How much will Rikers reform help mentally ill prisoners?

Rikers Island Reform: the Good, the Bad and the Omitted

After a summer and fall wracked with reports of violence, corruption and abuse on Rikers Island, it seems like change, in some form, is finally on its way. Growing protests over law enforcement brutality and the advent of prosecutions, federal lawsuits, committee reports and policy changes now conspire to face down many of the NYC Dept. of Corrections’ worst demons.

Some of the possible reforms have yet to germinate, such as those stemming from the Justice Department’s lawsuit aimed at improving conditions for juvenile prisoners. It could take months or even years before cases like these are resolved and begin to influence the situation on the island. The same goes for the slow drip of prosecutions against individual guards like Terrance Pendergrass and Austin Romain.

The most immediate changes, however, can and will likely come from Mayor de Blasio’s administration, which delivered its own plan to tackle some of the major problems facing the city’s prison system at the end of last year. De Blasio is taking aim at the out-of-control state of prison mental healthcare, made more imperative by a surge in the number of such inmates: roughly 40% of Rikers inmates have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Rikers reform has been trickling out of the mayor’s office for a few months now. In November, at a press conference in which the mayor alluded to some of the greater reforms he would propose a month later, de Blasio said the city would spend $15.1 million to triple the number of security cameras in its jails. He also ordered a new unit for transgender women and “proposed placing the most violent inmates in new units, called enhanced supervision housing, where they would be locked in their cells 17 hours a day.”

In December, the mayor’s task force provided a concrete outline for reform that attempts to reach beyond prisons to other parts of the system in hopes of breaking the cycle of incarceration. The plan also contains a strategy for ‘multi-agency teams’ to oversee implementation, measure progress and hold people and agencies accountable. Here are some of the more-promising and immediate changes listed in the task force report: Continue reading

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Rikers

Real Reform Won’t Come to Rikers Without the Department of Justice

If there was ever any doubt as to whether the DOJ needed to intervene in the clusterfuck on Rikers Island, this story should lay it to rest. The New York Times reports that officials at Rikers (some of whom have since been promoted) underreported violence against juvenile inmates for months and withheld key information about what happened and who was involved from US Attorney Preet Bahrara.

It’s a complex and heartbreaking story that, as the Times writes, “underscores the pervasive dysfunction of the city’s Correction Department.” I highly recommend reading the piece and taking a look at the document comparisons they provide. After reading this, I am convinced that any hope of securing safety and humane treatment for Rikers prisoners is not going to come from NYCDOC, but will have to come from the federal government, instead. Continue reading