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Dismay Grows After City Budget Deal Axes Rikers Rehabilitation Programs

Issue 281

The Fortune Society and five other outside organizations have conducted programs at Rikers since the early 1990s that help prepare incarcerated people to have a successful re-entry once they are released.

Amba Guerguerian Aug 7, 2023

This is an updated version of an earlier article.

We were very clear to all of our agencies — no cuts in services which are important. No layoffs. That was very clear directions,” Mayor Eric Adams said at a press conference after his initial budget presentation in January.

So why, then, did the $107 billion austerity budget deal announced June 29 eliminate daily programming at Rikers Island — which advocates and lawmakers say successfully reduces recidivism and the likelihood of violent incidents inside jails? The programming, which costs $17 million annually, was the only component cut from the Department of Correction’s $1.2 billion budget.

People detained on Rikers who have been participating in these classes and services will no longer have a bright spot to look forward to each day while being held in pre-trial detention. Half of the program’s workers will have to find new jobs. And people released from Rikers will re-enter society with less support and fewer new skills that to chart a positive path. 

Adams ordered almost all City agencies to cut their budgets for the 2024 fiscal year (FY24), which began July 1. It was the third and largest round of cuts he has demanded since taking office in January 2022.

The New York Police Department, however, has faced no cuts, and police officers won significant pay raises in April. ­Critics of austerity also cite that the administration allocated $8.3 billion to reserves, the highest amount ever set aside in the city budget, while revenue continues to come in higher than expected each month. 

•   •   •

The Fortune Society is one of the five community-based groups that were contracted by the Department of Correction (DOC) to lead the daily programming on Rikers Island. Its ­Prepare for Release program, also known as Individualized Corrections Achievement Network (I-CAN), provides skill-building workshops and discharge-preparation services for individuals during incarceration and further services post-release. 

Alex (a pseudonym), who was released from Rikers in May, told The Indypendent that “just interacting with the other inmates that also had a purpose of changing their lives” was the most beneficial part of the programming. “It was a rewarding experience because we learned a lot,” he added. “Being incarcerated is rough as it is, but the time went by kinda quick with the Fortune Society.”

The I-CAN program started in 2005, but it and other groups with a similar mission (most recently, the Osborne Association, SCO Family of Services, Greenhope Services for Women and Fedcap Rehabilitation Services) had been running programming in city jails since Mayor David Dinkins initiated it in the early 1990s. 

On Rikers Island, the programming served around 1,700 participants out of an incarcerated population of around 6,000, according to the Fortune Society. Participation was voluntary. 

These organizations offered group sessions each day for over an hour in the common areas of the penal colony’s housing units. Incarcerated people voluntarily chose to participate in work-training programs (certifications in construction and food preparation), educational classes, stress- and anger-management programs, wellness programs, parenting classes, financial literacy lessons, entrepreneurship classes, life-skills classes, addiction programming, and trauma-informed group therapy. (The Horticulture Society had its own contract with the DOC to offer gardening classes, and that has also been eliminated.) 

“In addition to group services, we give them certificates that they can take to the judge, to the district attorney and to their lawyers, and say, ‘I’m engaged in something constructive while I’m inside,’” said Dr. Ronald Day, vice president of programs and research at the Fortune Society. “We are reducing violence and then increasing the chances that people can be successful when they get out.” 

The programming, which costs $17 million annually, was the only component cut from the Department of Correction’s $1.2 billion budget.

All classes and services were upended as of July 3. One effect is that inmates will no longer have the opportunity to show their families they’re being active in jail, points out Jamel Ealey, who has worked at the Fortune Society since 2021.  “You know, man, we have our appreciation days, and we pass out our certifications, and that father is walking up to that podium — you should see the smile in the kid’s eyes, like the level of accomplishment — man,” said Ealey over the phone, his voice cracking. “The trickle-down effect of [the cuts] is massive. We’re not just talking about the people that are currently incarcerated. We’re talking about the families that are never gonna be incarcerated, but are incarcerated because their loved one is.”

Many participants continue with the Fortune Society’ re-entry programs once they’re out. The organization, for example, helped Alex find housing upon his release from Rikers. He lives in a room with five other men in a transitional home. It’s not ideal, but the conditions there are better than those in the City’s homeless shelters, where many people end up after being released from jail. Alex doesn’t have the support of family, so Fortune is who he was in touch with before his release; the organization picked him up and took him to his new room. 

