Jail officials knew that state legislators were going to be touring Rikers Island on September 13. But if they made any effort to disguise the degree of degradation and danger that pervades New York City’s jail complex, it didn’t show. Lawmakers and the people who accompanied them returned from their visit visibly shaken.
“There’s a segregated intake unit that we walked through where they have people held in showers,” said Alice Fontier, managing director for Neighborhood Defender Services, who toured one Rikers building, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, with lawmakers. “It’s about 2 feet wide by 6 feet. There is no toilet. They’ve given them plastic bags to use for feces and urine. And they’re sitting in the cells with their own bodily waste locked into these conditions. This is the most horrific thing I’ve seen in my life. I’ve been coming to this jail since 2008. This is unlike anything that has ever happened here.”
“They’ve given them plastic bags to use for feces and urine. And they’re sitting in the cells with their own bodily waste locked into these conditions.”
Rikers has been a festering wound in New York City for about as long as it has existed as a jail complex. Cut off from the rest of the city by water on all sides and accessible only by a long causeway, New York’s island gulag has always been out of sight and out of mind. Periodically, a snapshot of conditions inside will escape the island’s event horizon, as in 2014 when then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara issued a scathing report describing Rikers as a place “more inspired by ‘Lord of the Flies’ than any legitimate philosophy of humane detention.”
Bharara’s report helped buttress the movement to close Rikers once and for all, a movement to which Mayor Bill de Blasio was a late joiner in 2017, during his reelection campaign.
Since that time, de Blasio has responded to alarms about conditions on Rikers Island by falling back on his commitment to close the complex — but only closing it sometime years in the future, long after he has left office. The mayor has not visited the island jails at all since winning his second term.
Recent events, though, forced de Blasio to pay closer attention. In the last eight months, 10 people have died in custody on the island, five of them taking their own lives. Covid-19 is once again on the rise on Rikers. On September 10, the chief medical officer on Rikers wrote a letter to New York City Council, warning that “in 2021 we have witnessed a collapse in basic jail operations, such that today I do not believe the City is capable of safely managing the custody of those it is charged with incarcerating in its jails.”
As de Blasio belatedly rolls out a plan for addressing the crisis on Rikers, he is casting responsibility for the condition in his jails variously on the Covid-19 pandemic, prison guards, state government, prosecutors, and the judiciary. But while the unfolding human catastrophe is indeed a tragedy with deep origins and many authors, it is also the predictable conclusion of de Blasio’s own policies and politics.
Even as he has taken credit for the long-term plan to eventually close Rikers, the mayor has embraced a pressure campaign by his police commissioner that seeks to roll back carceral system reforms and re-entrench bail and gratuitous pretrial detention in New York’s criminal system.
In the conscience-shocking crisis on Rikers Island, de Blasio is reaping the whirlwind for his acquiescence to an agenda of mass incarceration.
Much of the coverage of the crisis on Rikers has focused on a cascading staffing crisis. In recent weeks, accounts circulated of housing units going whole days without any guards at all. By the city government’s estimates, on any given day, fully 35 percent of staff are unavailable to work. On September 15, according to New York City officials, 789 jail employees called in sick, 68 were out for a “personal emergency,” and 93 were simply absent without leave.
As guards sick out, their colleagues find their own working conditions declining even further. Corrections officers increasingly work double, triple, and even quadruple shifts. On many housing units, there are no officers on the floor. The number of assaults — against incarcerated people and staff alike — is going up.
On September 15, according to New York City officials, 789 jail employees called in sick, 68 were out for a “personal emergency,” and 93 were simply absent without leave.
Just what accounts for this massive sick-out is a contested question. Union bosses representing the guards and captains on the island contend that everyone missing work is legitimately sick, or injured in their increasingly violent workplace, or exhausted by working long shifts. They describe a crisis in morale brought on by a federal consent decree that restricts guards’ ability to punish the people in their custody, insinuating that officials with no idea of the nature of their work care more for the safety of the prisoners than the imprisoners.
Benny Boscio Jr., president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, told me he believes that the de Blasio administration is deliberately allowing Rikers to fall into catastrophic neglect as part of a long play to buttress the city’s plans to close the jail complex. The solution to the current crisis on Rikers, Boscio said, is for the city to hire 2,000 more guards.
People outside union leadership see things somewhat differently. Advocates for incarcerated people acknowledge that staff on Rikers are subject to many of the same disgusting, degrading, and dangerous conditions as the people locked up there but note that one problem Rikers doesn’t have is a shortage of staff on payroll. “[T]he size of the Department’s compliment of Staff, particularly the number assigned to the jails, is highly unusual and is one of the richest staffing ratios among the systems with which the Monitoring Team has had experience,” a federal monitor overseeing Rikers wrote in his most recent report. “This is true even with the unusually high number of Staff who have not reported to work due to chronic illness, Covid-19, and other reasons.”
