A Jail Where 'Prisoners Don't Matter'


Most of us are familiar with the saying, “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas.” A similar sentiment attaches to Rikers Island in New York—the nation's largest jail. The officers there have for long believed that what happens on Rikers stays on Rikers.

Recent press reports about abuses of prisoners, the U. S. Attorney's investigation and reports from New York City's Department of Investigation, as well as public hearings have focused attention on the underlying problem in the New York City jails: the culture within the jails on Rikers Island.

Indeed, one need only consider the difference between the several jails on Rikers and the city's other, smaller jails in Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens to recognize that there is something special about that place.

Contrary to popular belief, Rikers is not one jail. It consists of 10 jails, each with its own warden and administration. But the public and the press continue to refer to any jail there as “Rikers Island.”

You only need to watch several episodes of Law and Order (the original) to hear references to what a perp or defendant can expect there. The cost of not cooperating with the show's Detective Jerry Orbach is to be sent to Rikers where, “you know what they do to guys like you.”

References to abuse by other prisoners or abuse at the hands of staff have been ubiquitous in the popular media for years, and have been accepted. When the abuse of imprisoned members of our community becomes a gag line, or an accepted part of police parlance, society is in trouble. (See for example, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.)

A Checkered History

The city acquired the 90-acre island in 1884. But it was not until 1932, during Jimmy Walker's term as Mayor, that the city constructed a penitentiary there. Under New York State law, persons sentenced to one year or less of imprisonment serves their time in local jails, rather than in state prisons.

The penitentiary was intended to hold that group of criminals, and that made sense. A prison hospital was built adjacent to it. For many years, that's who was on the island. It operated more as a prison than a jail, with a farm, furniture factory, bakery and woodshop that produced items for consumption and use by other city agencies.

Over time, landfill expanded the island to more than 400 acres, and in the late 1950s the city began to build a replacement for the penitentiary, the Correctional Institution for Men, now referred to as the Eric M. Taylor Center.

During the 1960s, as crime in the city increased, the jail population then housed in freestanding jails near courthouses in each borough, except Staten Island, became severely overcrowded.

Communities did not want jails built near them. So the city built new buildings on Rikers Island, replacing the old Women's House of Detention in Greenwich Village (now a park) with the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island; and it built a new jail to hold adolescents, now the Robert M. Davoren Center.

With passing years, the demand for jail space grew and, rather than impose on communities and confront NIMBY sentiment, succeeding mayoral administrations took the path of least resistance and built on Rikers.

When they could not build fast enough they turned to temporary structures, wooden military style barracks and tennis court bubbles called “sprungs,” after their manufacturer. By the 1990s, when the city's jail population peaked at over 21,000 prisoners, reliance on Rikers Island was overwhelming.

As the city's presence on Rikers grew, something else was happening.

It was not until relatively recently that the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the Fire Department became fully open and welcoming to African Americans wishing to become public servants. For years, when they could not obtain jobs as firemen or police officers, African Americans applied to become correction officers. Ultimately, the workforce there, in contrast to its sister agencies, became overwhelmingly minority.

The work force is aware of its “segregation” and its ghetto-ization on this island of possibly carcinogenic garbage in Bowery Bay, accessible only by a single bridge passing between a wastewater treatment plant and the jet fuel depot for LaGuardia Airport.

And in recent years, the work force has become overwhelmingly female. In some jails, more than 50 percent of the day shift is comprised of women.

The 'Keepers' and the 'Kept'

The work force in the city jails comes from the same communities the prisoners come from. There is less and less social distance between the keepers and the kept. After 12 years of aggressive stop-question-and-frisk policing strategies, the Department of Investigation should not have been surprised to find that many applicants for positions as correction officers have prior arrest records As Jeffrey Toobin pointed out in the New Yorker:

“Women are often the only ones who can pass the screens for a job in a jail. You have to have a high-school degree. You have to pass a background investigation and have no criminal record. You have to pass a drug test, urinalysis. The men who live around the jail in Baltimore are less likely to pass those tests. Those jobs have to go to women. And the female guards in Baltimore came from the same neighborhoods as the inmates. Many of them knew each other, or knew of each other, in their prior lives.”

