Anna has made the trip to Rikers hundreds of times in the nearly six years her son has been awaiting trial. Each time, a friend picks her up early in the morning near her apartment in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and drives her out through the city, past the brick houses and manicured lawns of northwestern Queens. They park near the Q100 bus stop and sit silently in the car until the bus pulls up.
On weekends, there’s always a line pushing to get on the bus — almost all women, many with small children, most black or Hispanic. Anna doesn’t rush to the doors like the rest; she has made this trip often enough to know that if you get on last you’ll be the first off when the bus reaches its destination. It’s only one stop, anyway.
The bus runs fast down a narrow bridge, passing the city’s fading skyline on the left and the tarmacs of LaGuardia Airport on the right. Within minutes it stops again and several uniformed men approach with guns and dogs. A large officer gets on the bus and asks attorneys and jail staff to get off. Then he reminds everyone else that this is the end of their “amnesty” — their last chance to get rid of any contraband without risking arrest.
“Happy Sunday,” he ends flatly but loudly. “Welcome to Rikers.”
In October 2010, Anna’s son Jairo Pastoressa was arrested for stabbing and killing a young man during a dispute. He was charged with murder and denied bail and has been sitting in jail for 67 months, waiting for a trial that keeps being postponed. Eighty-five percent of Rikers’s nearly 10,000 detainees have not yet been tried. Although many are released within a week, some remain in the jail for years as their cases drag through New York’s chronically slow court system. As of March 2016, 75 percent of Rikers detainees had been awaiting trial for less than a year, but there were 109 whose cases had been pending for more than three years and another 209 who had been waiting for more than two years, according to a spokesperson with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Jairo believes he is the longest-serving detainee currently on the island. “This system keeps those that have been accused of committing crimes out of sight and out of mind,” City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in her 2016 State of the City address, in which she announced an independent commission to review whether the population at Rikers can be reduced enough to make its closure possible. “Rikers Island has come to represent our worst tendencies and our biggest failures.”
An officer with a dog walks along the lined-up group twice, the dog sniffing everyone, including small children in strollers.
Anna has been coming here one to three times a week since Jairo was arrested; she knows by heart the steps that precede any visit. She moves fast to the front of the line into the first building, stands against the wall holding a small plastic bag with a few bare necessities in her left hand before more uniformed officers yell at the rest of the group to do the same, speaking curtly to anyone moving too slowly or falling out of line. An officer with a dog walks along the lined-up group twice, the dog sniffing everyone, including small children in strollers, as another officer lists a long series of forbidden items: drugs, tobacco, perfume, chapstick. When officers usher the group out, Anna again steps briskly to the front of the line and moves through an open-air locker room where she stores her phone and keys — potential weapons.
Anna always carries extra quarters for the lockers that she hands out to other visitors, who invariably show up without any. She walks quickly by two more guards checking IDs, waiting until the last minute to take off her shoes before an airport-style metal detector. “This place is filthy,” she complains without stopping. She goes by a teller to deposit a $100 bill into her son’s commissary account. Not more, because whenever he goes to buy instant noodles or coffee, the balance in his account flashes over a screen for other inmates to see, and too much money can lead to a beating. It’s one of many things that can get you beaten up here.
Anna walks up to a registration desk where an officer takes her photo and fingerprints and hands her a pass that she mustn’t lose. The fingerprint machine looks old — like most things here — but she knows exactly how to tap her fingers to get through faster. Others stumble. Anna boards another bus that drives through parking lots and multiple gates before pulling up by the building that holds her son, the Anna M. Kross Center. “Anna, like me,” she scoffs. Once there, she goes through two more ID checks, again taking off her shoes, and passes through a metal detector into a room where she leaves her money, jacket, and anything else she hasn’t already locked up. She tries five different lockers before finding a functioning one. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg installed new lockers, she snorts, but they’re already broken. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio once spoke of reforming Rikers, “but he only put in new metal detectors,” she says. Some visitors are mysteriously pulled out of line to skip the screening — not that Anna really cares, and it’s mostly guards who smuggle contraband onto the island, anyway, she says. She has taken to calling it the “Department of Corruptions.”
