The Rikers Island Jail Crisis: When Confinement Meets Seclusion | International


Aerial view of the Rikers Island jail complex in the foreground in 2017.
Aerial view of the Rikers Island jail complex in the foreground in 2017.Mike Segar (Reuters)

The worst, of all the bad that is said about the New York Rikers Island jail, is that no one seems to be exaggerating when talking about a humanitarian crisis, a powder keg or black hole of a system, the prison, bursting by saturation and waiting times and severely stressed by the pandemic. Nobody, say those who have been inside, considers the alarms excessive, which translate into disturbing headlines: a dozen inmates died this year, five of them by suicide, or a daily absenteeism of 30% of the staff of civil servants as a result of the coronavirus . The Wild West, in the words of a doctor who spent two years at the complex and recently recounted his experience in a letter to The New York Times. Brutality and inhumane treatment have fueled Rikers’ fame since its inauguration in 1935, but the pandemic has exacerbated the violence.

The crisis has become a hot potato for politicians this year, most of whom, including Mayor-elect Eric Adams – who has defined Rikers as a “national embarrassment” – advocate a closure plan approved four years ago. years and that in theory should culminate in 2027. The prison, the largest in New York, with an annual average of 100,000 admissions, houses 6,000 inmates, most of them preventive, and a very small percentage of those convicted of minor crimes, with penalties less than one year. A report from a federal monitor tasked with overseeing ongoing reforms this summer found that Rikers is “trapped in a state of disrepair” and “plagued by violence and disorder.” Vincent Schiraldi, the reformist commissioner of Correctional Services of the city, has lasted six months in office and will be replaced by a more rigorous profile official.

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Demonstration by health personnel against working conditions at Rikers Island prison in May 2020
Demonstration by health personnel against working conditions at Rikers Island prison in May 2020BRENDAN MCDERMID (Reuters)

While the staff of 8,400 officials, not counting auxiliary personnel, was reduced day by day due to the coronavirus (at least 2,200 were infected), the number of inmates was only increasing, despite the fact that during the pandemic about 1,500 were released to stop transmission of the virus. The prison population eventually surpassed pre-pandemic levels, and the rate of self-harm skyrocketed. In August, the federal supervisor confirmed, the shortage of personnel, which denounced insufficient protection, jeopardized security on the island; it also caused delays in the distribution of food, water and medicine, not to mention the waiting list for medical or psychological care. Mental disorders have an exponential incidence among the US prison population, and especially in Rikers.

“Between the second and third quarters of 2020 there was a 75% increase in self-harm, most of which were not suicidal, but rather a way of expressing stress on the part of the inmates,” explains Virginia Barber, co-director of the Department of Mental Health of the Prison Health Services, dependent on the public network of New York hospitals, which manages health care in prisons. “In a way, the scaremongering is justified, the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on our patients that justifies the media coverage. The current crisis started with covid-19. Almost half of the inmates are receiving psychological treatment – many of them need support to cope with stress – and 15-17% are severe cases (the incidence in the general population is 3-5%). In pre-trial prisons, like Rikers, there are more suicides than in prisons that house those convicted in final judgment; in the US they are two different types. There have been five suicides at Rikers in 2021, compared to just one in the period 2016-2020. In 2016 [el alcalde Bill] De Blasio gave the New York public network of hospitals the management of health care at Rikers, with abundant resources, which translated into a decrease in violence and suicides, ”explains Barber, Professor of Psychology at the University of New York. Before 2016, health management fell to the private sector.

But the pandemic cut short the improvements. “The incidence of covid was ten times higher in prisons during the first wave, and the confinement implied a brutal isolation from the outside world, without visits, without being able to go to court and even with difficulties to see the lawyers. The prisoners were left in legal limbo, watching their cellmates fall ill. This summer the most acute problems began to be seen, as the increase in the prison population and the absenteeism of the civil servants converged ”. To alleviate the pressure, “400 beds have been set up in three hospitals to treat the most seriously ill,” recalls Barber. The move is part of municipal plans to reform the criminal justice system, by building four more modern facilities in the districts (“with a more rehabilitative mindset,” Barber explains) to replace Rikers.

