At Rikers, Youth ‘Abandoned to Darkness’

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Photo by David Etheridge-Bartow.

For three years, from 2012 through 2015, I reviewed and analyzed conditions at the Rikers Island detention facility, particularly as they applied to juvenile offenders.  During most of that time, I averaged one week in four on Rikers, going through the facilities and talking to inmates and staff.

I had been retained as a corrections expert by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, to determine if the situation on Rikers met Constitutional minima, and if not, what needed to be done.

The work was not easy.

Roadblocks were everywhere, many erected by the city.  If it were not for the dogged determination, talent and dedication of the Assistant U.S. Attorneys working with me, and the timely but powerful intervention of the U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara, nothing would have come of that effort.

Instead, in partnership with the Legal Aid Society of New York, we were able to forge a comprehensive consent decree specifying serious reforms.  The city signed, but has been unable to comply with that agreement.

It is worth noting that in 2012, when I started, New York City was one of exactly two jurisdictions in the entire country where arrested juveniles were sent to the adult jail system.

Medieval Conditions

That had me flummoxed.  How was it possible that New York, one of the world’s great cities, could send its own youth into conditions reminiscent of medieval dungeons?  And make no mistake; those juveniles were abandoned to the darkness.

They were not separated from adult offenders as required by Federal law. Violence was rampant.  Health and mental health services were abysmal, and so much more.

It took five more years, until late 2018, to move the juveniles off Rikers.  Of course, the rest of Rikers was equally appalling, for both inmates and staff.  It was one of the very worst jails I had seen in over 30 years of working with literally hundreds of correctional facilities across the US and Canada.

(The title of worst is held by the New Orleans jail system, but Rikers did not give up without a fight.)

It is painful for me to see that Rikers is now worse than six years ago, when the consent decree was enacted.  Two things are clear. First, the plan to close Rikers is correct and essential.  Its dystopian history and dysfunctional culture overwhelm efforts at meaningful change.

It is long past due time to put down the shovel.

However, the second thing is: Do something.  Now!

People are dying.  The Mayor says it will close in five years.  Perhaps.  Or seven or ten.  It doesn’t matter.  New York City has been “kicking the can down the road” for decades, except that it isn’t a can, it is real people.  Take the steps now while Rikers remains open, to save lives and stop some of the life-altering tragedies that are occurring there on a daily basis.

‘Depopulate Rikers’

What can and should be done is no secret.

Depopulate Rikers.  Change sentencing.  Expand pre-trial diversion alternatives.  Move the most predatory inmates.  Change bail.  Enable sending inmates to privatization firms.  Don’t send probation and parole violators to Rikers.  Open minimum custody facilities off Rikers.  Get rid of (sink?) the jail barge. Initiate Department of Justice intervention.

Jeffrey A. Schwartz

There will be entrenched opposition to any and all of those, but the ugly reality is that unless dramatic steps are taken, people will continue to die on Rikers, unnecessarily.

Extraordinary measures are clearly required.

Who will step up and make substantial changes now?

 Psychologist Jeffrey A. Schwartz, Ph.D., has worked with police and correctional agencies across the United States and Canada for more than 40 years, specializing in crisis intervention training and use-of-force issues. His office is in Campbell, CA and he may be reached at

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