In the Media

Is Rikers Island jail with 'the Program'? | Sadhbh Walshe

PUBLISHED May 16, 2012

Last week, the Village Voice newspaper ran a cover story about an upsurge in violence at New York City's jail complex known as Rikers Island, complete with graphic photos of mostly young inmates with vicious-looking knife wounds on their faces and necks. The story was replete with horrific details of alleged beatings at the jail's adolescent facility (the RNDC), and concluded that violence at the adolescent complex was out of control.

The Voice also claimed that internal documents provided to them by correction department sources confirmed that a practice known as "the Program", in which guards either look the other way, or actively enable, tougher inmates to beat up on weaker ones in order to control them and extort their privileges, was still firmly in place. The NYC Department of Corrections (DoC) immediately issued a response (pdf) to the story stating that the "recent unsubstantiated and anonymous allegations are without merit." The DoC also maintains that "the Program" was never anything other than a media fabrication and that violence among the adolescent population has remained about the same and that "the department continues to enjoy record low levels of violence in its jails."

Trying to establish exactly what is going on inside a prison is generally a challenge as accounts tend to vary wildly, depending on perspectives. But in this instance, with one party alleging that sources inside the prison are telling them that violence is out of control, while the overseers of the prison maintain that they are continuing to enjoy record low levels, the discrepancy is more than usually severe. Unfortunately, very few stakeholders appear to share the latter's point of view.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who chairs the committee on fire and criminal justice service and co-authored a 2010 report on precisely this problem (pdf), is one of those dissenting views. She issues a statement that:

"[V]iolence at Rikers is a serious issue. Despite repeated testimony that jail violence is down, multiple reports show the opposite."

Correction Officers Union President Norman Seabrook cited a rise in the number of his staff, 96 so far this year, who were sent to hospital for injuries caused by inmates.?As to whether or not "the Program" exists, there has been a series of documented incidents in the recent past of corrections officers using undue force on inmates or looking the other way as inmates used undue force on one another. A 2009 New York Times article detailed a slew of lawsuits leveled against the city in which Rikers inmates claimed to have been the victim of beatings by other inmates, while guards neglected to intervene. One such case was settled by the city for $500,000, another for $100,000. This suggests that whatever the status of "the Program", there is a worrying pattern of violent and neglectful behavior.

The case that really brought the so-called "Program" into the spotlight was the 2008 death by beating of an 18-year-old named Christopher Robinson. Robinson apparently bled to death after being beaten by three inmates in his cell. The saddest thing about his death is that the poor kid, who was originally imprisoned for stealing a cellphone, was only back in jail for violating his probation curfew after working late at his job in Staples.

His death launched an investigation into staff behavior at the prison and resulted in two correction officers being sent to jail. The DoC has since been notified that the US Department of Justice has commenced a civil investigation focusing on the custody of adolescents at the RNDC, which appears to have been prompted by Robinson's death.

However you want to look at it, whether violence is worse, better, or about the same, clearly all is not well at Rikers Island. In the DoC's defense, they do appear to be serious about addressing the issue, and have taken several important steps. In recent years, the DoC has increased staffing levels at the juvenile facility. They have also installed a total of 481 surveillance cameras (230 in the last two years), and added beds in the punitive segregation unit. Most importantly, however, they are in the middle of piloting a new approach (pdf) to dealing with the jail's mentally ill population.

This last step could not come a moment too soon. Oddly enough, the one statistic that everyone readily shares ? that 46% of the adolescent prison population have been diagnosed with mental illness ? is by far the most shocking. My first thought upon hearing that almost half the population of 16- to 18-year-old inmates were mentally ill was "what are they doing in prison, then?" To Commissioner Dora Schriro's credit, since her appointment in 2009, she has made the needs of this community a priority and has spearheaded a multi-agency pilot program to re-evaluate the city's responses to dealing with mentally ill offenders. One of the recommendations of the program, which could ultimately become a national model, is to divert more people with mental health needs to community-based alternatives to incarceration. That will be some respite for advocates for the mentally ill who believe prisons are the new asylums.

If that comes to pass, something good could come out of a situation that has been terribly bad. In the meantime, one can only hope that the DoC continues actively to seek creative solutions to the complex problems at their facilities, rather than downplaying or denying their existence.