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Protest for the death of a trans person detained on Rikers Island, in June 2020 in New York.
Protest for the death of a trans person detained on Rikers Island, in June 2020 in New York.STEPHANIE KEITH (Reuters)

Rikers is a New York City jail, but its inmates are being held for allegedly violating state law. That means that any attempt to resolve the crisis must take place at the delicate confluence of state and municipal politics, which has not been easy in recent years. The reform of a bill falls on the State’s wing so that violating probation does not automatically imply entering prison. Several prosecutors, including the Manhattan prosecutor, this summer asked Governor Kathy Hochul to expedite the signing of the decree.

A visit by state legislators to the prison in September concluded that Rikers is experiencing a humanitarian crisis. The latest data from New York prisons corroborate the gloomy outlook: the omicron variant has once again triggered the positivity rate, after months stabilized at around 1% (”after the first wave, for a long time we had a percentage of contagion lower than that of the city ”, confirms Barber). This Monday it rose to 9.5%; on Tuesday, it was doubling to 17.5%, according to Schiraldi, the prison commissioner. The vaccination rate is less than half that of the general one.

For Pace University Law Professor Michael B. Mushlin, Rikers’ example is extrapolated to many other prisons in the country. In his opinion, the crisis is not temporary, nor is it due solely to the pandemic, but rather structural, entrenched by the neglect of the different administrations. “In the late 1970s, as director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, I was part of a team of attorneys that filed lawsuits over confinement conditions in New York City jails, including Rikers. . In 1979 we got a series of measures that were applied to all prisons; court orders that ensured at least basic health care and sanitation, and a minimum of decorum and security, ”Mushlin explains by phone.

“We also advocated for the closure of Rikers long before it was official New York policy. However, the city reneged on its promise to implement the court decisions, and after approval in Congress [en 1995] of the Penitentiary Litigation Reform Law (which restricted inmates’ ability to file lawsuits over the conditions of their confinement), persuaded the courts to revoke many of those decrees, depriving detainees of minimal judicial supervision. The tragedies that we now see at Rikers are the direct result of all of this, ”he explains.

Unkept promises

Mushlin holds the city authorities accountable, but also Congress and the Supreme Court. “For a long time Rikers was not a priority, there was administrative negligence and political disinterest; many promises fell by the wayside, “says the professor, who, although he trusts the closing promises of the new mayor -despite his announced heavy hand against crime-, fears an outbreak similar to that of the Attica prison revolt in 1971 , which was settled with the intervention of the Army and a balance of 39 dead. “It is a real risk, without a doubt, I hope nothing similar happens because it would be horrible, but the exacerbation of the isolation of the prisoners, treated like garbage; the deficit of basic services such as sanitation or the prevention of violence, fuels the crisis. When you put someone behind bars and leave them without support, without attention, this happens ”, concludes Mushlin, who compares the situation in New York prisons with the one that caused the hurricane Katrina in those of New Orleans: thousands of prisoners abandoned to their fate, at the risk of an announced tragedy.

Lawyers on duty shift express consternation at the trickle of deaths, but not surprise. “We have been warning of deficient care and inhumane treatment in these places for many years, but conditions have continued to deteriorate,” several groups, including the Legal Aid Society with which Mushlin collaborated, maintain in a joint statement. This newspaper has requested interviews with three of them, without receiving a response. With the new and uncertain course of the pandemic, “reducing the prison population is the only way to avoid the risk of more deaths in the custody of the Department of Correction [Prisiones]”, The statement underlines. Time does not help: the preventives spend 88 days more on average today awaiting trial than before the pandemic, according to data from the prison commissioner. Adding confinement to seclusion not only redounds semantically, it is also a death trap.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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