Closing Rikers: Solution Or Not-Grand Illusion?

By: 
Richard Steier | THE CHIEF LEADER

At its core, the difference between the members of the commission that early this month made the case for closing Rikers Island as a prison facility and the unions representing those who work there is the conviction that the city jail system can improve only in new, less-isolated surroundings vs. the concern that it will certainly get worse if the upgrades don’t begin now and at the present location.

There are other factors that complicate the debate. They range from the real issue of whether the city’s jail population will erode to as few as 5,000 inmates and the multi-layered approval process results in enough facilities in locations clo­ser to the courts to pick up the slack left by closing Rikers—which contains about three-quarters of the inmate population—to the symbolism attached to moving off an island that former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara declared to be infested by a “culture of violence.”

‘Symbol of a Discredited Approach’

In the executive summary of the report by the Lippman Commission that was created by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to examine the feasibility of a shutdown, it was stated, “Closing Rikers Island is a moral imperative. The Island is a powerful symbol of a discredited approach to criminal justice—a penal colony that subjects all within its walls to inhumane conditions. There is no evidence that Rikers improves public safety. There is, however, plenty of evidence to suggest that it negatively and disproportionately impacts people of color.”

More than 88 percent of the inmates at Rikers are black or Latino. The racial breakdown of officers assigned there is nearly as pronounced, particularly at the entry level. The civilian leaders of the department, however, for the past 30 years have been white, following a seven-year stretch starting in mid-1979 when two African-Americans, Ben Ward and Jackie McMickens, served as Correction Commissioner.

Ask veteran union officials about when the system functioned best from an employee standpoint, and they point to Rudy Giuliani’s tenure as Mayor, even though three of his four Commissioners—Anthony Schembri, Bernie Kerik and William Fraser—have tarnished legacies and Mr. Kerik eventually went to prison based largely on improper conduct he engaged in while holding the job. The union officials say that during that era, Commissioner Michael Jacobson and Mr. Kerik—initially as Mr. Giuliani’s eyes and ears in the system and later in the top job—effectively kept the gangs under control, with frequent searches ordered by Mr. Kerik and Chief of Department Eric Taylor instrumental in taking weapons out of inmates’ hands.

In more-recent years, particularly during the Bloomberg administration, problems bubbled to the surface. Among the worst examples were the exposure of “The Program,” under which a couple of correction officers essentially used gang members to handle discipline in an adolescent facility, leading to brutality and favoritism through the abdication of responsibility, and the ordeal of Kalief Browder.

He was 16 years old when he arrived at Rikers Island, accused of stealing someone’s backpack. His accuser’s story was sketchy and changed twice in his accounts to police, according to a powerful profile of Kalief written for the New Yorker by Jennifer Gonnerman that was published in October 2014. But eight months prior to being accused of that crime, Kalief had been charged with grand larceny for allegedly being in a stolen delivery truck that crashed into a parked car. His guilty plea, even though he insisted he had been a bystander while friends swiped it, led to his bail for the backpack theft being set at $3,000.

Tried to Defy Gangs

He was a bit undersized yet refused to knuckle under to the gangs which were dominant in the Robert N. Davoren Center for adolescents, which Mr. Bharara would later describe as akin to “Lord of the Flies,” serving as a breeding ground for criminality on the part of both inmates and some officers. When Kalief fought back after an inmate gang leader spit in his face, he absorbed three separate gang assaults for his audacity. He was also beaten for spurious reasons on at least two occasions by correction officers.

The fights, none of which he initiated, led to his spending about two of his three years at Rikers in solitary confinement, where the isolation can be particularly debilitating mentally for a teenager, one who knew his re-entry into the general population was likely to bring new attempts at bullying. The Lippman Commission report noted that he attempted suicide on multiple occasions while behind bars.

It then noted, “Browder’s criminal case was ultimately dismissed. He killed himself at the age of 22, two years after his release from jail. Browder’s story remains a powerful rallying cry for those interested in forging a more-just and humane justice system.”

