Mayor Bill de Blasio has realized just how messed up things are at Rikers Island, and has vowed to make prison reform “a top priority,” reports the New York Times. De Blasio, speaking at a news conference on Thursday, remarked that prisoners released from Rikers exit “more broken than when they came in,” and concluded that Rikers “deeply needs a culture change.”
The Times reports that de Blasio is now committed to “ending the pervasive violence at the jail complex a top priority of his administration, acknowledging that he had previously underestimated the level of dysfunction there”:
“I have to tell you that when I came into office I probably had a little bit of faith, a little too much faith, that things had been handled properly in the past,” he said. “I didn’t know that this many failed policies had gone unchanged. I did not know that so much failed leadership had been left in place.”
His public statement comes amid mounting pressure to address the systematic dysfunction at Rikers. Just months earlier, the Times published a damning report that exposed corruption by senior officials — one of whom recently resigned — which included a mass cover-up of violence and abuse in 2011. This was followed by a report from Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, who uncovered a “culture of violence” against teenage inmates. As a result of the latter report, the prison is ending solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year old inmates.
De Blasio’s plan to improve Rikers includes creating a separate unit for transgender women, installing more cameras in city jails, and expanding programs for mentally ill inmates:
At the news conference, Mr. de Blasio outlined numerous changes the city is putting in place at Rikers. His administration has allocated $15.1 million to triple the number of surveillance cameras at city jails, to 10,000. Many of the most brutal attacks at Rikers go unpunished because they take place in areas, like stairwells and hallways, that are out of camera range.
The additional cameras “will allow us to create 100 percent coverage of all sensitive locations on Rikers Island,” the mayor said. “Everyone else will know these cameras are trained on them.”
The administration has also allocated $32 million to expand programs for inmates with mental illnesses, and to better train correction officers to care for them. These inmates now make up nearly 40 percent of the jail population, but have long been overlooked, Mr. de Blasio said.
De Blasio hasn’t yet been to Rikers in any official mayoral capacity, but is planning to go on December 18 to observe the chaos for himself.