Why Rikers Has Unraveled

Issue 267

Incarcerated people and staffers describe how the penal colony became a site of unimaginable horrors in the past year.

Amba Guerguerian Oct 22, 2021

“When they need to be transferred to me for whatever reason, the ear is ripped off, the nose is ripped open, the eye is cut, the broken bones, if we can splint them, we do; cast them, we do,” says Nadyne

Pressley, a nursing supervisor who has worked on Rikers Island since 2008. Pressley is currently working at the urgent care unit in the West Facility, one of the 10 jails on the island.

The three unions that represent the healthcare workers on the island — 1199SEIU, SEIU Doctors Council and New York State Nurses Association — began pushing for safety fixes in 2019, but “in the last year it got more serious,” says Pressley, vice president of the nurses union’s corrections branch. “We need to know that we’re going to be able to go to work and return from work safely.”

That is not currently the case. Since August, the Rikers Island jail complex has been in the headlines for violence, egregiously bad living conditions for inmates, and lack of services. Mainstream media and politicians have framed the problems as the result of a shortage of correction officers (COs) over the past five months. While the lack of officers has certainly exacerbated worsening conditions, jail staff was calling for reform a year before the shortage began.

• • •

When the COVID-19 virus hit Rikers, the city Department of Correction (DOC) didn’t keep the spread to a minimum. Incarcerated people told me that guards often went maskless, cleaning supplies were hard to come by, aging buildings were reopened for use as inadequately administered quarantines, programming and services were cancelled, and healthcare was difficult to access.

An aerial view of the penal colony that was opened in 1932. Photo: Debra L. Rothenberg.

“I got COVID real bad. Most of the room was very sick. People caught COVID, they took them out but put them right back in our unit within four, five days and it spread like wildfire,” says Cleveland Broadnax, who has been incarcerated for 28 months awaiting trial. He spent his first year on Rikers and then was moved to the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, commonly known as “The Boat,” a five-story jail barge anchored off the Bronx, across the East River from Rikers. It has similar problems. “We have black maggots coming out of the drains,” Broadnax says.

When COs started being absent in droves in April — around 1,000 quit (some joining the police) and an average of 1,000 more calling out sick every day — the situation became dire. Every activity in jail, whether it be getting the mail, going to the clinic, getting food, being moved out of intake or using the law library, is attended by a guard. With the number of COs on duty reduced by as much as one-third, there’s been a decline in not only safety measures, but in services. When there’s a decline in services, inmates become aggravated and more likely to act violently.

Incarcerated people are regularly missing their daily medications, such as antipsychotics, insulin and methadone, and someone with a severe injury may wait for days before being treated or not get treated at all.

Medical staff, often confronted with an incarcerated person at their wits’ end, are being assaulted. Female corrections officers — who make up 60% of all guards — are regularly reporting sexual harassment from those incarcerated. Assaults on other inmates are at a high, with COs often taking little to no action to stop the assailants.

Cleveland Broadnax is currently in protective custody, and says even that’s not a safe place: One Monday morning, he saw two men jump three others, and no jail staff stepped in. “To be in protective custody and be subjugated to this kind of violence is bad, especially when it goes unmonitored,” he said. He also saw a man being beaten with a cane so badly that his scalp split open.

Fourteen prisoners have died so far this year, the highest rate since 2015, about half of them confirmed suicides. When Broadnax walked through Rikers’ intake building in September, he witnessed “two people tr[ying] to hang themselves. Or they did hang themselves, but they didn’t die.”

New admissions are not supposed to stay in intake for more than 24 hours, because in those cells, commonly referred to as the “bullpen,” they don’t receive regular meals, a bed or medical care. Lately, it’s been common for them to spend a week in intake.

“When I got to Rikers, I was in the bullpen for about five days. It looks like a slave ship in there. There were like 30 of us piled in there. People were laying beside each other all the way up to the wall, under the bench, and all the way up to the bars,” an incarcerated person identified as Jeffrey, who was admitted on September 7, told the Marshall Project.

Rikers Island is the largest provider of mental health services in New York City. “I see lost souls. The system has failed them. When they leave us, there is nothing for them,” says Paulette McGee, a nurse in mental services. “This helps explain the high recidivism.”

About half the people being held at Rikers have been diagnosed with a mental illness. They all need healthcare upon arrival, as do those with injuries or chronic illnesses.