The buildings on Rikers Island that house prisoners, and where staff work, are monuments to poor government construction. Built fast and on the cheap, in most instances, they are not well constructed for their function. They are not made with the highest security grade fixtures and finishes one finds in well-designed prisons and jails.

Rather. they were built on the cheap with poorly functioning security systems, poor sight lines, and low ceilings—giving most of the buildings a depressing and demoralizing feel to the prisoners and the staff who work there. They were never built to house a population of prisoners— 40 percent of whom by some estimates are mentally ill. They are unfit for therapeutic purposes.

And, because of false economies imposed by successive mayoral administrations, preventive maintenance has suffered: roofs leak, windows are broken, water mains break, heating systems fail, cooling systems don't exist.

And that's at the “permanent” buildings. The “temporary structures” are worse: there, the floors actually fall through. For over 30 years the City has been litigating the case of Benjamin v. Ponte, the oldest case on the docket of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The remaining outstanding issues in that condition of confinement case are physical plant issues like fire safety (in the almost 40 years the case has been litigated nobody has died in a fire), ventilation, and sanitation in shower areas.

These problems will never be resolved as long as most of the current buildings are used. The cost of replacing them will be enormous. It costs more to do everything on Rikers than elsewhere.

All these factors have combined to create a sense that the people of New York City don't care about Rikers. Other than family members, few visit. It is simply too hard to get to. By public transportation it can take four hours round-trip from parts of the city most prisoners come from.

Attorneys, whom we expect to visit with their clients and plan their defense, don't come to Rikers; it is too time-consuming. New York State law gives to judges, district attorneys, and legislators unfettered access to the jails; they use it rarely.

Some DAs send their “newbies” once for familiarization, but they are rarely seen again. During my tenure, the mayor visited once. City Council members come rarely, and then only in response to a particular issue or to visit some high profile constituent.

'Out of Sight, Out of Mind'

I firmly believe the staff comes to understand that the intent of the City with respect to these prisoners is “out of sight, out of mind.” They recognize that their work is not valued the way the work of firefighters and police officers is. Police officers go through most days never confronting a felon, and many firefighters work a shift not having to face the flames. But correction officers are cheek by jowl with felons day in and day out. There is no escaping it.

It has been said correction officers do life terms in eight-hour shifts, and it is true.

Because correction officers work in such immediate contact with felons, “the meanest precinct” as the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) likes to call it, and because there is no one else around to help them, the ethic of supporting one another is very strong. More than any other public safety profession, in jails the need for support, for fellow officers to “cover your back,” is immediate and constant.

When most people think of jails, they most likely imagine the old-time movie cellblock with prisoners locked in their cells. That is not the reality of Rikers Island. Most prisoners live in open dormitories and those that don't are out of their cells for most of the day.

The unique rules of the City Board of Correction that govern the operation of the city jails require that prisoners be allowed to spend up to 16 hours a day outside their cells, if they are even in cells at all. This means that for most of her shift, 50-60 prisoners surround the average correction officer. Help, if it comes in an emergency, is several minutes away. Your life quite literally is dependent on how urgently your fellow officers feel compelled to race to your aid.

I have been in these dormitories on the midnight shift, when the lights are out…it's a frightening place.

The average tenure of a correction commissioner in the City of New York is less than 3 years. I was there for 6 ½ years, and that was the longest in the last 50 years. Commissioners come and go; the “B” team –”we be here when you come and we be here when you go,” is who defines the culture. And with a union leadership that has been stable for 20 years, the officers and the supervisors take their time before accepting the leadership of the latest mayoral appointee.

One curious facet of the City's uniformed workforce is its very generous benefits package. Along with having negotiated unlimited sick leave, let me say that again, unlimited sick leave—the union representing uniformed correction officers negotiated a 20 year at half pay retirement benefit.

That means that an officer entering at age 21 can retire at 41 with half pay (often at that point in excess of $50,000 with overtime figured in) and health insurance and begin another career. It also means that an officer who has not reached the top ranks of the department has little incentive to remain.

