Chamber of horrors in the middle of New York

October 19, 2015

Outrage is brewing in New York City over the nightmarish conditions in the Rikers Island jail--but it will take a strong movement to shut it down, writes Julian Guerrero.

THERE'S A factory on an island in New York City's East River--a factory that produces human rights violations, located in the long shadows of the Manhattan skyscrapers that symbolize international wealth and power.

Pressure has been building on Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York City Council to end the violence and abuse at the city's main jail on Rikers Island, after investigations by the New York Times and U.S. Department of Justice, among others, have exposed the inhumane policies of the city's Department of Correction and the daily brutality committed by correction officers (COs).

For many New Yorkers--especially the more than 100,000 people who go through Rikers in a given year, and their loved ones, family, friends and supporters--there's one obvious way to put an end to what is increasingly seen as a torture chamber.

Shut it down.

But de Blasio and the City Council have responded with so-called "reforms" that leave this chamber of horrors basically intact. Rather than revise the laws and practices of a criminal justice system that fills Rikers to the bursting point, the mayor and City Council members want to put an even greater burden on families and other visitors to the jail--not to mention the thousands of men and women who experience its brutality and inhumanity every day, some for months and even years at a time.

Inside New York City's Rikers Island
Inside New York City's Rikers Island

THE FACTS about Rikers--who is trapped there and the violence that takes place daily--should shame a city and a state considered to be among the most liberal in the country.

The jail population on Rikers fluctuates around 12,000 daily--over 100,000 people pass through its walls every year. National statistics show that Blacks and Latinos are far more likely to suffer incarceration, but the racial disparities are even greater at Rikers. Blacks and Latinos combined make up nearly 90 percent of the population.

Roughly 40 percent of the people on Rikers have mental health conditions, according to the New York Times. That's a greater number than all 24 psychiatric hospitals in New York combined, according to the Times.

The vast majority of the Rikers population--85 percent--are pretrial detainees who can't afford bail. They are behind bars--some of them for years before going to trial--despite the democratic principle that they are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Solitary confinement of detainees is a common practice, and used for periods longer than what is deemed humane by the United Nations. Meanwhile, a recent article at the Intercept website detailed rampant sexual abuse committed by COs against detainees who are women by COs. Not a single week goes by without further reports of scandals involving COs or abuse.

What you can do

Sign a petition calling on Mayor de Blasio, Gov. Cuomo and Department of Correction Commissioner Ponte to immediately shut down Rikers Island.

According to a report by City Comptroller Scott Stringer, it costs the city $112,655 per year to keep each person locked up in Rikers and other city jails--a 17 percent increase over the previous year, and double the cost paid by other major cities. Stringer also reported that use-of-force incidents by guards increased by 17 percent to 4,409 during the past fiscal year that ended on June 30.

BUT EVEN with this damning list of statistics and the stories that have emerged in the media, the daily brutality at Rikers is difficult to comprehend or convey in its totality without referring to the horror stories involving medical personnel and detainees.

In her memoir Lockdown on Rikers, written about her time working for the Mental Health Department in the jail, Mary E. Buser describes the "bing"-- what people on the Island call the solitary confinement complex--as feeling like a "furnace" with "the smell of vomit and feces hang[ing] in the hot, thick air." Buser describes how young men of color would "bang and slap the doors, sweaty palms sliding down the windows," crying out "Miss! Help! Please, miss! We're dying in here miss, we're dying!" as she would walk the long cement floor, where 25 doors with a small window and slot for trays on one side would face another 25 on the other.

As illustrated by the tragic case of Kalief Browder--the young Black man who spent three years in solitary confinement without trial starting when he was 16--Rikers destroys the lives, and sometimes the sanity, of many of New York City's young men of color. Combined with the other social ills plaguing the Big Apple, it's obvious that this is a public health crisis on the verge of exploding.

