Sarah Siegel – Legal Aid Staff Attorney - speaks with the Daily News about the difficulties created by the Department of Correction to represent clients on Rikers Island.
New York Daily News
Activists Slam de Blasio’s Plan to Renovate Rikers Island
By Edgar Sandoval & Sarah Ryley
March 18, 2017
Federal prosecutors say it’s broken. Inmates, visitors, lawyers, correction officers and even Gov. Cuomo say it’s “hell.”
But despite a culture of violence that’s resisted reform for decades and a movement to close it — backed by politicians, celebrities and activists — political realities appear to have Rikers Island headed for a makeover, not a shutdown.
Mayor de Blasio has promised to release his own long-term plan for the massive 10-jail complex within swimming distance of LaGuardia Airport in the coming months - and it doesn’t include shuttering the facility.
Officials tell the Daily News the mayor’s plan includes resuming construction on a controversial new jail on the island that has been stalled since he took office, along with the roughly more than $1 billion dollars worth of improvements on the island included in his 10-year preliminary budget.
Advocates and other elected officials say the only way to fix Rikers is to tear the place down and scatter modern jails in neighborhoods across the city - an idea staunchly opposed by some vocal groups in the communities that would be affected.
“If you care about social justice, Rikers Island is the belly of the beast,”said Glenn Martin, head of the CLOSErikers campaign, a coalition of 125 community groups. “It would be a huge missed opportunity if the mayor didn’t take decisive action at this point.”
The urgency has been highlighted recently by the documentary “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.”
Browder was 16 when he was arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack. He maintained he was innocent — but wound up spending three years on Rikers until the case was dropped.
He committed suicide in 2015.
The documentary shows he was subjected to abuse from inmates and guards while locked up.
“Any place that that can happen to any kid should be closed,” rap superstar Jay Z, one of the documentary’s producers, said recently.
One reason to take action to close Rikers now, the activists say, is the dip in the average daily population of the city’s jails. The jail population - about three quarters of whom are awaiting trial - is now 9,750, less than half of what it was at its peak in 1991.
But even some proponents of closing the 80-year-old penal colony acknowledge that’s not low enough and are pushing for a raft of reforms to bring the population down even more.
Rikers’ average daily population last year was 7,583 — well below its capacity of 9,730 — but the other jail facilities around the city can’t accommodate that many people.
The three jails operating in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx have a combined capacity of 2,500, and New York has not had a jail population that low in over 100 years, according to Correction Department statistics.
The jail attached to the criminal court in Kew Gardens, Queens has been closed since 2002, and officials said it's so outdated it would need to be demolished and rebuilt. They indicated there are no plans to do so.
Martin Horn, the correction commissioner from 2003 to 2009, whose efforts to double the size of the Brooklyn House of Detention and build a new jail in the Bronx were blocked by local opposition, said the city could squeeze about 3,000 more beds into the footprints of the existing borough jails under current zoning laws.
The Brooklyn and Queens jails would be roughly doubled in size, and the 800-bed barge moored off Hunts Point in the Bronx would be replaced with a 2,000-bed jail in the parking lot. The Manhattan jail in Chinatown, known as “The Tombs,” would stay the same size.
City Council members Steven Levin and Karen Koslowitz, who represent the districts where the jails are located in Brooklyn and Queens, respectively, said they would be open to expansions as long as the community groups backed the plans.
But Rafael Salamanca, who represents the Bronx district where the Vernon C. Bain Center (nicknamed “The Barge”) is located, said he would be “totally opposed” to a new jail.
“We are revitalizing the Hunts Point community,” he said. “They need to take that barge and shut it down. That's what I can tell you.”
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, in her State of the City address in 2016, vowed to pursue reforms that would bring the jail population so low “the dream of shutting (Rikers) down becomes a reality.”
She’s tapped the state's former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, to head an independent commission that would study the feasibility of pulling up the drawbridge for good on the notorious 413-acre complex.
Lippman said he expects the commission, packed with bigwigs from sectors ranging from law enforcement to real estate, to release its much-anticipated report in April.
