As long as the City of New York has owned Rikers Island, since the 1880s, it has been a place for the unwanted. For a time, pigs were raised for slaughter there. Not longer afterward, the island — conveniently but remotely located in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, not 300 feet from where La Guardia's runways now sit — was converted to a partial landfill, full of horse manure and garbage. The odor repelled its neighbors in the boroughs, and the refuse attracted a sizeable rat population, which the city tried to contain by released wild dogs. Instead, the dogs attacked and killed some of the pigs. It took poison gas to kill off the rodents.
Next the city moved humans to Rikers. The first jail on the island opened in 1935, meant to supplement and eventually replace the unimprovable disaster that was the Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) jail, which Time had called, in an exposé, the “world’s worst.” Rikers never had a pristine moment, even at the start. Before the facility opened, inspectors warned of health hazards occasioned by, among other things, “dump fires,” and the problems that had plagued Blackwell’s — drug use, corrupt correction officers, violence, squalor, gang consolidation — moved upriver almost immediately, and have stubbornly stayed ever since. Today, there are ten jails in total on Rikers, plus vast parking lots, a solitary-confinement complex, infirmaries, a power plant, and a barge to combat overcrowding — a persistent difficulty in a facility that holds, on average, more than 9,700 prisoners and sometimes has to squeeze in more than 15,000. Adults and adolescents who are sentenced to less than a year’s time in New York City serve out their punishment on the island. (Those sentenced to longer than a year move upstate, to a state facility.)
Rikers has a kind of notoriety in the popular imagination: The city’s highest-profile defendants, from the Son of Sam to Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Bobby Shmurda, pass through in a cloud of gleeful Post headlines, but so do two-bit weed dealers and shoplifters and the resourceless mentally ill. As do violent criminals. But the vast majority of the island’s residents are very poor and awaiting trial for low-level offenses, unable to afford bail and stuck in a limbo that can last weeks or, thanks to delays in the court system, extend to several years. The crowded isolation of the island has resulted in a complex society with its own hierarchies, official and not. Gangs openly control certain dorms; correction officers are in constant battle — often literal — with their charges, but some of them form transactional relationships with them too, whether for sex or drugs or cigarettes. People are born on Rikers — there are 15 beds for babies adjacent to the women’s dorm — and they die there, too.
It is the deaths that have lately moved the gaze of New Yorkers back to Rikers, where we have been troubled to read stories like the one about a schizophrenic, diabetic inmate named Bradley Ballard who was locked alone in his cell for six days without medication, insulin, food, or running water; officers and health workers remarked on the smell coming from his cell, but no one got up to help him until he went into cardiac arrest, covered in his own feces and with a rubber band around his genitals that had caused sepsis to set in. Or the one about Victor Woods, who went into a violent seizure while a guard sat watching him and drinking a cup of coffee. Or, just a few weeks ago, the news about 22-year-old Kalief Browder, accused of stealing a backpack; his three years on Rikers without a trial had been chronicled in The New Yorker. He hanged himself after he got out, as he’d tried to do while in jail. There were ten deaths last year alone, and stabbings and slashings have doubled since 2010. The New York Times has run an investigative series on the jail that has, among other things, exposed widespread abuse and violence by correction officers toward the mentally ill (of whom there are many in the jail).
Perhaps in response, the de Blasio administration has made reforming Rikers a priority. This April, the mayor also announced his intention to tackle the court delays that are part of the reason the Rikers population is so bloated. He has brought in a new commissioner, Joseph Ponte, a reformer who had previously run the Maine state correction system. Ponte has ended solitary confinement for those under 18 and limited it to 30 days for adults. (By 2016, they promise, it will be banned for all inmates 21 and under.) The jail has added a small, 66-bed pilot program, opened in late 2013, that serves as an alternative to solitary confinement for the severely mentally ill. The mayor has also decided not to renew the jail’s contract with Corizon, its widely criticized medical provider. Meanwhile, Norman Seabrook, the powerful union boss of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, is the subject of a corruption investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. In June, the city settled a long-running class-action lawsuit brought by the Legal Aid Society and Bharara’s office concerning excessive use of force against inmates. Additional cameras will be installed, some officers will wear body cameras, new guidelines will be developed for identifying guards with a pattern of violence, and a federal monitor will be appointed.
And yet, despite all this — or maybe because of it, according to some people who don’t believe the current approach to reform is the correct one — inmate-on-correction-officer violence increased at the end of last year and in the early part of this year. Over the past four years, there has been an 1,800 percent increase in reported assaults on medical staff, suggesting either that something has fundamentally changed inside Rikers or, perhaps, that retaliation and bureaucratic self-protection are happening in the form of paperwork. Whatever the reality behind the stats, the violence goes both ways and is persistent: This isn’t the first time a federal monitor has been appointed to address officer-on-inmate violence in response to a settlement; the same thing happened 15 years ago, resulting in a temporary improvement in Rikers culture that was quickly erased by budget cuts, which placed Rikers much farther down its list of priorities than the current administration.
Jails, in general, have problems that are quite distinct from those of prisons — inmates aren’t acclimated to institutional life yet, and rapid turnover makes things difficult, too — but the density of Rikers, a natural extension of New York’s own density, makes it a special dilemma. It’s not that the difficulties that exist here don’t exist in other big-city jails, but they’re all multiplied in Rikers, resulting in a harrowing case study of everything that ails the American criminal justice system. Too many people and too little money to deal with them, essentially. Policy and atrocity make the headlines, but what is less understood from news reports is the culture that makes reforms so difficult.