Because of the staffing shortage, though, many are not being taken to the medical centers on the island. “Out of 200, 300 we’re supposed to see in a day, we’re seeing maybe 25, 30,” says Pressley. “To look at the list of patients that haven’t shown up …” She shudders. “What they call it is ‘not produced.’ They don’t say that they don’t have DOC escorts, that DOC can’t move them. They just say the patient is not produced.”

This means that those incarcerated are regularly missing their daily medications, such as antipsychotics, insulin and methadone, and someone with a severe injury may wait for days before being treated or not get treated at all. It is in this atmosphere that prisoners on Rikers Island and those who work on the island are abusing and neglecting each other.

“I used to think guys were crazy for acting the way they do, but now I see that you get better results when you act out,” Broadnax said across the two small tables that separate loved ones from reaching each other during visiting hours. I had waited two extra hours to see him because an alarm had gone off on the facility.

He explained that when a service is seriously lacking, either an individual or a group of incarcerated people will run out of their dorms as soon as the dorm door opens, causing an alarm across the jail, which freezes all action and forces the issue to be attended to. “We call it ‘sticking up.’ It’s a faster way of getting what you want. The guards respect violence.”

William Valentin, a retired CO, inadvertently shares the opinion. “The only way to deal with violent inmates, I’m sorry to say, is with violence.”

• • •

On Aug. 17, representatives from healthcare workers unions and the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association, the union that represents 9,000 active-duty COs, held separate rallies in front of the entrance to the island in Queens, calling for safer working conditions. Once word got out that COBA would be present, decarceral groups staged a counter-protest across the street.

COBA members were by far the largest contingent, with at least 300 present. Union president Benny Boscio spoke to the crowd about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s failures, and lamented COs being made to work triple and even quadruple “tours,” shifts of 24–36 hours. DOC started putting COs on triple shifts early this year, before the staffing shortage began, and now, they are sometimes extended to quadruple shifts. Earlier this year, Robert Jackson died while his cell was left unattended for 15 hours. The attending guard left his post due to exhaustion, says COBA.

“These officers are regular people. They’re mothers, they’re fathers, they’re sisters, they’re brothers just trying to make a living. And imagine if you go to work one day and they don’t let you leave for 36 hours,” says William Valentin, who retired from Rikers in 2017. “They’re not getting meal periods, they’re being forced to work at the same post for hours at a time, and then they go home, they sleep for a couple hours and they gotta be back at work again. They have no life outside of the Department of Correction. They have children they have to take care of, family. They can’t do it.”

“It was bad to where we were feeding officers at times. They were doing triples and not getting meal releases, and they were eating with us,” said Broadnax of his time on Rikers.

• • •

Guards and prisoners often come from the same streets. Both are majority working-class people of color. “When I was hired, all you needed was a GED or high school diploma. They recruited officers that were from the same demographic area as the inmates: Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan. Everywhere the inmates came from, the officers came from,” Valentin says.

The current crisis is being defined by mainstream media and politicians as a lack of officers, as “inmates vs. guards.” The analysis usually ends there. We need to understand why COs stopped showing up to work, then look beyond them to the reason for endemic problems on Rikers. It’s important to see guards as a function of systematized violence, and understand that they and inmates are oppressed by many of the same factors.

In March, guards started quitting, and others took unlimited sick days in what was effectively a sickout. Rikers began to feel the rollbacks of jail reforms around the same time, with the number of prisoners steadily climbing to 5,500, from a low of 3,800 during the pandemic. Also at the beginning of 2021, officers began to denounce triple shifts and planned reforms to solitary confinement, a punishment tool most guards favor. And in early May, in another move that angered COBA, Mayor de Blasio appointed Vincent Schiraldi, a prison reformer, as head of the DOC.

The mayor announced his plan to close Rikers in 2017, but set 2027 as the tentative closing date for Rikers — five years after he leaves office. While de Blasio has never been very serious about criminal-justice reform, there are others who are eager to roll back the movement’s modest gains and restore a law-and-order status quo.