They will outline possibilities for something entirely different on the island — perhaps parkland or an extension of La Guardia Airport — while replacing the deteriorating facilities with modern jails that seamlessly blend into neighborhoods and are designed to be safer for both the inmates and guards.
“It's a miserable situation by anyone's standards, and really where we are is-- what to do about it? I don't think anyone disagrees. It's a horrific place,” Lippman said.
The mayor has called the movement to close Rikers “a noble concept,” but “we do not have a viable pathway to that at this point.”
He’s poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the Department of Correction's budget in an effort to tamp down violence across the city jail system.
While the department last year logged fewer uses of force by officers that resulted in injuries, the number of fights between inmates has continued to climb — 21% between 2015 and 2016. Stabbings and slashings increased by 9% during the same time period.
The de Blasio administration actually started exploring the possibility of moving inmates completely off the island in mid-2015, months before it became a popular talking point. But when documents from that inquiry were leaked to the online news outlet DNAinfo — revealing a $10.1 billion, 20-year option that expanded or built new jails in four of the five boroughs and saved an estimated half-billion dollars annually in operating costs — there were community protests.
“It's complicated,” said Lacey Tauber, the legislative director for City Councilman Antonio Reynoso.
Reynoso's district includes a vacant lot owned by Brooklyn Union Gas in East Williamsburg identified as a possible location for a new facility. She said he is “against the location of the facility in his district but he's in support of the movement to close Rikers Island.”
The mayor’s current focus is on renovating the existing city jails.
“Whether we move off the island or stay on the island to us is less an issue than improving the conditions of confinement and making these places, these jails, places of hope,” Liz Glazer, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, told The News.
The mayor's preliminary budget has about $1.9 billion in capital spending to build and renovate jails over the next 10 years. Aside from $170 million to renovate the Horizon center in the Bronx to move 16- and 17-year-olds off the island — which officials now say could take six years — and some routine renovations to the neighborhood jails, the rest would go toward new facilities, renovations and infrastructure on Rikers Island.
That includes $501 million for the controversial new jail — possibly a mental health facility, since 40% of inmates have some mental health diagnosis — that would now need up to a half-billion dollars of additional funding. Plans for the island also include $78 million for two new 400-seat schools and $187 million for two new wings totaling 700 beds to replace outdated modular structures.
Construction on the new jail is on hold until after the Lippman Commission releases its report, but officials said they are committed to getting it built.
“We want to move as quickly as we can,” Glazer said. “If we could ultimately integrate jails into the neighborhoods and have the support of New Yorkers and elected officials, that's terrific. Meanwhile, we have to do something now.”
Activists expect more from the city’s progressive mayor.
“He must think the #CLOSERikers campaign is a joke,” Glenn Martin fumed.
“He'll learn,” said Martin, who’s also on the Lippman Commission. “There'll be a price to pay.”
The issue is personal for the 46-year-old Martin— he has four scars from being stabbed with a pen melted into a shiv while doing time on the island as a teen.
The violence — inmate-on-inmate, inmate-on-correction officers and correction officers-on-inmates - has continued in the decades since.
Andre Harris, 33, who has been on Rikers at least 9 times between 2004 and 2015 and now works with young inmates for the Fortune Society, said, “It's rampant. It's a part of everyday life.”
The main drivers of the violence, correction officials and former inmates say, are gangs and the high number of mentally troubled inmates.
Gang leaders, sometimes with the blessing of those in charge, viciously enforce a cellblock hierarchy, often controlling the phones, the food, and the commissary while armed with weapons and contraband that gets funneled in through a network of inmates, visitors and guards, court papers and former inmates say.
Inmates could find themselves tested with violence on the first day — with the injured pressured to “hold it down” or risk being labeled a snitch.
Forty percent of those in lockup have been diagnosed with a mental health issue, the most common being substance abuse (17%), adjustment disorder (7.4%), bipolar disorder (6.9%), personality disorder (6.5%) and schizophrenia (4.1%), according to the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation, which is now responsible for providing healthcare in the jails.
Nearly half are held on violent felony charges. A large share is chronically homeless.
The island’s remote location makes it harder for inmates to get to court, and for their lawyers and loved ones to visit.