“Jail has a smell,” one correction officer told us. “I can’t even describe it to you. Worse than a sewer. The island is its own island that people on the outside could never understand.” Reporters from The Marshall Project spoke to dozens of people who spend their days, in full or in part, on Rikers Island: officers, inmates, lawyers, volunteers, and the families of inmates. What follows are their experiences, in their words. What became clear from the interviews is that gangs, which have always been a problem at Rikers, are especially powerful now. Bloods dominate — but their members are so numerous that they, like other gangs, have begun to splinter, violently, into smaller subsets. Recent reforms have been polarizing: Some correction officers believe the changes have utterly hamstrung their ability to do their job. The end of solitary confinement for 16- to 17-year-olds, in particular, they say, has resulted in more violence, since they’ve lost the biggest consequences for misbehavior. And both inmates and officers think that a new generation of COs, many of whom have taken a substantial number of college courses, is less street-smart and thus less equipped to deal with the brutal realities of the job, and therefore more likely to clash with inmates. As for the stench, it shows no signs of leaving.
— Noreen Malone (Senior editor, New York) and Raha Naddaf (News editor, The Marshall Project)
David Joel, Inmate. A 19-year-old currently in Rikers on charges of first-degree assault and first-degree robbery. He has been held since November 2013 on $20,000 bail.
In the box1, the bed is on the wall, so it’s lower to the floor. You’ve gotta be careful because there’s a lot of roaches and mice running around. You’ll be lying down with your eyes closed, and you’ll hear all of them making noises, going through your bags on the floor, ripping up pages from the books.
They don’t got no air conditioner [in the box]. Sometimes you be in your cell like nude, because it be hot and the windows don’t open up, and you’ll be complaining like, “I need my window fixed.” And the officers will say, “We’ll put in a work order.” But it never gets done.
What I’d do, I’d grab paper and I’d make a fan out of it. Sometimes the paper gets worn out, because I’d use it a lot, and sometimes there won’t be no more paper, so I’d fan myself with my shirt.
The box — it’s like you’re locked up twice as much as you’re locked up now. It’s a small room, so you really don’t move around a lot. You wake up, and there’s a toilet right next to your head. You look out the window and you see birds flying, and that only leads your mind into wanting freedom more. And since it’s a small room, it makes you think crazy.
I’m not gonna lie, I felt like hanging myself. I felt like committing suicide because of the things that run through my head when I’m in that thing:
Why me? Why am I in jail? Why do I have to go through these things for this long? Why am I in the box? I hate it here. I hate my life. I have no life. I hate freedom. I can’t taste freedom. I can’t hold freedom. I miss my family. I miss my friends.
In the middle of the night, people be yelling. People be singing, people be rapping, people be banging. You talk to people under the door. You lie on the ground. Which is dirty, so you put a sheet on the floor. And you put your mouth close to the door. You gotta yell at them so people can hear you. And sometimes you get tired and sometimes your throat hurts. Hours. ’Cause there’s nothing else to do. We talk about our lives. We talk about being in jail. Changing our ways. We talk about what are we gonna be when we get out.
Some people are scared, and they find the box safer for them. I’ve seen inmates — when they get into fights — they’ll be like, “Can you please send me to the box, because I can’t be anywhere else but the box.” A lot of people go in the box calm and they come out crazy.
Right now, I’m five-foot-seven. I grew. I came here when I was five feet tall. In the beginning I kept getting into all these fights because I wanted attention. So I was in the gang. You need people that’s gonna help you out. You’re repping that gang, and you come to jail, other gangs have problems with that gang. That’s why I got jumped. Hospitalized like four times.
It was a little bit serious. But that’s how you get your little freedom, too. Because when you’re in the hospital, you see people from the outside. They give you the attention that you been dying to get. Your family comes to visit you because you’re in a serious problem, you understand? Once you in the hospital, you wouldn’t want to leave the hospital, it’s just like a little bit home.
I’ve been incarcerated for so long, and I’ve fought so many people, they know not to bother me anymore. I’ve been jumped plenty of times and got into a lot of fights and got stabbed a lot, so they know who I am and they leave me alone. Sometimes you gotta go in the shower and go knife-to-knife2, right? So when I visualize who runs the show, I walk up to that person and tell ’em, “Listen, my name is this, my name is that, I don’t want no problems, I just want my respect.”
Whoever makes it out the shower gets the crib, gets to own the housing area.
[Since they restricted solitary], a lot of people taking advantage, so now they’re like, “Oh, we can’t go to the box, we can do what we wanna do now.” The only thing that’s going to happen is just a $25 ticket. Right now, I owe $183. So I’m actually working it off at commissary.
When you get clothes sent up, that means a lot to other people. People see that and they be like, “Oh, he got support.” The guards bring things in for the gangs. Like drugs. Lotion from home. Cologne. And they pay the officers. One time, a female guard had sexual intercourse with an inmate in exchange for money, drugs, a phone.
One female officer, she’ll sit down and explain to me what to do, what not to do. She’ll help me out sometimes when I need a new pen. She’ll tell me to do good. That I shouldn’t be here. She makes my day go by. She brings me books when she’s not supposed to. She does things that she’s not supposed to do. And she goes out of her way and does it for me because she knows deep inside that I deserve those things. One time I felt like having sex3 with her. And I told her, “I respect you, but I’m gonna fall back a little bit because I feel like I’m catching a lot of love for you. And I know that’s not gonna happen here.” Her response was like, “I understand, you’ve been locked up for a long time, you know I respect you, you know I wouldn’t do that.”