Indeed, Public Advocate Letitia James has called for closing the jails and then renaming Rikers in Kalief’s memory. But faulting the jails for his tragic fate gives them entirely too much credit for a rap that rightfully should be shared with other parts of the justice system. The “culture of violence” Mr. Bharara found at Rikers was less surprising than the culture of indifference and incompetence that permeated the other parts of the Bronx justice system, with then-District Attorney Robert Johnson the primary culprit.

Bothered COBA, Too

The DA’s Office under Mr. Johnson was so lax about using its power to charge inmates who assaulted officers at Rikers that the then-president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, Norman Seabrook, at one point unsuccessfully pushed legislation that would have moved the jail system out of his jurisdiction and into that of Queens DA Richard Brown.

In Kalief’s case, Mr. Johnson’s prosecutors constantly sought postponements in presenting the case against him in court. All felony cases other than homicides are required under state law to be ready for trial within six months of a defendant being arraigned, but Ms. Gonnerman reported eight separate postponements sought and granted over an 18-month period beginning in June 2011—13 months after Kalief’s arrest.

The Bronx DA’s Office, which under Mr. Johnson chronically had the worst conviction rate in the city, tried more than once to induce Kalief to plead guilty in return for sentences that were wildly disproportionate to the crime of which he was accused, particularly given that he was a teenager. He refused each time, and so the DA’s Office kept on seeking continuances and having them granted.

In March 2013, at a point when he had spent nearly three years behind bars, he came before Patricia DiMango, a Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice who had been transferred to The Bronx with a mandate to clear up the huge backlog of felony cases in the borough. She offered him a plea bargain under which he would admit to two misdemeanors and get a 16-month sentence. Kalief, who already had served more than twice that time, again insisted on his innocence and a desire to go to trial, even after Justice DiMango warned him he could face 15 years in prison if convicted.

Case Fell Apart

The mind boggles that a woman brought in to clear up a felony backlog wouldn’t have seen the case and the long delays in giving him even a hearing on the charges as the fraud they had become. That realization took another two months, when he appeared before her again and she told him that the DA’s Office was “really in a position right now where they cannot proceed. It is their intention to dismiss the case.”

His alleged victim had returned to his home in Mexico and the DA’s Office had lost track of him. A lawyer named Paul Prestia sued on Kalief’s behalf and sought information as to how long before the DA opted to drop the charges had Kalief’s accuser fallen off its radar screen, accusing Mr. Johnson of “seeking long, undue adjournments of these cases to procure a guilty plea from plaintiff.”

When Ms. Gonnerman asked Mr. Johnson about the delays, he replied that they were “horrendous, but the DA is not really accountable for that kind of delay.”

This was certainly true in a political sense: in September 2015, three months after Kalief hung himself in his family’s apartment, Mr. John­son won the Democratic primary without opposition. He then resigned prior to the general election when he was appointed to a judgeship by the borough’s political leaders. That allowed them to pick his replacement on the ballot, Darcel Clark, who easily won the general election. Since taking office, she has been a lot more vigorous in prosecuting inmate assaults against correction officers. Then again, she has something to live down in the Browder case: in her previous role as a Supreme Court Justice, she granted six of the delays sought by Mr. Johnson’s office.

Selective Outrage

Yet all the political maneuvering, and the abuses Kalief endured as a result of the unconscionable delays in disposing of his case, have not provoked the same kind of moral outrage—by advocates or editorial writers—that is generated by the amorphous beast known as Rikers Island. Early this month, a New York Times editorial enumerating the many sins that should banish the island from its role in the justice system stated, “It’s too afflicted by gangs, by drugs, and by brutal corrections officers protected by a corrupt union.”

That last phrase appeared to be a reference to Mr. Sea­brook, who was forced out as COBA president 10 months ago following his indictment on bribe-receiving charges. Given his absence, it was a shot as lazy as it was gratuitous, but then the paper has always had a heavier hand editorially when it comes to union leaders as opposed to pillars of the establishment like District Attorneys, despite the far-greater damage done by the prosecutors who presided in Brooklyn and The Bronx for much of the past quarter-century.