Court delays are the single largest driver of jail population today. The average length of stay for pre-trial detainees has risen from 46 days in 1992 to 55 days in 2016.
Visits to the island take an entire day, which The News found has made them less frequent.
Only 25% of the 24,300 attorney visits last year took place on Rikers Island, even though around 66% of the inmates with pending cases are held there, according to Correction Department statistics.
Lawyers told The News it takes them an entire day to visit the island, and for most of that time they are forced to relinquish their phones and laptops.
“It's very difficult to carve out time during the week when I can comfortably be away from my phone,” Sarah Siegel, a staff attorney with Legal Aid in Brooklyn, said.“There is red tape at every stage of the process that makes it more difficult to represent your client, even when they are facing life in prison.”
For personal visits, the process is even tougher. They go through at least three security checkpoints on the island, versus just one at the borough jails.
Statistics show a disproportionately higher share of visits for the boroughs — 32% of the visits with 22% of the population — versus Rikers, which got 67% of the visits with 78% of the population.
“Once you cross that bridge, you don't matter to anyone,” Gina Gallo, 22, lamented as she waited with her 14-year-old brother at Q100 bus stop on the Queens side of the bridge. They were headed to visit their mother, who was locked up at the Rose M. Singer Center, the city's only facility for women, awaiting sentencing on an assault case.
“If the guards are having a bad day, you are going to have a bad day. Not only does it take five to six hours to go through all the checkpoints, but they make you feel like a criminal too.”
“If you beep, you have to go to another line and it takes another hour. It can be anything, a wire in your bra. Every beep costs you an hour,” Gallo scoffed. ‘They make you not want to come back.’
Once finally seated across from their mother, per Department of Correction policy, Gallo and her brother would be allowed only a brief embrace before and after the visit, and to hold hands above a partition on the table during it.
That’s the result of a new security plan Ponte implemented in Jan. 2016 to make it more difficult for visitors to slip inmates contraband, a major problem on the island and a source of bloodshed.
To settle the lawsuit brought by U.S. Attorney Preet Bhahara over abuses at the island's two adolescent units the city's jails, the city agreed in 2015 to a raft of reforms, including a federal monitor, new reporting requirements, a policy restricting the use of force by guards, cameras throughout the facilities and worn on the bodies of officers, and to end the use of solitary confinement for inmates under 18, as well as 18-year-olds with a serious mental illness.
Ponte, who made a name for himself as a reformer while the correction commissioner in Maine, has gone even further, banning solitary for those under 22 years old, and capping the number of days other inmates can spend in solitary. Now inmates who commit violent acts are housed in specialized units that allow hours of out-of-cell time, but uniformed and civilian staff have said this has resulted in more injuries.
Proponents of closing down Rikers say modern jails that are better designed for the safety of the inmates and officers, with natural light and more space for programming, would reduce violence and recidivism.
While Ponte agreed on the need to improve facilities, he said there's nothing inherently better about a jail being placed in the boroughs that would lessen the violence, aside from the fact that the boroughs have a more seasoned staff since people transfer there for an easier commute.
“Changing the physical building does not change the culture,” he said. “We have to change from the hiring selection, training, different way we manage inmates, teaching our staff a new model.”
The department has poured money into improving facilities on the island. On a tour in February, officials showed off a recent renovation of the 800-bed George R. Vierno Center for medium- to high-classification inmates. Dreary cellblocks that previously only had a single television shared by 50 men now have three televisions that transmit sound through wireless headphones. Officials said this has reduced fights over television channels and noise. Phones were also repositioned to offer more privacy, the walls spruced up with brighter colors, and the inmates' names drawn on the cell doors with chalk.
As a result of the renovations, coupled with huge increases in programming, violence in these units have dropped, officials said. Similar renovations are underway for two other facilities on the island.
One recent inmate, Isiah, a 21-year-old who asked that his full name be withheld because his is awaiting sentencing on a robbery charge, said change has to come soon.
He said he was beaten by other inmates as guards did nothing to help, and recalled seeing a friend get slashed across the neck while waiting in line for the barber.
“It was hell,” he said. “They use that place to break people.”