I be lonely a lot. I’m lonely now, actually. I just be sleeping most of the time. I’ll take the drugs they gave me. Seroquel. Benadryl. I’ll save that up so the times I don’t have nothing to do, I’ll take it and just wait until it hits me. And then I’ll fall asleep and just wake up the next day and keep moving. It’s like, Fuck. I can’t do this.
Officer Hope, correction officer. A 42-year-old woman who works in the commissary at Otis Bantum Correctional Center.
We deal with a lot of mental and physical abuse, from your inmates to your superiors. The superiors treat you like you a kid. The inmates, some are okay, very respectful. Some of them use profanity, they call you — excuse my mouth — bitches. They want you to suck this or that. You see so many penises you go home and probably don’t want the penis you got lying next to you. They jerk off in front of female officers. They try to threaten your life, and you have to take the threats very seriously.
It’s a lot of stuff we handle as correction officers and we never get the props. Nobody never says, “Oh, y’all do a wonderful job.” Nobody. We always are downplayed. Because you have some officers, don’t get me wrong, that don’t do what they supposed to do. They are dirty. They bring in stuff. It’s not an easy job. You do sometimes over 100 hours in overtime a month on top of 40 hours a week4. As soon as you hear “Inmate, oh, he get beat up,” nobody don’t understand what happened. What about officers leaving with broken nose, broken arms, spit on, feces thrown on them, urine thrown on them? You’re not dealing with a regular person on the street. Excuse my mouth, you’re dealing with animals. Some of them, some of them not. The majority are not there for being a good person.
I can tell you one incident I will remember for the rest of my life. It was 1997. It was the housing area, the bing5 where guys are locked in 23 hours. And it was on a midnight tour and the officer came and I took my count like I’m supposed to. And they just threw the keys at me. No one explained what I had to do.
You know in a zoo when it’s time to feed the animals? And the animals is banging and screaming? That’s exactly what it was that night. I had one inmate say, “Pass me the tissue.” And you have to go because if an inmate calls you, you have to go see. Next cell, “Bring some tissue, bring some tissue.” All along, when I’m bringing them the tissue, they’re looking at my behind. “Oh, she has a big ass. You ever had dick, you ever got fucked in your ass?” They’re masturbating in front of you. Oh my God. You can write them up, but that don’t do nothing. That was the night when I had to decide, was this job for me? Because I sat at that desk, and I cried that night, and I prayed, and I asked the good lord, “If this job is for me, you will let me survive this night.”
As a senior officer now, you try to work with these new officers, nobody wants to hear what you have to say. They come in here with these 60 college credits, but you have to be from where some of these dudes and women [the inmates] come from so you can communicate better with them. Nobody wants to hear you talking philosophy to them, because they don’t understand what you saying. You have to really come down to their level. The 60-college-credit people, they’re not understanding them. And officers who come in here from college, they usually go back to their other jobs or back to school because they can’t deal with it. People hear corrections and hear dollar signs. Instead, when they get there, nobody wants to stay there, because who wants to deal?
People are not seeing or hearing how officers are being assaulted. Why? Because the department tries to hide a lot of stuff under the carpet about the officers being injured. Right now, your hands are tied because if you do something to these inmates wrong, the department will want to bring you up on charges. Once an inmate spits in your face and then he puts his hand behind his head, there’s nothing nobody can do. So now you walking around with spit on your face from this inmate. Once the inmate throws urine on you6, there’s nothing you can do.
The adolescents is assaulting these officers, too, I hear. They took the bing away from them. So, they feel, Okay, we can beat you up, nothing is going to happen to us. Everything is for the inmates. It changed when this new commissioner came in. Change is good sometimes, don’t get me wrong. But sometimes you have to be careful in the changes that you make because it’s your officers that’s suffering, not the inmates.
The funny part about Rikers Island: The inmates that’s out there with the guns and stuff, probably robbing or raping somebody’s mama or sister or something, that is the man that you have to protect from other inmates. Ain’t that something? But when he was out there robbin’ and rapin’ and doing what he was doing, who was protecting the innocent? Here’s this man having three square meals a day, able to call his family. And here it is you have a mother going to the cemetery on her baby’s birthday. But still, the city gonna pay to make sure he eats and is well protected. These inmates have 24-hour bodyguards. Why should I have a pity party for them? I don’t know them. They pay me for the three C’s: care, custody, and control. They don’t say nothing about social working.
Robert Eaddy, recent inmate. A 39-year-old man in Rikers most recently in 2010 for sale of a controlled substance, before serving a three-year sentence upstate.
Most housing facilities on Rikers house 60 people. It could be a dorm situation or 60 cells. But you’re in that cell alone. When you’re in a cell by yourself, you don’t have to worry about sleeping next to someone who’s smelly. My cell was very small. I’d say about eight-by-eleven. You have a bed and a toilet7. It was rat-infested. But it’s still better than being in the dorm, dealing with 59 other different body odors and sleeping problems. It’s hard to sleep because you’re worrying about someone hitting you over the head late in the night. Somebody could be doing a gang initiation and you’re their target. Someone could have it out for you. Problems you had on the street could follow you into the jail.
When you’re in solitary, you get an hour outside, but you know in the zoo, how they have the animal in a cage? That’s how it is. No weights, no basketball, no sports, no nothing. When I was in solitary, I was sending out many letters. On an average week, five. The guard and the pastor8 would come by and speak to you, make sure you’re okay. And the people in the next cell, you could yell and scream out and talk to them. We used to play chess through talking in solitary. We’d scream out our moves. You would draw the board on the paper and scream the moves out to whoever you were playing.