Next is a thorough pat-down. Before the visit, Anna gave me a long list of things I shouldn’t wear — no bra with wiring, no pockets, no zippers, no hoods, no tights, no shorts, no ripped jeans, no jewelry, nothing too revealing, shoes that you can take off and put on quickly, and don’t bother wearing anything clean. Some items are officially prohibited; others aren’t but will get you stopped anyway. A couple of women presumably deemed too sexy for the visit, and another whose pregnant belly fills her clothes perhaps too provocatively, receive bright green sack-like tunics to wear. All the guards know Anna, so the pat-down goes smoothly, but she told me stories of being stripped naked and touched aggressively by officers. Other women have filed a lawsuit over invasive strip and body-cavity searches. After the last check, Anna enters a waiting room with plastic chairs and a small TV set, on which Diane Sawyer happens to be promoting her exclusive reportage from inside Rikers Island.
Over the years, Anna has spent countless hours in this room, waiting for her son’s name to be called out by an officer who usually mispronounces it. Some days the wait lasts hours, and she has collected endless stories from other waiting relatives. Today she tells me about a woman she met who used to visit her son with his young daughter and kept telling the child they were visiting dad “at college.” Anna thought the little girl didn’t buy it.
When Jairo’s name is finally called, after what feels like hours, we walk through a metal gate, through one last ID checkpoint, and into an unheated room that looks like a sadder version of a kindergarten cafeteria, with low metal tables and chairs — red, blue, and yellow for the visiting families, gray for the inmates, so as not to suggest any gang affiliation. They come out wearing flip-flops and gray jumpsuits, and for the next 60 minutes the room buzzes with dozens of conversations, babies crying, and every few minutes, the loud engines of planes taking off from LaGuardia and flying directly over our heads.
Jairo and Anna stretch over the table trying to hear each other. He speaks in her native Italian because he’s afraid other inmates will listen. Jairo is visibly unwell. And a lot of what he says doesn’t make much sense. He talks about a dream he had, something involving dogs, then about astrology and zodiac signs, and about how the Illuminati killed Prince. He shifts restlessly on the metal chair anchored to the ground, his eyes unable to stop for a moment as he jumps from one topic to the next. Sometimes he laughs, or gets angry; other times he just looks terrified, mumbling, “I have to get out of here.”
Days after he killed a fellow graffiti artist with a kitchen knife — in self-defense, he told the police when he turned himself in at the local precinct — Jairo was found unfit to stand trial and sent to a psychiatric ward where he was initially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After several weeks he was sent back to Rikers. Anna told me Jairo had no prior history of mental illness and that nearly six years at Rikers had left him deeply damaged. Unrecognizable, she said. For years he was put on medication that turned him into “a zombie.” He was sexually assaulted by female guards, she said, and often attacked by other inmates. He’s half white and half Afro-Brazilian, and in a violent environment like Rikers, where turf affiliation often falls along racial lines, his ethnic background makes him even more vulnerable.
“His reality is so distorted that sometimes he says things that sound absurd,” said Anna. “Sometimes I ask him if he’s crazy, but then I realize, that’s actually his reality. He’s not talking nonsense, it’s that the reality in there is so distorted. Things happen that don’t make sense. I’ll tell him, this isn’t possible, but it is possible.”
At Rikers, Anna was stoic. She dispensed advice to women who haven’t been coming for as long as she has, and she joked with some guards — the nicer ones. At a café, hours later, Jairo called to tell her that the inmates serving dinner picked a fight with him, refused to give him food, and threatened to kill him. This had happened before. At a recent court date, he showed up with a cut on his brow and a swollen eye, she said, finally breaking down.