District attorneys are once again moving to fill Rikers with low-income New Yorkers who can’t make bail. It’s much easier to sweat out guilty pleas from people who face months or years in Rikers awaiting trial. Prosecution-friendly judges are happy to oblige, as it shields them from being skewered by headline-hungry politicians if a defendant commits a heinous crime while out on bail. And as Eric Adams demonstrated in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary, “tough on crime” rhetoric can still be a winning ticket for an ambitious politico. The New York Post and The Daily News front-page headlines scream bloody murder when a violent crime happens.

None of the recent reforms to the carceral system — restrictions on the amount of physical force a CO can use against an incarcerated person, reforms to solitary confinement practices, bail reforms — have been properly implemented by city officials.

In 2015, in the aftermath of Nuñez v. City of New York, a 2011 class-action suit filed by Rikers detainees, DOC changed its rules on the ways that COs can punish inmates. However, it did not implement these reforms, resulting in some COs taking a largely hands-off approach.

The new policies, intended to reduce the unnecessary use of force, restricted “painfully escorting” or restraining inmates without reason, or striking them in the groin, neck, kidneys or spinal column. It also prohibits blows to the head or face, kicking an inmate, and the use of choke holds, carotid restraint holds or neck restraints. Jail staff, however, can use any means necessary to subdue a prisoner if they feel it’s the only way to protect themselves or someone else from serious bodily injury.

“It was bad to where we were feeding officers at times. They were doing triples and not getting meal releases, and they were eating with us,” said Broadnax of his time on Rikers.

According to Valentin and Pressley, the reforms have been poorly implemented and the officers not retrained, while incoming officers are rushed through hurried and inadequate trainings. “Annual qualifications such as CPR/first aid, mental health training, and firearms qualifications are severely lapsed. Less than 50% of all DOC staff are up-to-date in their annual qualifications,” Valentin said in a text.

“I don’t think hands-off was a bad policy. They just didn’t actually train anybody on it. They’re so-called implementing, and everyone’s getting attacked,” said Pressley.

In contrast, the reprimands COs faced when they didn’t follow the new rules did take effect, usually resulting in the loss of vacation days. In order to avoid reprimands, COs now often step back during assaults by inmates on other inmates or health-care workers.

The end of solitary confinement on the island, announced by de Blasio in June, is following a similar trajectory. “The removal of long-term [solitary] confinement is a positive thing,”

Vincent Schiraldi said. “But I don’t think we’ve implemented it the way you should. When you take that stuff away, you need to fill the day with programs and incentives and decency in a way we haven’t done.”

In late September, Mayor de Blasio visited Rikers for the first time since 2017, after years of calls from across the ideological spectrum for him to do so.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (center) with Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi (right) in front of an empty pen on Rikers on Sept. 27. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

“When the mayor came down, he had a whole crew of security. He had a separate DOC entourage! I don’t even know where he found them with the shortage,” said a jail staffer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. “The rumors are that when he called for his officers, he made sure everything looked clean. The mayor came; they moved everything.”

According to this staffer, DOC moved inmates from intake to the gym so the mayor wouldn’t see the pileup in the intake building. “Where did they all go? You think we’re putting in fraudulent claims? You didn’t even ask them, ‘Where are the admissions?’” As the mayor walked through the near-empty building, the remaining prisoners were yelling at him to go to the gym where he would find their cellmates.

Having hundreds of inmates crowded in the gym seems to have caused COVID to spread on Rikers, as every jail on the island has an outbreak. On October 13, 15 days after the mayor’s visit, an inmate died of the virus.

“No other system would be allowed to operate in this manner. Only carceral systems are allowed to operate in this manner,” says Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda, a decarceral organization. “L.A. has almost three times as many people in jail, but their budget is almost half the size of New York’s.” The correction budget for New York City is $2.6 billion.

“They need to rein in and reallocate the DOC budget. They need to right-size and transition jail staff into non-carceral city jobs. They say the city budget is a reflection of what the city values,” says Mack. “And people that are actually doing really effective work, like social workers, they don’t get paid well by the city and they’re the first ones on the chopping block when there’s a deficit. When it comes to carceral systems — D.A.’s offices, NYPD, the citywide jail system, DOC — they don’t even consider reducing those budgets.”

Some prison reformers and abolitionists oppose the Borough-Based Jails Plan, the city’s $10 billion plan to construct four new jails to replace Rikers. They argue that no new jails should be built to replace Rikers, and that resources should be funneled to community-revitalization efforts intended to curb crime.

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