Death and Desperation at Rikers Island

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey, everyone. Mary Harris here. Before we get started, I just wanted to give a big welcome to our new listeners. We’ve been keeping track. There are quite a few of you right now, and we’re kind of curious, how did you find us? If you wouldn’t mind drop us a line, let us know. You can reach us at what next at Slate.com? That’s what next at Slate.com. All right. On with the show. John Ransom over at the New York Times, she says the problems at Rikers Island, New York City’s notorious jail, they begin before you even get there.

Advertisement

S2: One guy spoke to the other day said he had been waiting, I believe, like 18 hours for a bus to pick him up. And when it did pick him up, it was in like 3:30 in the morning. So and at our people were sleepy, hungry.

S1: This guy was transferring from a holding pattern in a city courthouse to the intake facility at Rikers. That’s where your first processed

S2: and intake is the place that you know every person I talk to, every detainee I speak with says it’s disgusting. There is feces on the floor, urine throw up. You often wait hours for food and buy hours. I don’t mean one or two you could be waiting the equivalent of two shifts, which could mean 16 hours or twenty four. Intake doesn’t have any beds or it’s not designed to be comfortable. One gentleman I spoke to said that he was in an intake cell with like upwards of 20 people, but they created a sort of system to accommodate each other. So a couple would sleep on the bench one night and then swap out and sleep on the floor. So you have people trying to make the best of a really, really bad situation.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: 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 there in graphic detail.

S2: We saw dead cockroaches. We saw rotting food. It was awful.

S3: Yes, in one of the intake facilities, it’s so overcrowded that they’ve been staying in rooms without bathrooms that are just supposed that there’s usually would be there for a few hours. Some of them had been in there for days, and they’ve been given bags to urinate and defecate in.

S1: What’s bringing these representatives to the jail in the first place is a staggering death toll so far this year. Twelve inmates have died, too, just in the last week, and whether it’s because they’re sick with COVID or because they’re protesting their working conditions. Correctional officers, the people who are supposed to be taking care of these inmates, they haven’t been showing up.

Advertisement

S2: The city’s jail system has had issues for a long time, right? I mean, I think that’s how Rikers is known. But now you see another crisis unfolding that was brought on in part by the stresses put on the system by the pandemic. And you just see that all sort of spiraling right now.

S1: Does this moment feel different then moments that have come before?

S2: Absolutely. How so? I can’t stress it enough. Everyone I talked to said it’s never been this bad. It’s rare that you have everyone in agreement about the problem in the jail system, right? Usually, you know, the correction officers are saying one thing the detainees are saying, and now they’re in their advocates and lawyers. But in this situation, everyone is in agreement that things are really bad.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Today on the show, 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. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. 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 of like how he ended up at this point.

S2: I think there are probably many beginnings, but I think 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. Now this is before a lot of the reforms around solitary confinement for young people have went into in effect or was even really discussed about in a huge way. And so he was pretty much tortured during his time there. He was assaulted by correctional officers. He sounded by other detainees. He was the victim of what became known as the program, which meant if you defied a correctional officer or even assaulted a correctional officer or did anything that was not in line with what the correctional officers wanted you to do, you could be a victim of the program, which is when they would allow other detainees to assault you. And so there was video of Kalief Browder being badly beaten by other detainees and and

Advertisement

S1: all of this was before he hadn’t been found guilty of anything. And he was a teenager, right?

S2: He had not been found guilty of the crime, which he was accused and actually what the charges were eventually dropped against him. But, you know, once he was released from Rikers, he struggled to cope with what he experienced.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Kalief Browder finally left Rikers in 2013, but the abuse he went through there, it followed him, and two years later, he took his own life. The outrage over Browder’s death brought much needed scrutiny to this jail. It had been neglected for decades.

S2: His story shed light on the atrocities that were happening on the island. And, you know, Mayor 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 kind of spurred this push to change things on the island and eventually to lead to calls to close Rikers Island.

Advertisement

S1: Yeah, I mean, I remember two years ago, the City Council voted to close Rikers and develop a plan and an $8 billion plan. It’s not cheap.