“If they sentence you, you know they sentenced you to however many years, you get used to the idea, and you do your time,” said Anna, exasperated. “But when they don’t sentence you and they throw you in there — he’s losing his mind.”
According to the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, nearly 40 percent of Rikers inmates have a “mental health designation.” The Department of Correction declined to comment on the specifics of Jairo’s case, but said that “Commissioner [Joseph] Ponte has zero tolerance for sexual assaults of inmates, and we take these allegations seriously.”
Anna remortgaged her apartment to pay nearly $100,000 in legal fees. But the trial, which has been on the court calendar since April 2011, has been adjourned over and over. Last June, Anna said, the prosecutor wasn’t ready, so they postponed the trial. Then it was summer, and people were on vacation, so they postponed again. In November, neither the prosecutor nor the judge showed up. A day later, the prosecutor said he wasn’t ready because Jairo’s attorney hadn’t formally declared if he was going to pursue a psychiatric defense. In January, the defense attorney was away. In February, the prosecutor’s witness was out of town. A week later, the prosecutor and Jairo’s new defense attorney were not ready because Anna had just fired the first lawyer. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Manhattan district attorney’s office said,“While this case has required multiple extended adjournments — largely not in the People’s control — none are related to the strength of the evidence.”
Anna has lobbied local officials for help. She regularly travels to Albany with a group of advocates demanding speedy trials for countless New Yorkers stuck in a legal backlog that’s making their cases move at glacial pace. In May, lawyers representing Bronx defendants filed a federal lawsuit claiming that court delays there have “fatally undermined the right to trial.” The Bronx courts are notoriously slow, but they are hardly unique; case delay is the single biggest driver of the city’s jail population, and officials say they are working to drastically cut processing times. So far, that hasn’t helped Jairo.
While he waits for his next court date, Jairo spends his days drawing, using mostly food as color.
“Where’s the right to a speedy trial?” Anna asked. “When I got U.S. citizenship, I had to study the Constitution, the Sixth Amendment. Back in England, the king and queen threw people in jail and threw the keys out, so when the founding fathers got here they decided that one of the principles of the Constitution would be the right to a speedy trial. So why don’t they do it?”
While he waits for his next court date, Jairo spends his days drawing, using mostly food as color. He is also due to appear in court in the Bronx, which has jurisdiction over Rikers, because guards said that some tea he was using as ink was contraband tobacco. He uses pink Kool-Aid to color toilet paper that he skillfully arranges into bouquets of roses. He somehow managed to bring me one, hiding it inside his jumpsuit, because no exchanges are allowed during visits.
Jairo made another rose for President Obama and asked Akeem Browder to give it to him at an upcoming White House event on criminal justice reform. Browder, who himself was detained at Rikers in the ’90s, when he was only 13, is the older brother of Kalief Browder, who last year committed suicide after being held without trial for three years.
Kalief Browder’s incarceration, abuse, and eventual suicide was only the most recent Rikers scandal. In the last few years, countless stories have emerged of violence on the island, between inmates, but also, regularly, by guards. In 2014, an inmate died in a 101-degree cell, and a correction officer pleaded guilty to trying to cover up the incident. That year the Department of Justice concluded a multi-year investigation with a report on the brutal treatment of adolescent boys at Rikers, condemning the jail’s systemic use of force by staff, inmate-on-inmate violence, and the use of punitive segregation. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called Rikers a “broken institution” and “a place where brute force is the first impulse rather than the last resort.” Months later, the DOJ went a step further and sued the city. Last year, the city spent $13.1 million settling claims of abuse in detention, mostly at Rikers, and the number of claims is growing steadily, city Comptroller Scott Stringer warned earlier this year.
For a moment, it seemed as though things at Rikers had gotten so bad, so publicly, that they might actually change.