My first time in Rikers was in 1994 for selling crack. I was 17. Rikers Island was way worse in 1994 than it is now. I’ve noticed with the youth today, everything is about trying to gain a reputation. So they think this is some type of camp, or a place to go to make their names known. Once you get upstate, you can relax. Rikers, you can’t do that. Rikers, you’re just there, wasting time.
Alex Abell, Urban Justice Center. A 32-year-old who works for the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center and visits Rikers twice weekly.
Correction officers often refer to incarcerated people as “bodies” and “packages.” They’ll sometimes say, “I need a package delivered,” and that means to move a human being to a different housing unit.
Nothing in criminal law in New York says if you’re on trial, you can’t have clean clothes. But people may go ten, 11 months without access to laundry, outside of the sink and a bar of soap. You’ll see people covered in their own filth. Last week, an inmate told me that he is supposed to receive twice-a-day medication, sometime between 6:30 and eight in the morning, and once in the evening. But the officer steps inside the entrance at the other side of the room and calls his name and says it’s time for meds, but not loudly at all, and doesn’t make an attempt to actually contact this person. The dorm is so loud. And he doesn’t hear his name or that it’s time [for his meds]. And the officers don’t follow up. If they don’t get a response, they walk away.
In that dorm, this happens maybe half the time. So people on Lithium or Prozac9 aren’t getting half that day’s medication, and it can be absolutely disastrous.
That’s not to mention there are often facilitywide lockdowns, when no movement is allowed in the entire facility10. If that happens when medications or appointments are scheduled, they often don’t get their [treatment].
Therapy at Rikers often involves only a one-minute talk in which the doctor or social worker may say, “You’re at risk of injuring yourself. Are you okay?” And then they say, “Yeah? Good?” And then they move on.
And it might be done in such a nonconfidential manner. One person I was working with, he had anger — management issues, and he was aware of it. He knew he needed to talk with someone and had requested mental-health [services]. But they would only see him in his unit, in the presence of his peers, and that didn’t work. People could hear everything he was saying, and it wasn’t therapeutic at all.
Meanwhile, if you’re in punitive segregation, these “sessions” are often conducted through the cell door11. The doctor or social worker puts his mouth to the glass, and the person puts his ear to the glass from the other side. And they more or less say, “Are you gonna hurt yourself? Okay? See you next week.”
Terri Scroggins, girlfriend. Age 43, dated Victor Woods, who died of internal bleeding in October 2014 while awaiting trial for drug possession at Rikers Island.
Victor and I were together for about 20 years. A week after Victor had been arrested, a chaplain called me from the jail and asked me if I knew Victor Woods. He asked if I knew Victor was at Rikers. He said he had a seizure this morning and passed away.
I just started screaming and yelling and hung up the phone. He called back and asked if I understood. I said, “Y’all killed him.” He didn’t respond. That was that.
I learned more once Victor’s mom got us a lawyer and we started investigating. Nobody had told me anything. Eventually, we got the autopsy, which showed he’d had a seizure and ulcers. It was through the autopsy that I found out what happened. We later learned that he had serious ulcers, and they had started bleeding, so he bled to death internally. We learned that other inmates had pleaded with officers to get him medical help and they didn’t help him.
A week earlier, he was perfectly healthy at my aunt’s retirement party. He was dancing. He was fine.
After he died, I went with his niece to Rikers to pick up his things: a red Champ hoodie sweater, his wallet, a gray-red-and-black Chicago Bulls hat. I still have the hat. His niece took the sweater. She was with me, and it was getting cold, so she put it on.
Miguel Mendoza, inmate. A 40-year-old man serving four months in Rikers for petit larceny.
Something happened two days ago. The guy overdosed on BuSpar — a mental-health medication. And they just stood there not doing nothing, man. I went to speak to the guy and his eyes were like in the back of his head, so I woke him up. He ran into the wall. He pissed on himself and fell down. I ran over to the officer, and he went and got the medical staff. They took fucking like 30 minutes to get to this guy, man, and they’re right here! They didn’t want to even touch him. I had to put him on the stretcher and everything. That’s not my job, I just did it just to help him out.
I’m in the HIV dorm, and sometimes guys shit on themselves, piss themselves. Some of these guys are really sick and the nurses don’t want to touch them. They don’t want to do their job like they’re supposed to.
I've been in the box. Don't get sick there because you're gonna die up in there. I had to cut my wrist to go see the dentist. I've got the marks to prove it. I had a toothache for like a week, couldn't take it no more. So I had to cut up, and when they opened the slot to put the food in, I stuck my hand out and they seen the blood and they took me out.
Shaian Cabrera, visitor.
A conversation with three strangers, all riding the Q100 from Long Island City to Rikers Island on a Thursday afternoon: Mabel Ortiz, 16, an Inwood resident visiting her boyfriend, Joseph, who has been at Rikers for five months for attempted murder; Candice, 26, a South Bronx resident visiting her 26-year-old fiancé, who has been in Rikers for four years; and Shaian Cabrera, 19, a Bronx resident visiting her 22-year-old husband, who is charged with murder and has been in Rikers for three years.
How is it being a young woman visiting Rikers?
Candice: It is horrible. He is on a no-contact visit. You can’t touch. There is a Plexiglas that separates you. Supposedly, they found contraband in the cells. I think it was a scalpel12. They found it in his cell, so they banned him from contact visits and made his incarceration longer. He already did 90 days’ solitary confinement.
Mabel: It’s better than not visiting him. There was a time that I couldn’t visit my boyfriend for a month and a half. ’Cause he wanted to be a badass. He was fighting. Now I can see him whenever.
How’s it been for you, Shaian?
Shaian: I can only see him for an hour. I used to be able to touch him, but now that’s a lot of problems.
What do you all think about being searched?