For those who know its daily horrors from personal experience--who have crossed the "bridge of pain" onto the Island--Rikers cannot be reformed. As Neil Barsky, founder and chairman of the nonprofit journalism organization, The Marshall Project, wrote in an opinion article for the New York Times:

The reality is that the only way to transform Rikers is to destroy it; it needs to be permanently closed. The buildings are crumbling. The guard culture of prisoner abuse and the gang culture of violence are ingrained. The complex is New York's Guantánamo Bay: a secluded island, beyond the gaze of watchdogs, where the Constitution is no guide.

To achieve this--to shut down Rikers, to stop the political establishment from transferring the same practices documented to be taking place on the Island to newly built decentralized facilities spread across the city, to get funds dedicated to creating jobs and community-based social services--will take a campaign of thousands of determined New Yorkers.

STOPPING THE systematic violence and torture that takes place at Rikers would require dramatic changes to the political and economic landscape of the city. The mayor and the City Council have no intention of making such changes, but they are, nevertheless, under intense pressure to deliver some reforms--to lessen the public scrutiny of Rikers and get the federal government off their backs.

The pressure for reforms at the jail started this summer when Preet Bharara, the powerful chief federal prosecutor based in New York City, joined an ongoing lawsuit against the city over abuse of adolescents on Rikers. Shortly thereafter, de Blasio accepted the creation of a federal monitor to investigate violence and corruption at the city's main jail. The lawsuit was settled after the mayor announced a plan for new measures to address the worsening situation.

By mid-September, a number of these reforms had been ratified by the City Council. Although the majority of the measures have focused on transparency. But de Blasio and Joseph Ponte, the current commissioner of the Department of Correction, are pushing to beef up jail security and create a new intelligence unit to crack down on the smuggling of contraband in Rikers--in other words, blaming the victims for the human rights abuses at the jail.

Two of the most substantial reform measures initiated by de Blasio--the ending of solitary confinement for adolescents and bail reform--have been criticized as ineffective at stemming the damage done to young people who pass through the criminal justice system.

On the subject of juvenile solitary, memos attained by the Marshall Project suggest that correction officers are keeping records of solitary confinement owed by adolescents, to be imposed once they turn 18.

Meanwhile, the new bail system would steer people accused of a crime--that is, people who are still be considered innocent--away from Rikers, but into a system of pretrial agencies, where they would be forced to report every week and attend programs mandated by the city. According to an article at the Marshall Project website, the pretrial services model meant to replace the current bail system:

imposes supervisory oversight on the innocent in ways that are more onerous than what one would face if actually guilty. The system thereby replicates (albeit in a more benign fashion) the very problem it seeks to solve: inverting innocent until proven guilty, and placing punishment before adjudication.

A nine-member Board of Correction is supposed to provide "oversight" to assess the effectiveness of the new reforms and hold the Department of Correction accountable. But anyone would have to be skeptical about its independence given the not-well-advertised fact that Board of Correction members are all ultimately appointed by the mayor and the City Council.

Then there is the bigger picture: Rikers is only one part of a larger system of mass incarceration, and measures to reform the city's jails don't affect these at all.

The NYPD's "Broken Windows" policies continue unabated--some aspects have even been reinforced. Efforts at the state level to raise the age for charging juveniles as an adult have stalled--so the supposedly liberal state of New York could become the last still charging 16 and 17 year olds as adults. Meanwhile, the New York City judicial system has been notoriously incapable of processing the number of cases brought in by a police quota system--and the backlog has only gotten worse as violent incidents increase at Rikers.

Despite the documentation from a federal prosecutor, the New York Times and civil rights organizations pointing to systematic violence and corruption at Rikers coming from the COs, Joseph Ponte, the Department of Correction commissioner, didn't even bring up this factor once in his recent op-ed article for the New York Daily News. Instead, he tried to redirect the blame onto the victims of the criminal justice system,

That silence hints at the underlying political and economic forces that benefit from keeping the jail open and the violence ongoing--and it keeps the proposal for shutting down Rikers out of the debate altogether.

