Rikers Island – Where do we go from here?

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Rikers Island – Where do we go from here?

A three-step approach can help move New York City forward on closing Rikers.
September 6, 2018

In working to close the infamous Rikers Island jail complex, New York City has made noteworthy strides in reducing its jail population. The city has also taken significant steps toward creating smaller borough-based jails, so that incarcerated people are held closer to the courts, their lawyers, their families and support services. 

New York is now the safest large city in the country and the one with the lowest incarceration rate. The two issues are related. At Fortune Society we know that jails are factories of rage and pain – overuse of them does terrible damage to individuals, families and communities.

There have been huge successes in bringing down the number of people unnecessarily jailed in our city. From a high of 21,674 in 1991, our jails now hold about 8,900, down 27 percent since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office.

My advice to the mayor is to build staff capacity at Rikers to de-escalate potentially violent situations, providing training and financial incentives to the most skillful correction officers to create a culture where such skills are valued and rewarded.

Yet, in order to succeed in closing Rikers, the goal has been set to reduce the jail population to 5,000 or below. That takes a three-phase strategy: reducing the flow of people into the jails, shortening length of stay and improving conditions of confinement, and keeping people from returning to jail.

Phase one is based on recognition that incarceration inflicts immediate and lasting damage to a person, to his or her family, and the community at large. One third of the people sent to Rikers are out within four days. While there is no community safety benefit to such incarceration, that is just enough time to traumatize people’s children, lose jobs, jeopardize housing, and interrupt any health care.

The average length of stay is 68 days, more than enough time to destroy a person’s life. Pretrial detainees are also much more likely to plead guilty to get released rather than to stay in detention because they are unable to make bail. Their record of conviction will hinder their opportunities for the rest of their lives. Incarceration is expensive in real and human costs according to every metric that we’ve got. It should be the last resort, yet it’s often the default.

The first step in reducing the number of people at Rikers is to reduce the number of people arrested. The New York City Police Department is no longer making wholesale arrests for marijuana possession and other quality of life infractions. This reflects what we have learned about how a “broken windows” policing approach disproportionately targets people of color in the poorest communities and breaks lives and families and neighborhoods. NYPD now is now modeling a very different approach to policing that needs to be supported and deepened.

We are also moving toward viewing substance abuse and behavior related to mental illness through a public health rather than a criminal justice lens. Some 44 percent of those in our jails are identified as mentally ill. They tend to stay incarcerated twice as long as comparable individuals who are not mentally ill. Jail should be a last resort for these people, with a host of other available alternatives including treatment without criminal justice consequence.

The most effective way to stop sending arrested people to Rikers is to sharply reform the bail system by moving away from asking for bail on misdemeanor charges, and expanding the capacity of bail funds in other cases. The city has a number of bail funds that help people who cannot afford cash bail, and 95 percent of those bailed return to court. We should increase bail fund capacity and increase the number of individuals eligible.

Phase two involves shortening people’s length of stay at Rikers and improving conditions of confinement. More rigorous enforcement of speedy trial laws is imperative to shorten detention time and to avoid tragedies like the three years that Kalief Browder spent in Rikers pre-trial detention before his case was finally dismissed, leading to his suicide after release. 

Better laws and practice ensuring prompt and thorough pre-trial discovery will lead to more effective defense capability and quicker disposition of weak cases through dismissal rather than through unfair guilty pleas by individuals desperate to be released from detention. New York is one of only 10 states where prosecutors can wait until just before trial to share evidence with the defense.

The risk of violence at Rikers is very high. The Department of Justice found that for young people, 40 percent experienced violence while at Rikers. It’s a violent world. Rikers has been nicknamed “Gladiator School.” As one Fortune staff member described his incarceration experience, “it is a place where you are either predator or prey.” 

There has been progress. Earlier this year, the city committed to giving incarcerated persons five hours daily of activity including cognitive and hard skills training and physical activities that encourage cooperation and non-violent resolution of conflict. 

My advice to the mayor is to build staff capacity at Rikers to de-escalate potentially violent situations, providing training and financial incentives to the most skillful correction officers to create a culture where such skills are valued and rewarded. The culture of Rikers works against personal safety for those incarcerated and for correction officers, with violence feeding violence. 

In addition, broaden the ability of members of the community and volunteers to provide services. Organizations like The Fortune Society provide services inside Rikers, but we work under greater restrictions than in the past in deploying staff with criminal justice history. 

Phase three involves building in the community services that help people stay out once released, and keep them from getting into the situations that make arrest and incarceration likely. Again, kudos to the mayor for the city’s “Jails to Jobs” program that guarantees 10 weeks of paid employment to people who are coming home from jail. This initiative provides immediate constructive activity, a legitimate income stream and a pathway to permanent employment.

The Fortune Society’s open-door policy offers everyone with a criminal justice history a single stop linking them to benefits they are eligible for, counseling, hot nutritional meals, crisis intervention, and services including licensed substance abuse and mental health treatment and employment services. This is despite funding constraints that restrict services by such criteria as an individual’s age, zip code or risk score level, too often turning away people for whom an ounce of service would prevent a slide into Rikers Island.

In summary, closing Rikers is imperative and is being taken on by the mayor and key city agencies. But doing so requires reducing the number of people locked up, reducing the length and damage of incarceration, and expanding resources in the community that prevent crime and arrest and incarceration.

JoAnne Page
is president of The Fortune Society.
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