Candice: You get searched three or four times. And stuff still gets in there. So it’s all of that for nothing.
Mabel: They just like to touch too much [pointing toward her crotch].
Shaian: They treat us like inmates. They don’t want us to come back.
How much do you worry about them getting hurt?
Shaian: When he doesn’t call me, I get really worried. Sometimes they shut down the building and you get no phone calls, no visits, no nothing.
Mabel: He just turned 17. He’s with the adolescents. You know how us teenagers are. We don’t think. We just do stupid things.
There have been recent reports that Rikers is debating whether to get rid of hugging “hello” and “good-bye” because of contraband getting in. What do you guys think about that?
Candice: That’s kind of stupid. The reality is, you have the COs that’s really bringing in the shit.
Shaian: Sometimes they use kids to bring stuff in.
Candice: If a man asks you to bring in anything, that man don’t love you.
Mabel, aren’t you supposed to be in school?
Mabel: Yes, I am. But I came to see him today. Last week, only once. I usually come for three visits13.
Candice: I try to make two. At least once a week.
Shaian: I come three times a week.
Candice: It is a second job.
What about putting money on the books? How much does that cost?
Candice: You buy their clothes. You buy their food. Cosmetics. Phone. The phone costs a lot. It’s a dollar and some change for one call.
How’s the food?
Mabel: My boyfriend only eats soups. That’s the only thing he know how to make.
Candice: Oodles of Noodles14. Mine made a pie last week. Out of something. I don’t know what they use.
When they are in the box, can you still visit them?
Candice: You can still visit them, but you just locked in.
Can you kiss them when you visit?
Candice: I don’t think they let you fondle.
Mabel: They let you kiss twice. When you say “hi” and when you say “bye.”
Can you French kiss?
Candice: It all depends on the COs.
Christian Rees. A former volunteer librarian at Rikers.
You can’t take anything hardback in. It has to be softcover. What I eventually learned was that there was a fear they could make armor, so if they taped the hardcovers together, they could protect themselves in fights. They could have about 12 books maximum in the cells.
The selection ranged a lot. Guys requested computer-programming-language books. Spiritual stuff — Bibles, Korans, philosophy. We had foreign languages — Russian, Vietnamese, Spanish.
There’s a lot of interest in John Grisham-like-novels. George R.R. Martin was very, very popular. Fifty Shades of Grey, too. James Patterson was the most popular. There was a culture of collecting books in a series — they’d talk about them. We had a big call for urban lit, so books geared toward people of color, talking about neighborhoods they’d grown up in. Playing off the assumed dreams of black or Latino youths. A lot of them were really well written. Very gritty, with slang and localisms. And it was mostly young black guys who took these books, who had not finished high school or just finished. And they’d take two or three at a time and just eat through them.
The only real censorship I encountered was one time they wouldn’t let a guy take a textbook for getting licensed as an electrician, because there was a concern that he could teach himself to tamper with the security systems. There were certain books that it was just generally understood might create problems with the guards, and we wouldn’t bring them, like The 48 Laws of Power15, which is popular among gang leaders.
In solitary, there would be these big bulkhead doors and we’d lean down and they’d push their books out of a slot and we’d try to have a conversation. But they couldn’t look through the cart, so a guy would say, “Hey, do you have a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses?” The same guy also asked for The Odyssey and Plato’s Republic. Usually it was around lunchtime, so there was this stinking cafeteria food.
Joe Rodriguez. A 48-year-old correction officer working at the Robert N. Davoren Complex.
Sometimes, certain inmates, they don’t respect authority16. It’s gotten more dangerous now, they say, because in 2016, they are also removing the bing for the 18-to-21-year-olds, who are the worst. So now the inmates are feeling more like, “You can’t do nothing to me.” There are cameras, which are in a way good and in a way bad. It shows the world that it wasn’t us. It was the inmate that was the aggressor. But now the inmates feel like because the camera is there, they can be more aggressive toward you. A lot of what they say is SMD. “Suck my dick.” A lot. We do have pepper spray, which is great, and we didn’t have that before, years ago, when I first started. But once they get this close, you can’t go for that. You have to defend yourself the best you can.
I personally don’t like solitary anyway. I feel like I gotta be up and down the tier to make sure nobody’s killing themselves. But if they commit an infraction, there should be something that we can fall back on where, like, you’re not gonna get visits for a month. Or you’re not gonna get phone calls for a week. Something.
Right now, we’re dealing with a new generation of officers. I will tell you myself, I’m a GED baby. No college. No nothing. And I feel like, I’m a supervisor in the jail. I know everything. I’m an officer 100 percent. And I did come off the streets. Harlem. I had no violent background or anything like that, but I know how to mix it up. The academy used to be under ten weeks. Now it’s about four months. And I feel like it’s gotten worse. Anyone can be paper smart. You have to be jail smart17.
There was a time where the violence pretty much died. They pretty much enacted a system where if an inmate commits a violent crime, [they were prosecuted]. Once they implemented that, the inmates got rid of all their weapons, the slashings and stabbings went down. I would say late ’90s18.
A lot of times these inmates are looking at life, though. They have nothing to lose. What you gonna do to them, give them more bing time? We’re human. You know, in the streets somebody comes up to me and slaps the crap out of me, am I gonna stand there and just take it? Or am I going to defend myself and go after the dude? It’s hard. And then you’re dealing with inmates who rest all day19. They eat. They work out. They sleep their eight to ten hours. They have a whole lot more energy than us. We’re on our feet almost all day. Sixteen to 18 hours a day by the time we get home and sleep a couple hours. Officers are tired. Mentally tired. They don’t see their family. It builds.
