New York's Troubling Proposals for Jail 'Safety' at Rikers


What can reduce the violence that has plagued New York's jails—especially at the vast Rikers Island facility?

Recent proposals from New York City's Department of Correction include recommendations for more stringent monitoring of visitors and packages: Visitors will receive background checks to weed out felons and those who might try to smuggle in weapons and other contraband; and all parcels would have to be sent to the jails through a third-party vendor, such as Amazon, in order to decrease the chances of contraband being smuggled.

At first glance, these measures, which were discussed at a public hearing last month held by the Board of Correction, the oversight agency for the city jails, seem like a reasonable approach to improved safety. (A final decision is expected by the end of the year.)

But having worked on Rikers, in the facility's Mental Health Department, I believe these new measures would have the opposite effect.

Rikers Island is primarily comprised of pre-trial detainees—those who've been charged with a crime but who have yet to see their day in court, and cannot afford bail while they wait. For the “presumed innocent,” life behind bars is a limbo-like existence, where emotions vacillate from soaring hopes for exoneration to plunging despair at the prospect of a guilty verdict.

A visit from family is everything. A kiss from a wife, a hug from a mother, and the smile of a child, restore dimming hopes and offer a sense of calm. But these family visits are few and far between, due in large part to the miserable treatment already inflicted upon visitors—in the name of safety.

One young mother recently told me that her husband has been held at Rikers for a year, where he has grown despondent and depressed as he awaits trial. His lifeline is his wife and baby boy. And yet in a year's time, he has seen them only once.

The woman described her one and only visit, in which she and her baby waited five hours before spending one hour with her husband. During the wait, she could not feed her hungry child because a bottle of milk was considered contraband. She said that during the visit, she and the baby were continually being sniffed by dogs. Despite this woman's commitment to her husband, she told me she would never put herself or her child through anything like this ever again.

Like this woman, there are countless other families who give up on the visit, with devastating consequences for the incarcerated.

During my tenure at Rikers, I spoke with numerous detainees who were thrown into an emotional orbit with the news that a wife or a mother could no longer endure these degrading visits. What I witnessed was anger, volatility and the desperation that often leads to violence.

Instead of recognizing the beneficial effects of these visits, these proposed visitor background checks represent a new barrier , one that will further harass family members and inevitably result in even fewer visits, further diminishing the calming effects of family connection—a calm that is badly needed on Rikers Island.

Most visitors do not carry contraband, but simply seek to visit a loved one or friend. According to the Board of Correction, roughly 80% of weapons have not been brought in from the outside, but fashioned from odd scraps of metal inside the jails. To guard against the few who might try to smuggle contraband, searches of inmates exiting the visit room could be enhanced, and in that way the vast majority of visitors, who are law-abiding, would not be subjected to the needless harassment of background checks.

To further enhance safety, a continued spotlight on corrupt correctional personnel, often identified as the culprits in bringing drugs and weapons into the jails, should also be emphasized.

Another lifeline for the incarcerated is receiving a package from family. Most of the Rikers detainees and their families are poor. If they do not have money for bail, it stands to reason they don't have Amazon accounts. Aside from being outright cruel, the requirement that only pre-approved vendors can be used will result in fewer packages being sent, further reducing vital connections with the outside world.

I would argue that as the few vestiges of humanity on Rikers Island, such as visits and packages, are extinguished, the more inhumane the island becomes.

And nowhere on Rikers is the question of humanity more pressing than the issue of solitary confinement.

Under growing pressure to ease this punishment, the Department of Correction made significant reforms to this practice in January. They included setting the maximum penalty for any infraction at 30 days in isolation. A seven-day break is now also required before a return to solitary to serve any additional sentence. Furthermore, no one may be confined to solitary for more than 60 days in any six-month period.

As a former assistant chief of Mental Health in the Punitive Segregation Unit, I applaud these changes. I can personally attest to the grueling nature of this punishment, as it was my job to visit the cells of mentally decompensated inmates. I will never forget the sight of blood-smeared cells, makeshift nooses, head-banging, and agonized shell-shocked faces begging for a reprieve.

Therefore, I'm very concerned that the Department of Correction now seeks to reverse some of these reforms by waiving the seven-day reprieve in certain cases and to increase the penalty for assaults on staff from 30 to 60 days. At a time when the practice of solitary confinement is being denounced by world leaders, including President Barack Obama and Pope Francis, and when Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, has said that solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture, it is baffling that these reforms are now positioned to be rolled back.

Having walked the halls on Rikers Island on a daily basis, I fully understand the need for safety. But instead of relying on this torturous practice, we must instead seek humane methods of achieving it.

Mary E. Buser was a clinical social worker in the Mental Health Department on Rikers Island between 1995 and 2000. She served as assistant chief of Mental Health in the island's Mental Health Center, as well as the 500-cell Punitive Segregation Unit. Her book, “Lockdown on Rikers,” (St. Martin's Press) was published in September.

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