S2: The City Council

S4: passed Mayor de Blasio’s controversial plan to close Rikers Island and open four new jails around the city. This came after a long and emotional debate in the council chambers, and it marks a big victory for criminal justice reformers, for Speaker Corey Johnson and for Mayor de Blasio

S1: or for me, as someone who’d been watching the debate over Rikers for a long time. It seemed almost unbelievable, like and I still look back on it, like, did that happen? I mean, closing Rikers. And then when I hear stories about how conditions are deteriorating, I just think, how is this still happening?

Advertisement

S2: Yeah, now definitely. You wonder, I think the. Disappointing thing for a lot of people, a lot of people who have been pushing for this to happen, is that now there that there is this delay? There was the belief that OK, 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: The city’s plan to close Rikers is ambitious. It requires building four new jails to house detainees spread all around the city. These facilities are intended to be more humane, holding places closer to inmates own communities with space for educational programs and big visiting areas. But plenty of people don’t want new jails built in their neighborhoods, and so this plan has started to stall. Then the pandemic hit. And while COVID exposed all the ways inmates were at risk because of inadequate hygiene or an inability to social distance for a brief moment for advocates, the pandemic presented an opportunity.

Advertisement

S2: There became this very urgent push to empty the jails. You had the district attorneys across the city, the mayor’s office, the police department. It was all hands on deck and trying to figure out who could be released safely back into the community, and they kissed on people who were held on minor, nonviolent offenses. We also had bail reform in the background, which also helped in bringing the jail population to the lowest it’s been since the 1940s. It dropped to about three thousand nine hundred people

S1: at the time. I remember advocates talking about this moment as a potential moment of change. They could build on where once you had a proof of concept that you could release many non-violent offenders back into the community and not just they would be safer, but the wider community would be safer. That might be something you could build on where it creates an argument for less of a carceral state. Is that how it worked out?

Advertisement

S2: No, it did not work out that way during the summer, you suddenly saw a spike in crime and violent crime and shootings. 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 cold, it also led to people being released on certain offenses that were no longer bail eligible. But to my point, because crime went up, you had the police department and their unions now pushing this idea that it was because of reform or it was because people were released, you know, 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 there is this fear that they don’t want to be the judge who let someone out ended up committing a heinous crime. And so you saw, at least from the advocates, describe it as, you know, you saw this vision, this idea that you don’t have to incarcerate everyone for everything. You saw this sort of explode.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So what did that do to the jail population, like how did it contract and expand?

S2: Oh it, it increased. Like I said, the jail population had reached the lowest it had been in decades, and now it’s almost double that. There’s over six thousand people in the city jail system right now. And you know that in conjunction with the staff absenteeism, there’s just stress the system further.

S1: How did this staff absenteeism start? Because it’s been striking to me to read about what’s going on in Rikers and here that a third of the correctional officers just aren’t coming to work. I mean, if I did that at my job, I would be fired. So I’m I’m just curious, like how it started and and what the correctional officers are doing by not coming to work.

S2: So last, there’s been a lot of time talking to correctional officers, just trying to get an understanding of how the pandemic has been affecting them, right? 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 support it. And just to provide some context. The majority of correctional officers are people of color and women, and 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, you know, 12, 18, 20 hours. And I know I’m going to get cold it. 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 they’re seeing the effects of that on their colleagues, their colleagues are, you know, 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 find a wall. The incidence of being a wall are the highest. It’s been in a very, very long time, if not in the history of the system. But it all stems from, I think, at the beginning of the pandemic when there was this feeling of not being supported or feeling protected even.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: And in your reporting, I learned that these correctional officers, they have unlimited sick time. So when they do a sick out, they can really go for it.

S2: Absolutely. And so under their strict policy, they are required to provide a doctor’s note. Now it used to be, I believe, within two days they had to provide a doctor’s note that has been changed to within 24 hours, but now because of this degree and the annual rate being so high. The Department of Correction has started to investigate those officers and to discipline them. As of last week, about 20 officers had been disciplined for being a one by a wall. There is a bit of a difference from those who are actually on sick leave a wall are officers who just did not show up, did not provide a reason for not showing up. They have just disappeared. And you know, they are part of the problem here, not just for detainees who are not getting their basic needs met before their colleagues, who are forced to work twenty four, if not more, hours.

