A new report by New York City’s Department of Investigation found rampant security violations on Rikers Island that allowed corrections officers and staff to sell contraband such as weapons, alcohol and narcotics to inmates for a sizable profit. DOI has been investigating the Department of Corrections since early January and plans to release a full report by the end of the year.
Security is so lax and inconsistent at Rikers facilities that a high schooler could get through the checkpoints without a problem. Smuggling vodka in a Poland Springs bottle? That’s the oldest trick in the book! But if you’re feeling lazy, lying works, too: one undercover investigator was able to smuggle contraband past a checkpoint by telling the security guard he had already emptied his pockets and didn’t need to do it again.
Here’s how the DOI described the ease with which CO’s and staff could make it through security with prohibited items: Continue reading
NYC city council held a hearing yesterday featuring department of corrections commissioner and fabled “reformer” Joseph Ponte.
It was cathartic to see some city council members confronting Ponte over the DOC’s utter failure to protect young prisoners on Rikers Island. In discussing the case of Kaleif Browder (a 16 year old boy who was wrongfully imprisoned and spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement) city councilman Daniel Dromm (D) told Ponte that officials “subjected this child to torture. There’s no other way to put it.”
Nonetheless, Ponte seemed to be unmoved by the gravity of the situation. He continued to parrot his weak assortment of promises to reduce violence and phase out the use of solitary for a small number of the facility’s incarcerated children. Unfortunately, the “reforms” have more holes than swiss cheese, and are so weak as to suggest they would be more accurately described as ‘damage control.’
When confronted about his promotion of two Rikers officials to top positions, despite emerging evidence that their staff routinely underreported jail fights, Ponte never once hinted he would do the reasonable thing, which would be to review his decision in light of this new information. Instead, he pretty much tried to shrug it off: Continue reading
The Bronx Defenders recently put out a report on the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island amid a growing number of reports of violence, abuse and mismanagement at the facility.
The study, titled Voices from the Box (PDF), surveyed 59 inmates between July 2013 and August 2014 and it confirms the horrifying and widespread use of solitary confinement against adolescent and mentally ill inmates.
Researchers found that half of Rikers prisoners in solitary were between the ages of 16 and 20, and 20% of them were teenagers. They also found that 72% of inmates in solitary were diagnosed with mental health issues, and “received grossly inadequate treatment” during isolation.
The United Nations believes that anything over a generous 15 days in isolation is tantamount to torture, yet the median number of days in confinement spent by Rikers inmates was 90. Many inmates spent over 23 hours a day in their cell. Continue reading
On September 29th, the New York Times reported that the New York City Department of Corrections was eliminating solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-old inmates at Rikers.
The department claimed it would be the “first round of changes” and “solitary confinement [would] be replaced by ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring.'”
New York City Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte
While it’s fantastic news that these young inmates will no longer be subject to punitive segregation, the 16-17 year old age group at Rikers is a small portion of the population; only 300 of the 11,000 prisoners in the city’s jails would qualify for such leniency. The NYCDOC says there are 51 youths in solitary right now, but it’s unclear how many would see relief from this policy change.
It’s also great to hear the NYCDOC plans to replace solitary with ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences […] and steps designed to pre-empt incidents,’ however vague that may be. If it reduces the use of solitary confinement, it can’t hurt.
But I think it all misses the point: is there reason to believe that Rikers is the right environment for young people? Continue reading
Two new lawsuits, filed by the relatives of deceased Rikers inmates, point to more atrocious conduct by employees of Corizon Health Services, Inc. Yet, despite their growing rap sheet, few have spoken out to demand the DOC end its contract with the troubled for-profit health care contractor.
Rikers has come under increased scrutiny since July, when the New York Times covered the violent conditions facing mentally ill inmates who are routinely brutalized by guards and neglected by Corizon’s medical personnel. The US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York also released a report detailing staggering violence by prison staff against juvenile inmates. The Department of Labor fined Corizon $71,000 for failing to protect employees from workplace violence, too.
Around that time, the family of 19-year old Rikers inmate, Andy Henriquez, sued Corizon after he died a slow and agonizing death in an isolation unit from a tear in his aorta. According to the lawsuit, when a doctor finally came to his cell just before his death, he gave Henriquez a prescription for hand cream under the wrong name.
On both sides of the prison walls, Rikers inmates’ calls for help have been met with a resounding and deadly silence. Aside from a weak bill that increases oversight for solitary while doing little-to-nothing to curb its use, there hasn’t been a single, consequential policy change on the island, or much of an effort to hold the DOC accountable for the deplorable conditions they’ve harbored there for so many years. There have been virtually no consequences for the corrections officers who routinely beat juvenile and mentally ill inmates, and no reassessment of its medical programs after Corizon employees repeatedly endangered — and in some cases, killed — the prisoners it was hired to help.
If lawmakers and the public need more disturbing, gruesome stories to understand the need for change, they should read the lawsuits filed on behalf of inmates Bradley Ballard and Carlos Mercado. Continue reading
The New York Times’ reporting work on Rikers Island is starting to make some government officials squirm. But at the end of the day, emerging punishments and accountability measures seem to fall painfully short of addressing the devolving health and safety situation there.
The Times first covered the rise in assaults on civilian employees working at the facility back in May, and then followed up in July with a brutal portrayal of life for its prisoners.
Now the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced that it will fine private prison healthcare provider Corizon Health Services, Inc. $75,000 — “the highest level of censure by the federal Labor Department […] for failing to protect employees from violence at the jail complex.”