FOR NEW Yorkers to begin the campaign to close Rikers, they should know some history and political background to understand the role that Rikers plays in perpetuating the status quo in the "global city."

Rikers was constructed--by prison labor, naturally--and opened in 1935 to transfer those behind bars at overcrowded and deteriorating jails on Roosevelt Island, further along the East River.

Not long after it opened up, Rikers developed the horrific reputation it has now. But the explosion of the jail's population came when the federal government's "war on drugs" went into high gear during the Reagan administration. Three decades later, the second-largest correction facility in the country has long been part of a system of mass exploitation in a city of 8 million people.

The "war on drugs" was one of the leading edges of a ruling-class counteroffensive in the aftermath of the social and political struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s. As the political radicalization of that era receded in the face of outright repression against the left and the onset of an economic recession, "tough on crime" policies were adopted by both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

The "war on drugs" served as a means of beefing up the police and prison system--it also became an ideological justification for dismantling the meager-to-begin-with social safety net provided by federal government social programs.

In a city like New York, where the social contradictions are more extreme and political reputations are on the line, any effort by activists to shut down Rikers will have to take on various organizations whose reputations and political power depend on the system of mass incarceration.

Two such organizations that come to mind are the Department of Correction and the New York Police Department. Between the two, they receive $5 billion a year to criminalize poor people, especially poor people of color, and throw them in jails like Rikers.

Worse yet are the associations that represent those who work for these two city departments: the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA) and the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association (COBA). Both COBA and the PBA are major players in city politics. They spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on local and state politicians, who in turn defend their interests and attempt to shape public discussion of any attempt to reform the criminal justice system.

ANY ATTEMPT to close Rikers must confront these organizations and the politicians beholden to them. To do this will require the mobilization of thousands of New Yorkers.

Such a campaign would need to focus initially on base-building, creating local committees that can organize public education about the horrors on the Island and what an alternative could look like--and mobilize people power to put political pressure on the liberal establishment.

Most importantly, a campaign to shut down Rikers must involve and be led by those on the front lines, inside and outside Rikers, of this war on poor, working-class people of color. With 100,000 people going through Rikers every year, there are many more New Yorkers affected by the brutality of the city's criminal justice system than are currently involved in prison abolition efforts.

The drive to shut down Rikers could contribute momentum to a public discussion about a criminal justice system that isn't about harsh punitive sentences, solitary confinement and deportation. A campaign that can shut down one of the most extreme manifestations of the mass incarceration state can open up space for other people across the U.S. to launch similar grassroots campaigns that will strengthen movements like Black Lives Matter.

And during the course of these campaigns, questions will arise about what an alternative to mass incarceration could look like. This gives an opportunity for prison abolitionists and socialists to make connections to the unequal social system that is defended by the mass incarceration system.

While the budgets of different parts of the criminal justice system expanded massively, money for education, food stamps, health care, reproductive care and other social priorities shrank. This trend is continuing, even in the era of harsh austerity--funding for the NYPD went up in the latest City Hall budget. These priorities need to be reversed.

The war on drugs also needs to end, and its victims should be freed, given reparations and not trapped forever with the second-class rights that comprise what Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. The undocumented immigrants held by the thousands in detention centers should get full amnesty, and the bloated budget for ICE agents to hunt them down needs to go.

With the stories and statistics about the brutality on Rikers unfolding in the public eye, the pressure on the political establishment will continue to grow--and the newly founded Campaign to Shut Down Rikers can become a lightning rod to galvanize this sentiment.

If the people of New York City rally in the coming years to shut down Rikers, we have a good chance of seeing its doors close in our lifetimes.

When future generations learn the people's history of New York City, Rikers will be an illustration of the complete depravity and barbarism of the U.S. state in the era we know today. But our children will also read about the efforts of New Yorkers to shut down the torture chamber we call Rikers, once and for all.

Further Reading

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