The problems at Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail, begin before you even get there. “One guy I spoke to the other day said he had been waiting, like, 18 hours for a bus to pick him up. And when it did pick him up, it was 3:30 in the morning,” said Jan Ransom, who reports on the jail for the New York Times. “People are sleepy, hungry.”
This guy was transferring from a holding pen in a city courthouse to the “intake” facility at Rikers. It’s where you are first processed. “And intake is the place that every detainee I speak with says is disgusting. There’s feces on the floor, urine, throw up,” Ransom said. “You often wait hours for food. You could be waiting the equivalent of two shifts, which could mean 16 hours or 24. Intake doesn’t have any beds. It’s not designed to be comfortable. So you have people trying to make the best of a really, really bad situation.”
I’m not sure anyone expects a jail to be nice. But over the last few weeks, after touring Rikers’ facilities, New York politicians have described the conditions in graphic detail. What brought these representatives to the jail in the first place was even more staggering: a rising death toll. So far this year, 12 inmates have died. Two in the last week. And whether it’s because they’re sick with COVID or because they’re protesting working conditions, correctional officers, who are supposed to be taking care of these workers, haven’t been showing up to work in shocking numbers.
On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Ransom about the story of how New York City’s most notorious detention facility keeps getting worse. And why it is so hard to do anything about it. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: So over the last few years, there’s been a push to reform Rikers and even close it down completely, but I’m wondering where you would start that story. And how we ended up at this point?
Jan Ransom: There are probably many beginnings, but the one that comes to mind for a lot of people was that of Kalief Browder. Kalief Browder was a 16 year old who had been accused of stealing a backpack from someone in the Bronx. And he was held on Rikers Island for three years and spent much of that time in solitary. This was before a lot of the reforms around solitary confinement for young people went into effect or was even really discussed in a huge way. So he was pretty much tortured during his time there. He was assaulted by correctional officers, assaulted by other detainees. He was the victim of what became known as “the program,” which meant if you defied a correction officer, they would allow other detainees to assault you. And so there was video of Kalief Browder being badly beaten by other detainees.
And he hadn’t been found guilty of anything. And he was a teenager.
Right. He had not been found guilty of the crime of which he was accused, and actually the charges were eventually dropped against him. But once he was released from Rikers, he struggled to cope with what he experienced. [Kalief Browder finally left Rikers in 2013, but the abuse he endured there followed him, and two years later, he took his own life.]
His story shed light on the atrocities that were happening on the island. And Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to end solitary for young people, which he did. He wanted to also move them off the island, which eventually happened. And so this spurred a push to change things on the island and eventually lead to calls to close Rikers Island.
I remember two years ago the City Council voted to close Rikers and develop an $8 billion plan. For me, as someone who’d been watching the debate over Rikers for a long time, it seemed almost unbelievable. And I still look back on it, like, “Did that happen? Are we closing Rikers?” And then when I hear stories about how conditions are deteriorating, I just think: How is this still happening?
Yeah, definitely, I mean, you wonder. I think the disappointing thing for a lot of people who have been pushing for this to happen is that now there is this delay. There was the belief that it would be delayed for a year due to financial reasons, but now we’re hearing it could be longer. So there’s a lot up in the air here when we talk about the closure of Rikers.
The city’s plan to close Rikers is ambitious. It requires building four new jails to house detainees, spread all across the city. These facilities are intended to be more humane holding places, closer to inmates’ own communities, with space dedicated to educational programs and big visiting areas.
But plenty of people don’t want new jails built in their neighborhoods. So the plan began to stall.
Then the pandemic hit. And while COVID exposed all the ways inmates were at risk—because of inadequate hygiene and an inability to social distance—for a brief moment, for advocates, the pandemic presented an opportunity.
There became this very urgent push to empty the jails. You had the district attorneys throughout the city, the mayor’s office, the police department—it was all hands on deck trying to figure out who could be released safely back into the community. And they focused on people who were held on minor nonviolent offenses. You also had bail reform in the background, which also helped in bringing the jail population to the lowest it had been since the 1940s. It dropped to about 3,900 people.
At the time, I remember advocates talking about this moment as a potential moment of change they could build on. Is that how it worked out?
No, it did not work out that way. During the summer, you suddenly saw a spike in crime. And around the same time, there was also a quiet reversal of some of the reforms that had been made under the bail law earlier in the year, which, along with the effort to save people from dying of COVID, also led to people being released on certain offenses that were no longer bail eligible. But because crime went up, you had the police department and their unions now pushing this idea that it was because of bail reform or it was because people were released at the height of the pandemic, although there was no data to show any correlation. You had judges who then were, instead of sending someone to a rehab program or a program to deal with the nature of the crime that they’ve been accused of, now sending them to Rikers, because they don’t want to be the judge who let someone out who ended up committing a heinous crime. And so you saw this vision that you don’t have to incarcerate everyone for everything sort of explode.