I always advise officers, “Have a good relationship with your doctor.” It’s much better now because I came up in the age where they were allowed to smoke. Sixteen hours a day with just secondhand smoke around you. And that’s why there’s so many officers who pass away so early in their retirement, because of those unhealthy things, dealing with inmates like that, a lot of officers end up drinking.
Joseph Ponte, Commissioner, Department of Correction.
During his 45 years as a corrections officer, warden and overseer of troubled jails and prisons in several states, Joseph Ponte has won a reputation as a methodical turnaround artist. In his first 14 months, Ponte (pronounced “Pont”) has reduced violence in the notorious Robert N. Davoren Center. He has eliminated the use of punitive isolation for 16- and 17-year-olds and is committed to ending it for inmates 21 and under by the end of the year. But overall, the use of force on inmates, the serious injuries and the assaults on staff remain high. Mayor de Blasio and U.S Attorney Preet Bharara recently settled a four-year-old lawsuit with a deal promising more sweeping reforms, including a federal monitor (which Ponte has said he welcomes) and detailed new policies to curb the use of force by guards (which Ponte has already begun.). A laconic ex-Marine with a pronounced New England accent, Ponte says it will take years of recruiting, retraining, rethinking — and spending — to fulfill the mayor’s promise to make Rikers a “national model of what is right again.” Ponte spoke on June 12 with Bill Keller. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rikers has gotten a lot of attention in the year since you arrived, not much of it very flattering. What do you see as the main problems of Rikers and what do you see that’s going right?
I’m not sure if I can tell you the main problems. There’s a lot of systems issues that have been deficient for years. Our emergency response policy was written in the ‘90s, and hasn’t changed much. The fact that New York in 2014 still had not adopted many of the very good, effective ways to manage young offenders was surprising to me. Because there’s great models out there that have done complete turnarounds.
What caused New York to be behind on those reforms?
I don’t know. I didn’t come here to throw rocks at anybody. I don’t know if it was a tough political climate,or if people didn’t propose stuff. In most systems, you’re either adult corrections or juvenile corrections. I learned a ton about juvenile corrections in Maine. We started in April, we eliminated punitive segregation for adolescents in December. We’re still kind of fine-tuning how that should work here in New York City.
In your first year, the use of force on inmates is up, serious injuries are up, assaults on staff are up, and you’ve had some horror stories in the press. Obviously, you can’t change things overnight; is there enough patience to give you the time you need to fix some of those things?
Good question. I hope there is, because it will take time. In the areas20 where we focused a lot on — RNDC [Robert N. Davoren Complex], GRVC [George R. Vierno Center], GMDC [George Motchan Detention Center] — we're seeing really good results. In RNDC, incidents are down, serious use of force is down, staff assaults are down. We’ve seen very good results at GRVC, an adult facility. We put in new leadership with a new direction, we’ve seen great reductions in use of force, in every category. We looked at at basic training, staff hiring, at how did we manage staff probationary periods, what was the oversight and how did that work? All of those things have just been dysfunctional for some time.
One of your predecessors — Martin Horn — says the single best thing that could happen to Rikers would be to reduce the population.
We do not have much independent authority to reduce the population, but with some of the mayor’s initiatives — the mental health task force, the recently announced initiative to look at inmates that have been here for long periods of time, looking for ways to divert adolescents prior to coming into custody — would be helpful.
Your welcome to New York from the head of the guards union, Norman Seabrook, was a little chilly. It was kind of, we don’t need any of this sort of hug-a-thug-, touchy feely reform stuff like they do in Maine. How’s your relationship with him now?
We get along fine. Norman’s Norman. We want the same thing. We want safe, humane facilities.
One issue where you and the union have disagreed is solitary. Corrections officers seem to think that that’s an essential tool for preserving order and safety in the units. You’ve been focused on the downside of isolation.
For punitive segregation, we reduced the sentence per infraction from 90 days to 30 days. We also increased our ability to safely house those inmates by using enhanced supervision units and other types of secure housing units. So it’s not just about the punishment, it’s how you safely house them after.
How does that work? Is that matter of added staffing or different training?
In some areas, it’s added staff, depending on where we house them. What we found was that if somebody had committed a serious assault on staff or a serious assault on another inmate, there was no central monitoring of that inmate after the infraction. One, was there an infraction? Was there behavior that should get criminally charged? And then, if he was found guilty of the infraction, what happened to him or her after? In March or April, we centralized the people that worked on that, and we put a warden in charge to manage those more dangerous, problematic inmates and make sure the housing was appropriate to the risk.
How are you handling the gangs?
It's a constant balancing act for us. It's definitely an influence in jails, and it's typically a little more problematic because we’re getting new people in every day. Our criminal investigative bureau that does our gang management, we’ve kinda restarted that unit; we hired some new staff, we’ve trained them up. I wouldn’t say it's really good yet, but we have a better handle today on the gang makeups and who’s doing what to who. But it's big. Gangs today are more sophisticated, and there are more different kinds of gangs. So it’s not like the Bloods, the Crips, the Trinitarios, there’s subsets of those depending on neighborhoods.
How much of the problem at Rikers is just that the buildings are so old?
A lot of the physical plant has deteriorated over time. The old cellblock designs are difficult in visibility — meaning it’s a long hallway with cells on both sides. Most of the modern designs are kind of like horseshoes, where you can stand in one place and see almost everything. We’re trying to make up for that deficit with cameras. There are facilities that should be torn down and rebuilt, either on Rikers or on some other location.
Also, a lot of the buildings are just dilapidated, right? Pieces of the building are often used as weapons.