There is high turnover at year 20 and the department loses its most mature and experienced officers. During the 1980s, the City imposed hiring freezes and as the fiscal situation improved in the early 1990s there was a surge in hiring to backfill thousands of vacant positions. As a result, 20 years later, beginning in 2009, at the DOC there was a corresponding jump in retirements; and in the last 5 years the turnover has led to critical positions being filled by new and inexperienced leaders.

The 'Pyramid' of Corrections

Because the Department of Correction (DOC) is less than one-third the size of the NYPD, and has fewer commands, there are fewer opportunities for promotion. The pyramid in corrections is very narrow at the top. Captains who have not made Warden by their 20th year have very little incentive to stay. The most experienced leave.

The rank structure and the staffing tradition of the DOC also contribute to the cultural problem. In the DOC, one is promoted from officer, to captain to Assistant Deputy Warden, to Deputy Warden, to Warden. The only civil service exams are for Captain and Assistant Deputy Warden; beyond that position, the promotions are discretionary.

This results in the tour commanders seeking to avoid making a decision for which they can later be faulted as it may hinder their advancement. It also leads them to curry favor with one chief or another who they think will later be able to be their “rabbi” as a mentor is referred to in New York civil service parlance.

The Assistant Deputy Warden, equivalent to an NYPD Lieutenant, is considered a “tour commander.” This is an important role in the daily life of a jail. The tour commander is in charge of the day-to-day operations. The Wardens and Deputy Wardens typically work a five-day, eight-hour workday, beginning at 7 am or 8 am and leaving by 4 pm or 5pm.

Wardens sometimes come in during off-hours, but most jails are solely in the hands of the tour commander from 5 pm until 7 the next morning, and all day weekends and holidays. Think about this: we place the responsibility for up to 3,000 prisoners, hundreds of staff, and millions of dollars in city property in the hands of, essentially, NYPD lieutenants for most of the time. And, if there is a fight, a suicide, or any other problem, that tour commander handles it.

And, since years ago, “bosses” engaged in favoritism in making shifts and pass- day assignments, often on the basis of race or ethnicity, the City Administrative Code was amended to require what is referred to as the “three platoon system.” This section requires that the work force be divided into three platoons whose work assignments rotated on a fair and equal basis across the hours of the day.

It is referred to as “the wheel” and as a result officers, and supervisors including tour commanders, work different shifts and typically different housing units every few weeks. An experienced union leader once told me, “There is no one less accountable than a wheeling tour commander.”

The constant churning of the workforce, in addition to creating the stresses commonly understood to go with rotating shift work, also leads to a situation where the tour commander doesn't get to know the staff or the issues in jail housing units in the way they should.

Finally, the system tells the staff it doesn't care about the prisoners either. Jerome Murdough, the prisoner who is said to have “baked” in his cell, was a homeless veteran arrested for trespass but held by a judge on $2,500 bail. It might as well have been $1 million.

In October 2014, writing in The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman told the story of Kalief Browder who was held on Rikers Island for almost three years, his case adjourned over 30 times— and nobody—not the district attorney, the judge or the defense— takes responsibility for the imprisonment of a man the People could not prove guilty.

She wrote: “At the start of 2013, there were nine hundred and fifty-two felony cases in the Bronx, including Browder's, that were more than two years old.” In New York City, nobody owns the responsibility for seeing that criminal charges are disposed of in a prompt and timely manner.

Editors Note: Gonnerman's Story, “Before the Law” won the 2014-1015 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Prize for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting, in the single-story category.

The officers in the city jails see how the rest of the city cares about its prisoners. And the message they take from that is that the prisoners don't matter.

The problem of Rikers is the result of all these things. It is the culmination of long years of neglect and inattention, by elected officials and by the media. The culture is deep seated and will take years to change.

Changing it will bring wrenching confrontations with labor and with communities.

Hopefully this administration will make the difficult changes needed.

The first step has to be a continued and continuing effort to accept the prisoners in our jails as the sons and daughters of our community— and our collective responsibility.

Martin F. Horn is a distinguished lecturer on the faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He served as Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction between 2003 and 2009, and as Secretary of Corrections of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1995-2001. He welcomes comments from readers.

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