S1: 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 like, do you blame the virus for it? Do you blame someone else?

S2: You know, there was a city council hearing held at was last week, and this very question came up like, when did it begin, right? How did he get to this point? And. You know, when you look at the history of Rikers 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: When we come back, how New York’s leaders are trying and failing to meet this crisis. Can we talk about how elected officials are trying to respond because a week or so ago, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More act, which is supposed to, you know, speed up people getting out of jail for technical parole violations and missed curfews. And even though it doesn’t go into effect right away, she did have this list of 200 inmates who she said, OK, these folks can be released from Rikers immediately. So how will actions like that impact her population?

S2: So, you know, 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. I mean, 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 with less is more people can qualify for 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 with less is more. You saw the release of around one hundred and ninety one people and more releases are expected in the coming months.

S1: But is that sort of a drop in the bucket like? I mean, you said there was like almost 6000 inmates in Rikers right now?

S2: Right. And so, 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. You know, whether it’s one person or two hundred. If they can be let out, then they should, especially in light of, you know, a dozen people having died within the city’s jail system in the year is not even over yet.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: It strikes me looking at sort of the history of told about Rikers that a key player in a lot of the stories you told is the mayor Bill de Blasio, like he was mayor during, you know, the response to Kalief Browder death. And, you know, he was mayor when City Council decided they were going to close Rikers. How has he responded to this crisis moment?

S2: A lot of people say he responded too slow that. There was this issue of absenteeism. For a while, we saw and this is according to this data that I’ve reviewed. You saw the peak of people out, of course, during the height of the pandemic as some of the officers were getting sick. And then you saw a drop at the beginning of the year that numbers start to go back up. And 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 find less is more what she’s done. In turn, advocates have pushed him to release city sentenced detainees, and these are people who are serving a year or less in jail instead. And I’m hearing this from detainees who are part of this effort. At City Sentence, detainees are now being sent to prison to serve out the remainder of their terms.

S1: So even farther from their families? Yeah, and everything else?

S2: Yes. And that’s to mention just, you know, jails and prisons are culturally different for a number of reasons. I mean, obviously, if you’re going to prison, you’re serving more time. So you know that that raises a number of questions. But he’s also considering bringing in private security to take over roles that are not so much a detainee facing meaning, like not working with some of the incarcerated people. So more so like the perimeter security. But you have the unions pushing back on that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Well, none of it seems aimed at actually fixing the root problem.

S2: Many would say it does not. You know, 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 all this.

S1: Even as elected officials are trying to respond to what’s going on at Rikers for those on the island, day to day life is still a nightmare. Just days after Governor Kathy Hochul signed, the less is more act, two more detainees died. So advocates have used this moment to ask one more time What is it going to take to close Rikers down?

S4: Well, back today at City Hall, the push to close down Rikers reached a new level with a rally pushing the mayor do something now.

S1: For now, elected officials don’t really have an answer. Despite the money that’s been set aside to close the jail despite the years of planning, despite the fact that everyone inside Rikers is agreeing on some basic facts

S2: 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 right that doesn’t disappear because they’re on Rikers or they’re within the city jail system.

S1: I wonder, was there a moment when you thought as a reporter like, oh, like 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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: You know, when things got as bad as they are now, I was stunned and I don’t usually get stunned easily. You know, just the fact that we’re having people die on a regular basis, the fact that as you said, you know, if we didn’t show up to work, we probably wouldn’t have a job. I mean, the fact that you have, you know, nearly a third of the force just not coming in, it just speaks to how not just how bad things are, but even perhaps how bad they’ve always been, right? Like you think about what it takes to get to this point and it doesn’t happen overnight. Like in most situations when you reach this kind of crisis, you’ve kind of always been, you know, riding the fence. You just didn’t fall over to the other side yet. And I think we’re seeing the jail system all over to the other side.

S1: Jen, thank you so much for your reporting.

S2: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

S1: Jan Ransome is an investigative reporter who focuses on criminal justice over at the New York Times. And that’s our show. What next is produced by Davis Land, Danielle, Hewitt, Olena Schwarze, Carmel Delshad and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. Say, Hi. I’m at Mary’s desk. Meanwhile, I catch you back in the speed tomorrow.