So what did that do to the jail population?
It increased. The jail population had reached the lowest it had been in decades, and now it’s almost double that. There’s over 6,000 people in the city jail system right now. And that in conjunction with the staff absenteeism has just stressed the system further.
How did the staff absenteeism start?
Last year, I spent a lot of time talking to correctional officers, trying to get an understanding of how the pandemic has been affecting them. They are in the jails just like the detainees and sometimes spending many, many hours. And when the pandemic hit the jail system, correctional officers felt the least supported. And just to provide some context, the majority of correctional officers are people of color and women. Oftentimes, I would talk to them and they’d say, “We don’t have any PPE, we have no way to protect ourselves, we’re in here for 12, 18, 20 hours. And I know I’m going to get COVID.” They felt so unsupported by the administration, by the commissioner. They felt like no one had their back, and that caused morale to drop. On top of that, they are working in a pandemic and they’re seeing the effects of that on their colleagues. Their colleagues are actually legitimately sick with this virus; some die. And the morale just drops even further. And so you get to a point where some officers decide not to come in anymore and they’ve gone AWOL.
And then meanwhile, you have the incarcerated population, who are just the victims of all of this fighting, left without food or medication or supervision. When you look at all that, do you blame the virus? Do you blame someone else?
The pandemic, yes, it caused a strain on a system that was already struggling. So it definitely did not start with the pandemic, but the pandemic did not help things.
Can we talk about how elected officials are trying to respond? Because a week or so ago, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Act, which is supposed to speed up people getting out of jail for technical parole violations and missed curfews. Even though it doesn’t go into effect right away, she did have this list of 200 inmates who she said can be released from Rikers immediately. So how will actions like that affect the population?
So before that, if you were someone who was picked up on a technical parole violation, you could be waiting in jail for months to get out. It could take up to a month, if not longer, to see a judge just to figure out if the parole officer had enough evidence to keep you in. Now, under the new order that was signed, people can qualify for a release after having been in jail for 30 days. And so that will definitely make a difference in terms of the jail population. And that was the point. And so you saw the release of around 191 people, and more releases are expected in the coming months.
But is that sort of a drop in the bucket, with almost 6,000 inmates in Rikers right now?
Yes, definitely a drop in the bucket, but if you ask people who are advocating for people on the inside, they say every little bit helps: Whether it’s one person or 200, if they can be let out, then they should. Especially in light of a dozen people having died within the city’s jail system already this year.
It strikes me looking at the history you’ve told about Rikers that a key player is the mayor, Bill de Blasio. He was mayor during the response to Kalief Browder’s death. And he was mayor when City Council decided they were going to close Rikers. How has he responded to this crisis moment?
A lot of people say he responded too slow. With this issue of absenteeism, a lot of people say that the mayor should have stepped in earlier to address it instead of waiting to the point where we now have 12 people dead and nearly a third of the uniformed staff out. So far, he’s pushed for the governor to sign Less Is More, which she’s done. In turn, advocates have pushed him to release city-sentenced detainees. These are people who are serving a year or less in jail. Instead—I’m hearing this from detainees who are part of this effort—city-sentenced detainees are now being sent to prisons to serve out the remainder of their terms.
And so even farther from their families and everything else.
Yes. And jails and prisons are culturally different for a number of reasons. Obviously, if you’re going to prison, you’re serving more time. And so that raises a number of questions.
But he’s also considering bringing in private security to take over roles that are not so much detainee-facing, more like the perimeter security. But you have the unions pushing back on that.
None of it seems aimed at actually fixing the root problem.
Many would say it does not. When he released his plan, a lot of people criticized him for it and said it’s not enough, that these are changes that won’t bring officers back. These are changes that continue to alienate them, at least according to what the union has said. So, yeah, there’s a lot of frustration that he’s just not really addressing the root cause of this.
With someone being incarcerated, it shouldn’t mean that they don’t have a right to basic health care, mental health care, food, a sanitary environment, to feeling protected and safe. All of that is part of their constitutional rights that doesn’t disappear because they’re on Rikers or they’re within the city jail system.
Was there a moment when you thought as a reporter like, “Oh, maybe reporting on people in jail in New York is going to change? It’s going to look really different.” And now you’re wondering maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just going to look like this for a while longer.
When things got as bad as they are now, I was stunned, and I don’t usually get stunned easily. Just the fact that we’re having people die on a regular basis, the fact that you have nearly a third of the force just not coming in, it speaks to not just how bad things are, but even perhaps how bad they’ve always been. You think about what it takes to get to this point, and it doesn’t happen overnight. In most situations, when you reach this kind of crisis, you’ve always been riding the fence; you just didn’t fall over to the other side yet. And I think we’re seeing the system fall over to the other side.
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