Critics note that the corrections unions’ leadership have their own interests — in keeping their membership numbers high, and therefore in keeping Rikers open and keeping as many people locked up as possible. Even if the city were to hire 2,000 more guards, it would be months before they could be properly trained and deployed.
Yet the city’s inability to get corrections officers to show up to work is only one part of the unfolding crisis on Rikers. Another is the recent reversal of years of steady decline in the jails’ population, a trend resulting both from more than a decade in declining crime rates and from a shift toward policies prioritizing alternatives to incarceration.
Crime went down in New York City in 2020, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Police Commissioner Dermot Shea and his New York Police Department were talking. Beginning in late 2019, Shea was warning of a “storm on the horizon.” Early the next year, he was joining a statewide chorus of law enforcement agencies, police unions, and the state association of district attorneys in warning of imminent public danger resulting from modest reforms to the state’s bail laws that were just then going into effect.
The reforms gave judges less leeway to set bail for some offenses. They were passed in recognition of the fact that cash bail — conditioning freedom as it does on access to money — produces starkly racist and discriminatory justice. Panicked by a coordinated backlash involving police-sourced scare stories in the tabloids, state Democrats folded, gutting their own landmark legislation and making it easier for judges to send people to jail before their trials.
Shea and other NYPD officials continued to blame an uptick in shootings — hardly unique to New York City — on some combination of bail reform, court closures, and judges’ reluctance to lock people up. By July 2020, even the New York Post, a right-wing and generally pro-police tabloid, was compelled to debunk the NYPD’s claims.
Judges have always been subject to a one-way ratchet encouraging them to put people in jail before trials. A judge that lets someone free to fight their case from home, only for that person to commit a crime, could find themselves lambasted on the cover of the New York Post. Sending someone to Rikers, on the other hand, carries no risk at all for the judge, even if it puts the defendant in mortal danger.
With Shea sounding a relentless drumbeat blaming the courts for failing to lock people up before their trials, the usual pressure on judges only escalated. They responded predictably, sending more and more people to Rikers.
New York City courts use a diagnostic tool in every criminal case that assesses a defendant’s likelihood of making future court dates — a crucial metric since ensuring court appearances is the only reason judges can legally set bail in New York. By the fourth quarter of 2020, judges were overruling the diagnostic tool’s recommendation that defendants charged with violent crimes be released in two-thirds of all cases, instead consistently setting bail at levels that people could not afford to pay, in violation of the law.
“The massive and coordinated assault on criminal justice reform that was orchestrated by law enforcement in response to bail reform, now it’s killing people on Rikers.”
What followed has been dramatic: The population of New York City jails has nearly doubled from its low point in the early months of the coronavirus crisis, with the lion’s share of those locked up held pretrial, either on bail they can’t afford or remanded, with no option of getting out.
“The massive and coordinated assault on criminal justice reform that was orchestrated by law enforcement in response to bail reform, now it’s killing people on Rikers,” said Sarita Daftary, co-director of Freedom Agenda, an advocacy organization that works on incarceration in New York City. “You have this theoretically progressive mayor, who’s supposedly supporting closing Rikers, but he’s fully hostage to the NYPD, and he will not say a single thing the police commissioner doesn’t approve.”
Daftary isn’t the only one saying this. At a tense meeting of the New York City Board of Correction, an independent body tasked with oversight of city jails, board member Dr. Robert Cohen, clearly frustrated, called on the mayor to take responsibility for the situation. “He is not in charge of the city right now,” Cohen said. “His police commissioner substantially is.”
Cohen said Board of Correction staff had met with City Hall officials in early September and been promised that the mayor would use his power to release 30 to 40 people serving short sentences on Rikers, in the interest of safety. “One week later,” Cohen said, “the police commissioner said at a press briefing, ‘No one should be released from the jails,’ and the mayor said, ‘No one will be released from the jails, and I never meant to do that in the first place.’”
The day after state legislators made their gruesome tour of Rikers, de Blasio released his own plan for resolving the crisis there. It called on state officials, district attorneys, and judges to do what they can to stop pumping more people into a jail complex increasingly described as a humanitarian crisis. It did not involve using the mayor’s own power to release vulnerable incarcerated people near the end of their short terms. It did, however, include an expanded role for the NYPD, filling in to help the Department of Correction transport people held on Rikers to their court dates.