It would perhaps be preferable if COBA had the luxury of not defending some of its members who were convicted of casual and sometimes fatal brutality over the past couple of years. Or if it didn’t have to worry about political backlash within the ranks if it stated after the convictions of some of those members that their crimes were not representative of the great majority of officers.

One of the worst cases involved Brian Coll, who was convicted late last year of kicking to death a 52-year-old inmate with numerous medical problems who persisted in demanding treatment. An Assistant U.S. Attorney in her summation to the jury said that the last words Ronald Spear heard from CO Coll after he delivered a decisive kick were, “This is what you get for f----- with me; remember, I did this.”

Odd Source of Inspiration

The words, which Mr. Coll may be repeating to himself for a long time once he is sentenced, were borrowed from Sonny, the gangster at the center of “A Bronx Tale.” In context, it’s especially grotesque that someone sworn to uphold the law would buy into that ethos. Then again, Mr. Kerik as Correction Commissioner had a poster of “The Godfather” hung in his office, a taste he shared with his boss, Mr. Giuliani, who used to preside over screenings of the gangster classic at which junior aides reportedly gleefully shouted out snatches of dialogue like “Never go against the family.”

Working in a jail can obviously be a dehumanizing experience. Police officers are exposed to the worst and most-horrifying scenes and actions in the course of their jobs, but they also have the opportunity to deal with residents along their beats in less-charged, even-friendly encounters that offer some relief from the darker side of their experiences.

Correction officers don’t have that luxury; any lurch into kindness in their dealings with inmates carries risks that they will be viewed as people who can be taken advantage of in that or some future interaction. The surroundings are unpleasant at best, and either menacing or infuriating with some frequency, given both the violence and stupidity of which some inmates are capable. One military veteran who left after less than a year working in the jails explained that there were days when he would have preferred being back in Afghanistan.

It is why Elias Husamu­deen, who succeeded Mr. Seabrook as COBA president, can’t be bothered with visions of a more-civil, less-dangerous jail system outlined by the Lippman Commission. For one thing, he doesn’t believe the plan for expanded-but-smaller jails in the boroughs will survive the civic gauntlet needed to make Rikers expendable. Beyond his doubt that the grand plan will become reality, he views it as an unnecessary distraction from the present situation at Rikers, where he and fellow union leaders believe ideologically-driven changes in operations implemented by Mayor de Blasio through Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte have made both officers and inmates less safe.

‘It’s La La Land’

Shortly after the commission’s report was released, he called it “Fantasy Island.” During a phone interview April 13, he reached for a more-contemporary cultural reference, terming it “La La Land.”

The previous night, he said, two inmates who were brothers had slugged one of his members, who “left the hospital with eight stitches in his lip.” A day earlier, another Correction Officer who was jump­ed by an inmate suffered a broken jaw. And a female officer with a 17-year-old daughter had been punched in the face by a 17-year-old inmate in the adolescent unit.

“It’s talk, talk, talk,” Mr. Husamudeen said of the commission’s proposals that its members believe will benefit officers as well as inmates. “Make it happen today.”

The previous afternoon, one of the panel’s senior members, Michael Jacobson, patiently laid out the reasons that putting Rikers to some other use—most likely as part of an expansion of nearby La Guardia Airport—was pivotal in dealing with the troubled jail system. Currently the Director of the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York and chair of the New York City Criminal Justice Agency, he has a unique mix of academic and practical credentials: besides his tenure as Correction Commissioner and Probation Commissioner during the Giuliani administration, he spent nearly a decade in a top position at the city’s Office of Management and Budget under Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins. His area of expertise was staffing of the uniformed agencies, which gave extra authority to his 2005 book, “Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration.”

Why Rikers Isn’t Fixable

“The problem with saying, ‘well, we’ll just make Rikers better,’ there are a number of issues,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest one comes down to logistics. “Part of our goal,” he said of commission members, “was to have inmates as close to their families and support groups and their attorneys and the courts as possible.” Those are all features of the Brooklyn House of Detention, the dormant jail facility in mainland Queens near that borough’s court buildings, and the Manhattan Detention Complex (which had been renamed in honor of Mr. Kerik until he ran into his own troubles with the law).