It's not that they're old, it's that the maintenance hasn’t kept up the condition of the physical plant. We do have more money today for renovation, but you can’t rehab a housing unit with inmates in it.
I guess that raises the question of whether Rikers can really be fixed or should just be ultimately shut down.
There are facilities that should be torn down and rebuilt, either on Rikers or on some other location.
The city has decided not to renew Corizon’s contract as health provider. What makes you think that HHC can do better?
With HHC, a lot of the care for inmates in the community transfers back to us when the inmate comes into custody and when the inmate’s released from custody, so we think there’ll be some benefit to the continuity of care. We get to build a health-care system knowing what the deficiencies have been.
We’re really trying to rewire the culture to say, okay, everybody’s responsible for health care — it’s not just the nurse. Everybody’s responsible for security. Everybody’s responsible for safety.
There's been more coverage of Rikers in the last year, I would say, than in the 10 years before. Most of it is things like the Kalief Browder case, the suicides, the deaths under murky circumstances. What goes through your mind when you read those stories?
A lot of them happened before my time and we’ve had some while I've been here, there's not like one thing you see break down, it's like several pieces that typically break down and allow these events to occur. There's things that I look at and say, geez, in most systems, they would be redundant enough that if this piece failed, this other piece would pick it up, so we’d catch it. We’re really trying to rewire the culture to say, ok, everybody’s responsible for health care — it's not just the nurse. Everybody’s responsible for security. Everybody’s responsible for safety.
You’ve done a lot of shaking up of the department’s leadership. I don’t know what percent, but a lot of turnover, yes?
Yes. Probably nearly 100 percent. Off the top of my head, there’s not a lot of people who are still here. You couldn’t take any part of this organization and say, “Boy, that’s running really well.” Somebody goes to NYPD and fails, and they come to us and we hire them. We’ll change that. You can’t make it in the NYPD, you can’t make it in New York City Department of Correction. If you fail there, we will not hire you.
We just started recently — recently being like the last couple of weeks — having exit interviews of people of why they’re leaving to get a handle on retention. Because after 15 1/2 weeks of training, that’s a big investment to have you walk out the door in six months or a year. That’s a lot of money we’re losing.
I want to come back to the COs. As far as the healthcare goes, you get rid of Corizon, you bring in somebody new and you can start from scratch. As far as your staff goes at the department, you can turn over 100 percent. You don’t have that kind of discretion with the COs because their jobs are relatively well protected by the union. So how long will it take before you have enough fresh blood in the CO ranks to change the culture?
What everybody wants, and it’s not different than in any other place I’ve been, they want the pride back in their organization. New York City Correction — probably 15 years ago — nationally, was a model people wanted to copy. People who are retired are calling and saying, “I’m tired of reading that stuff in the paper, what can we do to get us back to where we used to be?”
Peter Sellinger, teacher. Age 44, has taught for 13 years on Rikers.
Right now, we’re having a lot of safety issues because there’s a perception and a reality that there are very few consequences for bad behavior [since solitary for juveniles was eliminated]. Weapons find their way in, projectiles are used on teachers. Books, pencils, erasers — they throw them at each other. The deterrent when a severe fight breaks out is pepper spray. At times, the teaching staff has been very badly affected by its use [by getting sprayed]. We have roughly 60, 70 [18-21-year-old] students in the solitary program, and that changes on a daily basis, because students come in as newly incarcerated and then they go. It fluctuates. The average stay for a student is 50 days. We are following the same Common Core curriculum that every teacher and student follows.
One of the things that has to be maintained is a separation of potential gang members. So they arrive at class in stages. We had a riot recently where entire classrooms emptied out and there was a battle royale. It was around Dominican Independence Day, and a Dominican gang member went into an unlocked classroom and he had a specific intent to fight with rival gang members. Once that happened, all the classrooms started emptying out, because there is only one officer in or nearby the classroom. He can’t stop 15 bodies from emptying out all at once. On that day, there were not that many officers on the school floor in total. Teachers were pinned down in their classrooms. Desks were thrown around like bottle caps. One teacher protected another teacher with his body as these desks were flying.
In one particular class, which was made up primarily of Blood gang members, there was a big resistance to doing anything related to work. This one student, I remember meeting him the first day. I introduced myself, and his immediate response to that was “Fuck you, get out of my face,” and he proceeded to slap the schoolwork out of my hand. He got a big reaction from his classmates. Well, fast-forward, I gave him a certificate of improvement, because he eventually became less belligerent and did some class work and interacted with me better.
You either have to be crazy or a really caring person. That’s how we get that trust going with students. They say, “Why are you here?” and I say, “I’m looking at the reason right now.”
Aaron “Pootz” Jones, recent inmate. A 33-year-old in Rikers most recently in 2014, for an assault charge. (He has since been acquitted.)
When you are blood on Rikers Island, you have a sense of power. We dominate. We are the OBCC, Only Bloods Can Control. OBCC is a building in Rikers Island, that’s where I was. We run the phones. We run how we going to eat at night. We are the say-so. But every Blood ain’t your Blood. You might join the gang later than I did, but you and me had prior problems. But because you Blood now, I gotta love you? Blood might have saved us from killing each other, but Blood don’t mean I gotta like your ass. The Bloods was really here to stop the oppression, originally. But in due time, in growing larger in numbers, we became the oppressor in jail today. It is too much of us. If there are 50 men in a house, 30 is Blood21.
I’ve been to Rikers Island under Giuliani, Bloomberg. Under Giuliani, we be up all night, eat what we want, do what we want. De Blasio has designed the jail to make you not want to come back.
