Why All the Money in the World Can’t Fix The Culture of Violence at Rikers

February 24, 2015 | Lucas Anderson

Rikers Island: It’s New York City’s own Alcatraz-by-the-airport, with a storied and sordid history to match. Named one of America’s 10 worst penal institutions by Mother Jones, the medieval conditions in the jails on Rikers have drawn much-needed attention from the press, from the mayor’s office, and from federal authorities. Earlier this month, Mayor de Blasio weighed in with a proposed budget that would increase Department of Correction funding to allow for more staff training, a better screening process for new officers, and new security cameras to deter hallway beatings of inmates.

As the cornerstone of New York City’s jail system, Rikers is supposed to be a place where pre-trial inmates (those who are still presumed innocent) are held while they await trial, and where prisoners who have received less than a year’s sentence are rehabilitated and given the training and education that will help them stay out of trouble once they’re back on the streets. In reality, Rikers is a place where brutal violence is commonplace, where inmates’ medical and mental health needs are often neglected, where solitary confinement and other harsh punishments are doled out for even the slightest of infractions, and where preventable inmate deaths are common occurrences.

Last August, the giant-slaying United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, concluded a two-year civil rights investigation that uncovered “a deep-seated culture of violence” and other dangerous conditions in Rikers’ adolescent housing facilities. In his report to the city, Bharara described an atmosphere of habitual and excessive aggression, where “[a]dolescents are at constant risk of physical harm.” Inmates with severe mental illnesses can also expect to receive harsh treatment at Rikers. There are no meaningful mental health services available in many areas of the jail complex, there are usually too few officers on staff at any given time, and many (if not most) guards are either improperly trained or are otherwise unable or unwilling to address inmates’ mental health symptoms in an appropriate way. As a result, there have been many, many recent stories of inmates with mental illnesses who have met preventable deaths while being held at Rikers.

How did things get this bad, and what can be done to fix them? More city funding is needed, for one thing. After all, it was after years of severe budget cuts under Mayor Bloomberg, the supposed management and efficiency guru, that Rikers sunk so low. As reported by Michael Schwirtz and Michael Winerip in the Times, “conditions worsened substantially under [Bloomberg’s administration], which reduced jail staff and failed to curb escalating violence by guards.” The problems at Rikers took a back seat to stop-and-frisk and other issues during the 2013 mayoral campaign, but over the past year Mayor de Blasio has made various efforts to reform the DOC and to address various problems on the island. De Blasio appointed Joseph Ponte—a reputed reformer who reduced the use of solitary confinement in Maine’s prison system—to head up the DOC, and in its 2016 budget proposal to the City Council, the mayor’s office allocated an extra $54 million to the DOC budget.

The question now is: What else needs to be done?

Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens), chair of the Council’s Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, is already pushing for more funding on top of the mayor’s proposed increases. In response to questions from ANIMAL, Crowley noted that the hiring of new corrections officers counts as “progress,” but that the agency “is facing critical restraints that are not addressed in the mayor’s [proposed] budget – including the lack of a proper training facility for the expected influx of new officers and training programs.”

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), chair of the Committee on Juvenile Justice, also voiced support for the proposed budget boost. A press representative for Cabrera’s office told ANIMAL that funds are also needed establish and maintain behavioral treatment programs that will serve as alternatives to solitary confinement. “[G]iven the severe cuts in funding to the DOC under Mayor Bloomberg,” Cabrera’s office stated, “[it] is difficult to estimate the amount of money that will be needed” to alleviate all of problems at Rikers. However, “as costly as reform may be in the short-term, the costs of reentry into the criminal justice system are surely higher.”

It is heartening that the administration and key members of the Council are debating how much should be added (rather than deleted) from the DOC budget. But can all of Rikers’ problems be solved by money alone?

Well, no. The city could kick over enough funds to pay for gold-plated cells and lobster in the mess halls, but all the money in the world couldn’t fix all that is wrong at Rikers. As Schwirtz and Winerip of the Times reported over the weekend, the environment at Rikers has not significantly improved under de Blasio and Commissioner Ponte’s leadership, and “[u]ltimately, the biggest challenge may be altering the mind-set of the 9,000 correction officers who work on the island.”

The foremost obstacle to meaningful reform is the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association and its president, Norman Seabrook. There is perhaps no other individual who can claim as much credit as Seabrook for the “deep-seated culture of violence” and the environment of impunity under which DOC staff currently operate. A highly compensated and highly influential figure who doles out jobs and favors like the union bosses of old, Seabrook manages to keep a loyal constituency while channeling union funds to the campaigns of the elected officials who under better circumstances would be fighting to keep him in check. The extent of his sway over government officials, and the degree to which he is able to stymie progress in reforming Rikers, is borne out by several recent shocking displays of hubris.

In 2012, when an internal investigator within the DOC pledged to crack down on staff misconduct and refer cases of inmate abuse to prosecutors, Seabrook quickly had her replaced by one of his childhood friends. Then, in November of 2013, when a case against abusive guards was pending in court, Seabrook had the entire inmate transportation system shut down so that none of the inmates could leave Rikers on the day the inmate who claimed to have been beaten was scheduled to testify. Hundreds of inmates, including people who might have been released from custody that day, missed their court appearances because of the union leader’s petulance.

But perhaps the clearest demonstration of Seabrook’s outsized influence came during the last state legislative session, when a COBA-sponsored bill that would have stripped the Bronx District Attorney of jurisdiction over crimes committed at Rikers passed both houses by near-unanimous landslides. (Here it should be noted that the COBA contributed about a half-million dollars to state political campaigns during the 2012 election cycle and gave over $300,000 to officials in both parties in 2014 alone.) Governor Cuomo eventually vetoed the bill, but its easy passage through the legislature was a troubling demonstration of Seabrook’s pervasive clout.

So who might be willing to stand up to the powerful union and its reform-averse boss? De Blasio and Commissioner Ponte have so far shown at least some willingness to engage; the administration recently supported a ban on solitary confinement for inmates under 21 years old, a measure that Seabrook vehemently opposed. But unless the mayor and the council are willing and prepared to fight a long and potentially bruising fight with Seabrook and his supporters, entrenched problems at Rikers might require outside intervention.

Which brings us back to Bharara and the Feds. In December, the U.S. Attorney joined an ongoing class action against the city relating to its investigation of abuse against teenage inmates. If the suit is successful, then Rikers might end up with a federal monitor in place to force needed changes through.

However it happens, and regardless of who ends up taking the credit, serious and rapid change is needed on the island. Lack of safety and cruelty of confinement have lasting effects on both inmates and guards, and patterns of violence that originate inside jail walls often persist once inmates are released back on the streets. While there are powerful entrenched interests who oppose any reduction in the use of physical punishments or solitary confinement and who think that abusive officers should be immune from prosecution, the situation at Rikers has finally spurred positive action from the Department of Justice and from City Hall. Hopefully, these efforts will mark the beginning of a serious and sustained movement towards a safer and more humane corrections system.

(Photo: Joseph)