McKinsey & Company gamed the numbers in its report to New York City officials on its efforts to reduce violence in the infamous Rikers Island jail complex, according to a new report by ProPublica. In 2014, in the wake of a spike in reports of violence at the complex, the McKinsey was tasked with finding ways to reduce brawls and gang violence, as well as assaults by guards. The mission was a first for the corporate consulting firm that was in hot pursuit of increasingly lucrative public sector consulting contracts and it set out trialing new anti-violence approaches in what the firm referred to as the “Restart” housing units at Rikers. In an April 2017, partners at McKinsey trumpeted their success in what had ballooned into a $27.5 million project, announcing that violence had dropped by more than half in the units.
The results, however, turned out to be too good to be true. “Jail officials and McKinsey consultants had jointly rigged the Restart program in its earliest phase to all but guarantee there would be few violent episodes, according to documents and interviews,” ProPublica reports. As a result, the units that McKinsey used to tout its success were not indicative of the larger jail population at Rikers, as the firm instead “stacked the units with inmates” that were unlikely to cause violence in the first place. The practice continued even after the firm had officially finished its work, much of which was ultimately disregarded, as “jail officials continued to manipulate the population of the Restart units to keep their violence numbers low.”
As they formulated a reform plan, the consultants did not solicit the views of inmates, clinic staff or others with direct insights into drivers of violence. The closest the consultants came to interacting with the inmates during this stage was to watch them through Plexiglas from inside guard booths.
McKinsey began adopting the mindset of the correction officers, according to one of its consultants. The firm’s initiatives included facilitating the expanded use of Tasers, shotguns and K9 patrol dogs (“aggressive dogs,” in the words of one McKinsey presentation) at Rikers, a stance that seemed at odds with de Blasio’s claims of wanting to foster a more humane jail system.
A McKinsey spokesperson defended the firm’s work and denied any wrongdoing in its accounting of violence at Rikers. The New York City mayor’s office made similar comments in defense of the decision to pay tens of millions to hire the firm. “But the gaming of the Restart units was confirmed by Joseph Ponte, who was the corrections commissioner from 2014 to 2017 and trumpeted the Restart results in public hearings. In a deposition last year, Ponte was asked whether he had been told that the teams running the Restart units ‘were cherry-picking docile inmates’ to ensure that rates of violence would fall,” according to ProPublica. “Overall, using the metrics employed by McKinsey, jailhouse violence has risen nearly 50% since the firm began its assignment.”