Rikers is far from all of the court facilities, and the problems of arranging for prisoners’ transport between its jails and the courts are compounded by normal city traffic, which often turns appearances in connection with the charges against them into daylong excursions, Mr. Jacobson said.

The island is beset by crumbling infrastructure, he said, and because the island stands on landfill, the cost of constructing new facilities there would be 15-to-20-percent greater than elsewhere.

“Beyond that,” he continued, “It’s gonna take more than just some new buildings. There has to be a culture change.”

One recommendation made by the commission was to expand the training regimen in the Correction Academy from the current 21 weeks to 30. That time would be “heavily programmed, heavily service-oriented,” Mr. Jacobson said, and would be “one of the longest training periods in the country.” (Germany, he noted, has a two-year training regimen before its officers are assigned to jails.)

‘Classes Are Just Theory’

Mr. Husamudeen, who no­ted that his election to COBA’s board in 1995 coincided with Mr. Jacobson’s being appointed Correction Commissioner after Mr. Schembri’s bumbling and absence from duty got him fired, said he respected him, but he scoffed at the idea that merely lengthening the academy training would prepare his newest members for what they would encounter in the jails.

Presently, he explained, “They’re giving our Correction Officers a bunch of theory, a bunch of classroom instruction. It’s not in real time.”

In the Police Academy, he said, exercises are designed to simulate situations a cop might encounter on the streets, and instruction is so precise that “they teach cops how to get out of the car.”

For Correction rookies, the COBA leader continued, “The curriculum stinks. There’s ­really little hands-on training that doesn’t come out of a book.”

He noted, “When Mike Jacobson was commissioner, we had 20,000 freakin’ inmates. He wasn’t talkin’ about closing Rikers then. It started getting better during his administration, but it wasn’t because he was shutting down jails,” crediting Mr. Kerik and Mr. Fraser for being the point men in getting the jails under control.

Mr. Husamudeen added of Mr. Jacobson, “For the two years he was commissioner of the agency, I have nothing bad to say about him. But he never said do away with punitive segregation,” which he and his fellow union leaders say has taken away a prime disciplinary tool that in the past deterred younger inmates from acting on their worst impulses.

Cooling Out Frustration

Mr. Jacobson acknowledged, “It’s not like the gang stuff is gonna go away. We get that.” But he believes ending the transportation-related delays in the court process is one important way to deal with inmates’ frustration with life in the system, as is being closer to both their families and their attorneys, making visits from both more tenable.

Another key element in the proposed reforms from the commission, he said, was $25 million in additional programs for inmates that would reduce the periods in which they were idle, which he called a big factor in jail violence.

“Nothing good can happen from a bunch of people sitting around who are stressed and angry in a place they don’t want to be,” Mr. Jacobson said.

Mr. Husamudeen was skeptical. The inmates such programs were most likely to appeal to, he said, were going to be staying out of jail in many cases under other reforms recommended by the commission affecting changes in how nonviolent offenses are adjudicated and eliminating cash bail in cases where those charged can be released with­­out creating a public-safety risk.

‘They Don’t Want Programs’

“The only inmates you’re going to have in jail” once such changes are effected, he said, “are the violent ones who you can’t allow to be on the streets. They’re not going to change because you improve conditions. They’re not interested in programs; they’re interested in crime. Corrections is the last stop on the train. They should be putting emphasis on stopping them from getting to jail” by making improvements in public safety and education.

In that moment, it sounded like not that much separated his worldview from Mr. Jacobson’s. But when the conversation turned to the feasibility of moving a reduced prison population into the borough facilities, the divergence in outlook again asserted itself.

The previous day, Mr. Jacobson had spoken of tearing down the Brooklyn House of Detention and building a larger, better-designed facility “on that footprint.” One of the selling points for the entire program, he said, was the increasing popularity of Boerum Hill—the neighborhood in which the Atlantic Ave. jail is located—despite residents’ concerns about the prisoners living among them and aspects of the facility that make it something of an eyesore.