Alex is now participating in Fortune’s program for the recently released as well as working four days a week through the Association for Community Employment Programs, doing maintenance work and street cleaning around the boroughs. “I like it a lot; it keeps me busy,” he says. 

“So far, so good. I am with the Fortune Society,” responded Alex when asked how things were going on the outside. 

•   •   •

Earlier this year, the mayor asked the Department of Correction to trim its budget. It’s unclear whether it was asked to make the 3-4% cuts required of nearly all other agencies — but the department, run by Commissioner Louis Molina, decided to axe a mere 1.4% of its budget, and in one place only: services run by outside organizations. 

“They could have found other ways to get the funding cut,” says David Rodriguez, Fortune Society’s operational supervisor in community services. “They didn’t have to do this. You’re taking services away from folks who really don’t have a voice.”

Dr. Day says there were many other ways to trim $17 million from the DOC budget: “So you mean to tell me that, with the [job] vacancies that you have, and with the people that are not reporting to work, you’re going to cut the budget of people who have been consistently coming into the facilities?” he asks.

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

It costs around $500,000 to keep one person incarcerated for a year on Rikers Island, where the ratio of correction officers to inmates, more than one-to-one, is the highest of any jail nationwide. Yet the jail complexes’ conditions are also some of the worst in the country. The discrepancies here could be in part due to the fact that officers, represented by the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) union, have a provision in their contract dating back to the 1970s that allows them to take unlimited sick days.

There have been few consequences for those who abuse the system, a New York Times investigation revealed last year. When former DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, a reformer appointed by previous mayor Bill de Blasio, tried to tighten the rules around sick pay, he was met by fierce protests from COBA members, who had been calling out of work en masse during the COVID pandemic. Commissioner Molina, appointed by ­Adams at the behest of COBA, re-loosened the rules shortly after his tenure began in January 2022. On one Tuesday in January 2022, around 2,600 of the DOC’s 7,800 uniformed personnel were out sick, according to the department.

The DOC could also save money by working to diminish abuse by its correction officers. Based on the number of claimants so far, the Comptroller’s Office included $157 million in the department’s FY24 budget for the costs of settling class-action lawsuits against it for mistreatment of incarcerated people.

“The collateral consequence of eliminating programs from the DOC budget further insulates and isolates the DOC operations. Not having community-based partners coming to the jail, working in the housing areas and being in the facilities is another step toward retrenching and isolating what happens in the facilities,” Fortune Society deputy CEO Stanley Richards told The Indy. The city Board of Correction, which has full authority to oversee DOC under the City Charter, has had its access to Rikers’ camera system restricted by the department, he added — “another collateral consequence of a department that’s moving in the wrong direction.”

“Removing our organizations from the department takes additional eyes and ears out of the facility. That’s very consistent with what the commissioner has been doing, which is not reporting incidents in the jail,” said Day. 

The programming, seen as a sensible way to keep ­incarcerated people occupied and out of trouble, had survived under eight previous DOC commissioners. 

Amid the continued chaos and violence at Rikers, the lead federal prosecutor in Manhattan plans to request that a court-appointed receiver take over the city’s Rikers Island jail ­complex. “After eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement July 17. The federal monitor named in 2015 to settle a civil-rights suit issued a report in July saying that the DOC had failed to address “pervasive dysfunction and harm.” 

“There has to be an appreciation for the level of stabilization we were able to do in the last 19 months,” Commissioner ­Molina responded July 25. In those 19 months, 26 Rikers inmates have died, including four in July — two of unknown causes, one of cancer, and one of a possible drug overdose. Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain will hold a hearing on receivership Aug. 10. 

Additionally, a spokesperson for the office of City ­Councilmember Carlina Rivera, the chair of the council’s Committee on Criminal Justice, told The Indy that the committee is looking into legislative pathways to mandate DOC provide the services that were covered by the $17 million that was cut. 

•   •   •

The Fortune Society’s programming was focused at the Anna M. Kross Center — the largest jail on Rikers, with a capacity of up to nearly 3,000 beds — and on The Boat. Under de Blasio, services weren’t offered in the housing units, but in the chapel, gymnasium or in a classroom. “But over the last couple of years, things have gotten more intense in the facilities with respect to violence and gang issues, etc.,” says Day, so services are now delivered in the housing units and last just over an hour, compared to three hours previously. 

Amid the continued chaos and violence at Rikers, the lead federal prosecutor in Manhattan plans to request that a court-appointed receiver take over the city’s Rikers Island jail ­complex.