De Blasio promised sweeping reform, and for a moment, it seemed as though things at Rikers had gotten so bad, so publicly, that they might actually change. He appointed a new correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who had overhauled the Maine prison system, reducing the use of solitary and boosting mental health care. In 2015, the city banned solitary confinement for juveniles, though a new “Enhanced Security Housing” unit meant to partially replace punitive segregation soon turned violent. Ponte and de Blasio also announced a 14-point “anti-violence agenda” meant to address the jail’s chronic violence, though advocates remained skeptical of the initiative, which they said did little to address the Correction Department’s own abuses.
As pressure began to increase to shut down Rikers altogether, de Blasio pledged to reduce the jail’s population to about 7,500 inmates. The city is currently pursuing a two-tier approach to the issue: reducing the length of detention by attempting to clear court backlogs, and reducing the number of people ending up in jail in the first place through a simplification of the bail process and the introduction of alternatives to incarceration like supervised release. The city passed legislation strengthening reporting requirements on the Correction Department in an effort to increase transparency. It gave McKinsey & Company a $7 million contract — after an earlier $1.7 million one — to figure out how to reduce violence on the island, a move met with scorn by advocates, correction officers, and those with a more direct understanding of jail life.
The mayor called the proposal to close Rikers “noble” but unrealistic. “We must make sure that in calls for Rikers’s closure, our city does not become more focused on shutting down the facility than ending the culture that gave rise to its infamy,” he wrote in an op-ed last month. “We must focus on strategies to reduce violence, use the tools at our disposal to reduce recidivism, and safely decrease the jail population — and we must do this now, no matter where we house our jails in the future.”
De Blasio denied media reports that city officials are looking into possible alternatives to the island jail (even though evidence to support those reports was later leaked). Monica Klein, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, reiterated to The Intercept that “there is no comprehensive plan to close Rikers or any active effort to look for sites.” Instead, the mayor recently announced the city will spend $170 million on building a new jail for adolescents. He also said it plans to hire hundreds more correction officers, making Rikers, which already has a 1-1 guard-to-prisoner ratio, the only jail in the country with more guards than inmates.
But whether or not Kalief Browder’s tragedy marked a turning point for Rikers, little seems to have changed on the island. “Our cries are not reaching anyone, our begging is not reaching anyone, procedure is not helping,” Akeem Browder told The Intercept, upset that his brother’s name is mentioned so often in vain. “For what, if you’re not going to do anything about it? When is enough enough?” he asked. “They’re actually only talking about change, but we can clearly see that it’s just talk.”
Browder was hardly surprised when he learned from Anna that Jairo had spent almost six years at Rikers, where he was beaten and denied food and where his mental health quickly deteriorated. He had seen the same thing happen to his brother. “Kalief is how the world heard of it,” he said. “But Kalief represents the thousands of other individuals just like him. Just humans, still on Rikers, sitting there for years, wasting their life away, fighting for their right to stay alive while they’re innocent, or waiting to be proven guilty.”
With other activists, Browder launched the “Campaign to Shut Down Rikers” — part of a growing chorus arguing that Rikers is too broken to be fixed. Last week, on what would have been Kalief Browder’s 23rd birthday, activists rallied outside the Bronx courts, smashing piñatas resembling de Blasio, Ponte, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Some elected officials, like Mark-Viverito, have joined in. The New York Times’s editorial board suggested that Rikers Island be left “to the seagulls.” Others have said it should be turned into parks, housing, educational campuses, or a much needed extension of LaGuardia Airport. Last month, a coalition of grassroots organizations rallied on the steps of City Hall, calling for Rikers to be closed. They held signs that said “send them to school” and compared tuition at Harvard — $60,000 a year — with the cost of incarcerating one person at Rikers — $167,000.
“Closing Rikers is not just about shutting down a facility, it’s about how do you create a jail system in New York City that lines up with our declared values? Because the one we currently have doesn’t,” said Glenn Martin, a criminal justice advocate, former Rikers inmate, and one of the foremost proponents of closing the jail. “We cannot reform this place; it is beyond reform.”