“The development around the Brooklyn House is just unbelievable,” he said. “It puts the lie to the idea that a place like this will take the community down” when it comes to property values.

He cited as a model a new jailhouse in Denver that he said “looks like a lovely civic building—you don’t have correction vans triple-parked outside.”

Apples and Oranges?

Mr. Husamudeen hooted at the comparison, saying that Denver’s population was 660,000, less than half as many people as live in The Bronx, and not even 25 percent as many as live in Brooklyn. Citing correction facilities he’s seen in other parts of the country including Los Angeles and San Francisco, he said, “Rikers Island is no different than any jail I’ve visited [in cities with large populations], where you have to move away from the residents” to avoid community opposition.

And while Boerum Hill has flourished in recent years, he said, “Those condos across from the Brooklyn House, they hate it. The gate going up 24 hours a day, the barbed wire that these people are looking at from their million-dollar condos…”

More to the point, he said, “There’s no way that they’re going to tear down the Brooklyn House and the community board and the City Council are going to let it happen. The party line is we can tear it down and rebuild it. Really?”

Mr. Jacobson said he understood the potential pitfalls that lie ahead, from community protests spurred by a not-in-my-backyard mentality to the Uniform Land Use and Review Process that would require approval of sites by community boards, Borough Presidents, the City Council, the Mayor and the City Planning Commission. A Times story published the day after he spoke noted strong opposition among many local officials, with conspicuous exceptions being Council Members whose districts already have jails in place, though with smaller inmate populations than they would have if the commission’s recommendations come to fruition.

Can’t Fixate on Future

But he insisted that the changes would be better for all concerned, including correction officers, even though the unions would figure to lose more than half their members through attrition if the jail population dropped significantly enough to discontinue using Rikers.

Mr. Jacobson said he didn’t believe the loss of dues-paying members was the only factor driving Mr. Husamu­deen’s opposition, explaining, “I think one of [the unions’] concerns legitimately is it’s one thing to be talking about the future, another to be coping in the present. We need help now—there’s too much violence now. There’s no one—us or the city—who can say, ‘Wait, it’ll all be good in 10 years.’”

But for the smaller workforce that would exist if the changes occurred, he predicted, “their lives will be immeasurably improved. The places they’ll be working will be nothing like where they’re working now. I don’t think there’s any Correction Officer who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Boy, I can’t wait to get to AMKC.’”

Mr. Husamudeen laughed when told of the remark but said merely talking about the 3,300-inmate Anna M. Kross Center underscored the task involved in the conversion: it holds more inmates than the city’s four jails combined.

‘Jail Jobs Depressing’

As to it being a depressing place to work, he said, “This profession we chose, we chose it. Jail is a depressing place. There was never a day, no matter which jail I was working in, that I was excited about it.”

Correction Officers don’t look for stimulation from their shifts, the union leader continued. Their prime gratification at work comes from being able to go home safely, and the rising number of assaults they’re being subjected to has been obscured by the clamor to get out of Rikers a decade down the road, when changing circumstances, including a change of Mayors, may reduce the commission’s plan to another ambitious waste of time and energy.

Nor is Mr. Husamudeen sold that the plan will create a safer environment for his members if it comes to pass. “The worst structure for a jail is a vertical jail,” he said, anticipating that the space limitations in the area of the Brooklyn House would require that any expansion in its capacity be upward rather than outward. “Brooklyn House is a deathtrap—I don’t know if you want to have an officer in an elevator with 10 inmates.”

Mr. Jacobson had said the previous day, “I get why they’re wary of this; I understand where they’re coming from. But jail is, in the very best case, a very expensive resource. If you’re not a public-safety risk at all, you shouldn’t be in jail.” And that philosophy is naturally going to mean changes that—assuming crime continues moving in the right direction, as it has for the past quarter-century—include a steadily-declining jail population that would make Rikers obsolete as what the report refers to as “a penal colony.”

“Even if it got better,” Mr. Jacobson argued, “it could never be good.”