Ealey, who worked on The Boat and, along with his coworkers, facilitated his last session June 30, said that before he arrived, the participants have often already set up tables for the group to use. “They actually look forward to [doing that]. They’ll actually be there before we get there a majority of the time. You know, it’s a break in their monotony,” he said. 

Like Rodriguez, Day and Richards, Ealey participated in the programming himself while he was incarcerated. He was inspired by seeing Day come into his unit when he was locked up at the Manhattan Detention Center, and sought out the Fortune Society the day after he was released in August 2021. He was hired shortly thereafter.

The ability of Fortune Society staffers who had done time to relate to inmates was an integral part of the program’s success, say both its participants and leaders. It made it easier for ­incarcerated people to open up about their experiences, former participants attested to during conversations with The Indy.

“They used to bend out; they used to cry; they used to want to talk one-on-one with someone,” Rodriguez says.

DOC officials say the services are now being provided by its staff, which critics find very dubious. The staff to take on program facilitation are represented by the municipal workers’ union DC 37, not COBA, and such duties are not written into their contract. That means there is little incentive for them to take on the extra work, particularly because most staff avoid spending extended amounts of time in the housing units. 

“In order to deliver the services at quality levels, you have to have the trust of the people who are incarcerated,” says Day, ­but there is a deep mistrust between inmates and DOC employees at Rikers.

“I think Corrections is struggling to do the job that we are asking them to do right now,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams at a rally outside City Hall on June 22. “There’s a lot of issues there. Let’s focus on that. Don’t take a whole other thing that you have to put onto your plate right now.”

Rikers has been in shambles for decades, but since ­COVID-19, the conditions have gotten even worse. “The food is terrible; the conditions are just terrible. It’s basically run by gangs, man,” Alex told The Indy. “It’s sad because it’s supposed to be ‘Care, Custody and Control,’ but it’s out of control, there’s no care, and the custody is trash. There’s no recourse for Rikers Island,” he said. “They even cut out some of the religious services; you can’t even have Bibles anymore.”

•   •   •

You shouldn’t balance the budgets on the backs of people who are in desperate need of services,” says Day. 

“I think it’s wrong, because they don’t care about inmates,” Alex adds. “We’re just a paycheck. We’re just people to be housed as cattle. They don’t give a fuck about us.” 

He also thinks that services shouldn’t be stopped, but bolstered: “They should have more programs, like help people get housing [upon release]. Everybody knows these [city] shelters are worse than prison. I’m tired of living in three-quarter houses and shelters and halfway houses. They should have something in place for when guys come out, instead of being in an atmosphere where people are stealing, people are fighting, people are getting cut, getting beat up.”

In marginalized communities, institutionalization begins long before jail, says Ealey. “You don’t just wake up and go to Rikers. They sought you out with group homes and the Division of Youth, and they put you in all of these institutions to already institutionalize you. So by the time you reach there, you just fall right into line.” 

“It’s horrendous when you really delve into the ­socio-economic side of things,” he adds. “A certain number of people gotta be incarcerated just to make the system work.”

The Fortune Society’s budget allowed for the rehiring of only half of the Rikers program’s roughly 20 staffers. The others are out of work — and it’s not so easy for the formerly incarcerated to find jobs. The news has left Day reeling.

“I never felt more appreciative of working with a particular team,” he said. When he initially told workers the programming was likely to be cut, “We had maybe 20 people in the room. And every single one of them talked about how devastated they were — not that they might be out of a job, but that the participants that they serve on a daily basis would be like, ‘What, you’re not going to be here anymore?’”

Fortune says it’s exerting pressure on the City to ­restore the funding. “We feel that there is a moral imperative to be critical of the department, to speak out against an organization even if it funds you,” Day told The Indy

All people interviewed for this article said they can’t wait to see the day Rikers (and its violent culture) are finally shuttered.

•   •   •

The Fortune Society’s Long Island City center serves about 400 people daily. On a morning in mid-July, ­visitors, who are mostly men, pass through the halls, going to and from ­classrooms. Flyers hang around advertising creative arts programming, acting classes, a “women rising” program and  a “fair chance for housing” community meeting.

I sit at a table with Day, Rodriguez and Ealey in a common area, murals lining the walls. “We have connections with people that work in the facilities,” Day says, “and they have told us, there’s no way on this planet that they are going to be able to do what we were doing.” 

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