Advocates for Rikers’s closure are calling for a network of smaller, safer jails across the five boroughs, connected to local services and the communities where inmates and their families live. But they are also demanding a radical overhaul to the Correction Department’s abusive practices and greater accountability for that behavior. “I don’t just want to shut the facility,” said Martin. “I don’t want the culture exported to local jails.”
The idea of decentralizing Rikers by breaking it up into smaller jails is not new. Construction on the island boomed with the war on drugs of the ’70s and ’80s, when many structures meant to be temporary were thrown up, boosting the jail’s capacity to 20,000. Over the years, the temporary structures turned permanent. As crime declined and the nation began to look at its incarceration obsession more critically, under the leadership of Correction Commissioner Martin Horn the city made plans to revamp existing borough jails, to keep pre-trial detainees next to the courts and closer to attorneys and families. But when the next commissioner — Dora Schriro — came in, she switched gears. A plan to turn the Brooklyn detention center into a modern facility integrating services and keeping inmates a corridor away from their trials was shelved. Today, daily buses shuttle detainees from the island into the city, at a cost of $25 million a year.
“One of the issues with Rikers is that most of the inmates are going back and forth between Rikers and the courts, which is obviously very inconvenient for inmates, attorneys, families, and costly in terms of energy consumption and air quality, with all these buses going back and forth, and expensive,” said David Burney, an urban planner who worked with the Bloomberg administration. “There are lots of reasons why Rikers is extremely inefficient.”
Rikers’s remoteness is not only impractical — it also enables its corrupt and violent culture. “I think the island itself creates a mentality that is not accountable, not connected to communities, not visible; it’s a place that is basically the Department of Correction’s turf; you enter into their world and you’re subject to a culture that’s in an alternate universe,” said Frank Greene, a jail architect who has worked at Rikers, as well as on the shelved Brooklyn project and other jails across the country. “If you decentralize the jail system, by nature, the whole system becomes that much more accountable and connected to the community.”
“One of the principles of corrections planning is that environment cues behavior,” he continued, noting an often forgotten constitutional principle that posits that the only punishment should be the deprivation of freedom, not the physical conditions of detention. “If you want people to act like human beings, the first step is to put them in an environment that supports their human dignity.”
Greene and others recommend transformations that go beyond the buildings — including correction officers trained “more like social workers than a quasi-military force,” better equipped to deal with the staggering number of inmates with mental health problems. All agreed that New York’s jail culture has to change.
“When the National Institute of Corrections came to Rikers, they told them, ‘When are you going to get with the rest of the country?’” Greene recalled. “You guys are 50 years behind.”
The city has recognized that much — but so far, progress has been marginal. Martin, who sits on the independent committee to reform Rikers, said the group’s first meetings were “promising” and that officials are taking “conservative steps in the right direction,” scrutinizing systemic problems with the courts and studying how to reduce Rikers’s population through a more streamlined bail system and alternatives for juveniles.
But he expressed frustration with what he and others called a “lack of urgency,” which he said is paramount to acceptance of the harm Rikers continues to inflict on detainees. “Their incremental, piecemeal approach to reform gets us nowhere near what we believe is what communities are calling for, which is the shuttering of Rikers Island in its totality,” he said. “Even if there were only one person on Rikers, the ‘close Rikers’ campaign would still exist because it’s such an abusive place.”
The main obstacle to closing Rikers is political, many agree. When reports emerged that the city was eyeing alternative locations, some elected officials made their opposition clear. Critics say the administration is reluctant to give up political capital to make a decision that will be inevitably controversial. But a growing number of people believe that Rikers will eventually close.
Until that happens, life on the island continues to be a struggle. And the impact Rikers has had on thousands of people who have left the jail damaged beyond repair remains unquantifiable. Jairo is due back in court on June 6 — a year to the day when Rikers killed Kalief Browder.