail; there are nine jails on the island. The Department of Correction also operates jails in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. We rarely hear about problems in those small jails located close to the communities they serve. Economies of scale make operating the big jails on the island less costly. But the savings are offset by bad outcomes.
The New York City system demonizes and stigmatizes detainees. The recent controversy in Gowanus Brooklyn about the proposed location of an office for the state’s parole agency shows how New Yorkers think about our fellow citizens involved with the criminal justice system. We send a message that the people in jail are to be avoided and vilified. The staffs and prisoners understand that message, and we should not be surprised when bad things happen inside them.
Rikers Island imposes other costs as well. Transporting thousands of prisoners to and from court every hour of every day is a big part of what the city Correction Department does. Buses run continuously between the island and courthouses in each borough; prisoners are roused at 4 a.m. during the week to arrive for the beginning of the court day in over 15 different courthouses. Prisoners spend long days sitting in holding cells, often never brought before a judge. Two other bus systems bring visitors to the jails and staff to their jails.
Visitors often must travel over four hours just to visit. Lawyers visit rarely. What attorney can afford to spend four hours just getting into and out of a jail?
With fewer prisoners, the city can reduce its reliance on Rikers by building small jails in the boroughs. New York can bring prisoners home to where they can be visited by family and lawyers; where the city can tell the staff responsible for their welfare that inmates are the children of a city that cares about them. New York can change the culture in the jails. But the people have to want it.
The city has never invested in providing prisoners with anything to do. Prisoners, as many as 60 at a time, live in open dormitories with no place to find safety or solitude. Young men sit around all day with nothing to do but watch a single shared TV. They engage in horseplay, bully each other, and often fight. The officers who we blame are vastly outnumbered. A single officer is assigned to watch them. Who do you think has the power? How do you think the officer feels? I think they are scared.
Since 2002, the number of correction officers working in the city jails has been steadily declined. These reductions compromised the safety of prisoners and officers alike. Imagine if the city invested in providing prisoners with opportunities for self-improvement and staffed the jails with sufficient numbers of officers?
The buildings on Rikers Island are poorly designed. They were not built to last or to serve the purpose intended, and they most certainly were never designed to house a population, that by some current estimates, is 40 percent mentally ill. The city continues to rely on buildings erected in the 1970s that are intended to last no more than 20 years. The buildings are not secure, are poorly ventilated, poorly maintained, and have terrible sightlines. Cells are built with household-grade fixtures easily disassembled by prisoners and fashioned into weapons. The housing units were never intended to function as therapeutic environments for the mentally ill. These buildings breed violence and are terrible places for prisoners to do their time and for staff to work. Staff sees how the city feels about its prisoners by observing the buildings the city uses to house them.
Improve Accountability and Supervision
Years ago, the city instituted a system referred to as “the wheel” in which officers and supervisors change shift assignments every few weeks. As a result, there is no consistency in which officers and supervisors are responsible for a housing unit, and there is little accountability. Until that is fixed, we will continue to see the kinds of problems most recently observed.
The violence we see is not new. In 2005, John Boston, Project Director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the New York Legal Aid Society, observed, “The single most important lesson we have taken from twenty years of litigation is that the controlling force in jails and prisons is a function of correctional leadership. When supervisory staff makes a visible, demonstrable commitment to curb misuse of force and hold staff accountable, inmates will not get brutalized. When correction supervisors turn a blind eye toward misconduct by condoning excessive force, overlooking false reports, and imposing inadequate punishment when brutality is identified, they send a signal to line staff that they can control troublesome, disruptive, or defiant prisoners simply by beating them.”
He was right, and data from 2002 to 2009 proves it. Police officers receive six months of training; correction officers receive only 15 weeks. Wardens, promoted through the ranks, receive no special training for their jobs at all. This lack of investment in training must be reversed if there is to be improvement in the performance of the city’s jails.
Much of what has been written about the city jails has focused on the poor quality of medical and mental health care. The criticism is always leveled at the Correction Department and its commissioner. What most people fail to recognize is that the correction commissioner has no responsibility for and authority over the delivery of medical and psychiatric care to prisoners.
The New York City charter gives the commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene responsibility in those areas. That agency contracts out the provision of medical and psychiatric care, the correction commissioner has little if anything to say about the terms of those contracts and no day-to-day ability to oversee or manage their delivery. There are communication and bureaucratic difficulties inherent in this arrangement, and the prisoners are dependent on the attention and budget devoted to them by the health commissioner, who has other responsibilities for public health in a big and diverse city, from Ebola to tuberculosis. Prison health care often is not at the top of the health commissioner’s agenda.
Likewise, prisoner education is the responsibility of the school chancellor, not the correction commissioner. With all the attention paid to public school education in New York in recent years, the attention devoted to prison education has been missing. Only prisoners legally required to attend school are provided classes by the Department of Education. The teachers are on the same schedule and contract as the teachers at the public schools, and neither is responsive to the needs of prisoners. There are no the physical education, art, or music programs available to high school students in the city’s public schools. Prisoners do not have general access to library resources; typically, the only reading material available is what they obtain themselves.
It is time to unify the responsibilities for the provision of medical, mental health, and education in the one official whose sole responsibility is the welfare and well being of the prisoners in his custody: the correction commissioner.
Past is Prologue
During the ‘90s we read many stories about jail violence. Over 1,000 prisoners were seriously injured by other prisoners each year. A new administration took steps to regain control; the tabloids featured photos of officers in riot gear prepared to retake the jails by force. A new gang emerged, and that gang was the officers, empowered to do what was necessary to reassert order.
For a time, order was restored by the use of COMSTAT-like strategies, as well as separating the most violent prisoners from those who simply wished to be left alone. Lawsuits, similar to the case being pursued today by the U.S Attorney, were settled, constitutional conditions restored. But eventually, inexperienced leaders lost their way and staff lost its moral compass. Old ways of doing business returned.
The city must move away from its reliance on Rikers Island. Jails should be close to the communities they serve and the courthouses where prisoners’ cases are heard. It requires political courage for the city to address these issues and bring sanity to the jails. It will take money and leadership. There is no alternative, because our jails are a reflection of our collective conscience, and if they remain as they are, the fault is ours.
Martin F. Horn, a Distinguished Lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was Commissioner of the City Department of Correction from 2003-2009.