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
In December, the New York Times ran a story on a sadly historic event:
The first Rikers Island correction officer to be tried for civil rights abuses in more than a decade was found guilty on Wednesday by a jury for his role in the death of an inmate in 2012.
Terrence Pendergrass could serve up to 10 years in federal prison for refusing to seek medical attention for Jason Echevarria, 25, a pretrial detainee, who cried out for help after swallowing a highly toxic packet of detergent that burned through his digestive tract.
Mr. Pendergrass was found guilty of one charge of violating the constitutional right of a prisoner to receive attention for serious medical needs. His lawyer, Samuel M. Braverman, said he would appeal the decision, which was handed down in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
This was the first time in over a decade that a Rikers corrections officer went to trial for civil rights violations. Before him was Roger Johnson in 1996, after he and several other Rikers guards beat inmates and then falsified reports.
After representing a man who refused medical attention for a dying and helpless prisoner, defense attorney Samuel Braverman said he believed it was “a very tough time for a law enforcement officer to be on trial.” He told reporters he felt the recent protests against police brutality in the city ‘influenced the jury’ and said he thought the jury was trying to ‘compensate for other systemic issues at Rikers.’
While I’m willing to give Braverman the benefit of the doubt that these were more off-hand remarks meant to explain away the guilty verdict than they were honest, deep analyses of the system, these kinds of statements are revealing nonetheless.
If the protests are, in fact, moving juries to finally bring convictions against criminal Rikers guards, we should all go out and thank a protester today for bringing an end to an 18 year freeze in justice for inmates. But it remains to be seen whether this is an isolated case or the beginning of a thaw in legal accountability for Rikers officers. If it does continue, there is little doubt in my mind that we can expect to see the same reaction from them as we have from the NYPD and its unions. Rikers Island has its own history of lashing out against threats to their impunity that bares striking resemblance to the actions of the NYPD in recent months. Continue reading