The COs that they are hiring now, they are uptight. They treat you like you are guilty already.
You know how many ESU beatdowns22 there are? They will come in there and whip yo’ ass. But guess what? If you in a gang, and if they come in there and hit you, I better be off my bed whupping some ass with you or getting my ass whupped with you.
In 2012, there was a situation with a Blood who was a big Blood. COs, they couldn’t deal with him in no way. So what they do is cracked his cell. That’s where other inmates come in and whip that ass, while you sleep. Or it might be COs who take you to a different part of the jail by yourself, to a bathroom, and whip yo’ ass23. They the law in there.
Lolita Dunning, recent inmate. A 47-year-old released in March on bail after six months in Rikers on an attempted-murder charge.
The main officers there, they was women. They were all right. But one officer, he was so rude and disrespectful. He told me because my gray roots were showing that I needed to get my hair done and dye my roots. And then he was calling me Grandma. He said my husband was gay. He said a whole lot of different things. I reported him, and [someone from the Board of Correction] came out to see me, but she wasn’t really there to help. She was like, “Do you find him attractive?”
You have to buy the soap, because the soap that they give you has lye in it and it will burn your private parts up. So you needed to buy soap, shower slippers, deodorant. They didn’t sell makeup. They sell douches and sanitary napkins. They also give you only like two at a time, so you have to constantly ask for more.
There is a big open shower, that’s in the dorm. In the segregation unit, there’s a wall between the shower stalls. There’s no doors, but there’s a wall in between. In the dorm, the guard desk, what they call a bubble, is right next to it. You could look straight into the bathroom from the bubble, and there was always male officers in that bubble. Officers could look straight in and see the women showering. They pretended not to look, but you know they do.
In the dorm, you have to go to the bathroom to change your clothes if you don’t want the officers looking at you, because there’s cameras.
There was this one inmate who actually has a baby by one of the officers. They brought her to the segregation unit, and she had bruises on her body because another officer physically assaulted her. He spit on her from outside her holding cell. She’s a problem inmate, but that didn’t give him the right to hurt her and spit on her. If we spit on them, we would get another charge. So why are they allowed to do that to us if we can’t do it back?
"Daniel" and "Ashley," a recent inmate and his wife, both in their late 20s (not their real names). Daniel served six months in 2014 for leaving the scene of an accident, a misdemeanor.
D aniel: I went to Rikers six months after my arrest. I was in central booking and then I got bailed out. $40,000 bond. My family was able to post bail for me.
Ashley: If you don’t have cash, they put you to Rikers and then you have to bail the inmate out there.
Daniel: You don’t pay the whole amount if it’s cash.
Ashley: We paid $25,000 cash.
Daniel: As long as you go to all your court dates, you get it back.
Ashley: I was four months pregnant when he went into Rikers.
Daniel: They check to see if you have drugs in your system and then you have to go through a medical screening. You’re sitting in a holding cell with 20 other guys. In a place where people that are leaving and people that are coming in are across from each other in cells. The guys leaving are making fun of the guys coming in. Guys are coming up with sports involving throwing garbage around because you’re there for like 12 hours. No one seems particularly in shock. No one is sitting there crying or anything like that.
In the short-term dorm, there were fights constantly. The saddest thing in the temporary dorm was the guy whose girlfriend from like ten years broke up with him over the phone. He had her tattoo on his arm. All the guys around him started telling their stories about how they got dumped the first time they were arrested. In the long-term dorm, I got lucky: I found a bed by the window right off the bat. I didn’t have a pillow for a few days. The guy that worked in the clothes box, he basically ran the house, a guy named Buddha, but I paid him a couple of bags of chips for a pillow.
Ashley: I came to visit after four days. You can come twice a week for an hour. And after two months, I figured out if you come from out of state, you get extended visits for two hours. So I pretended that I lived in Philadelphia with his grandmother. The COs knew it was lie. Everyone did.
They liked me. From the first time, I was like, I’m gonna kiss their asses, and no matter how they treat me, I’m still going to stay super-nice. You have to laugh at their racist jokes.
Daniel: For visits, there was a gymnasium, and they bring the inmates up in shifts. Someone from the visiting center shows up, gets everyone that has visits that day, walks with you down to the changing area, and you change into different clothes. We wore, like, green jumpsuits24 when we’re in the building. And then we wear gray ones when we’re on the visiting floor. They call it the dance floor. ’Cause you’re going to meet your girl there. And all the girls are on one side, all the guys are on the other, so it’s like a seventh-grade dance. The first time I met [my daughter] was in the visiting center.
Ashley: I was in a lot of pain because of the C-section. She was 7 days old. And I was stressed and nervous. And the first thing the CO said to me is, “You’re an irresponsible mom. Moms like you shouldn’t have kids.” And then the door opens and I see my husband and he walks over to us. If the child is under 2 years old, the inmate is allowed for his whole visit to hold the child. She gave him the first smile in her life.
Daniel: There were somewhere between like three and six white guys [in my unit]. Out of 60. So not many. There was one time I saw a statistic on Wikipedia where like the percentage of people that get raped in prison happens to be the exact same percentage as the percentage of white guys in prison. That got me worried. But other than that, I wasn’t concerned at all. One thing as a white guy, it really sucks that they don’t allow you to have sunscreen. I got burnt every single day.
Ashley: I think the real inmates at Rikers are the COs, because they have a lifelong sentence, you know? One of the COs told me his entire childhood he spent waiting for his dad to get out of prison. He would get out of prison and go back. And now the guy is a CO in jail. So I was like, “Why would you do that?” And he said, “Well, it’s good health benefits.” I’m like, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, you have to feed your children, right?”