For 37 years, I have led an organization that is likely the longest-serving and largest nongovernmental presence on Rikers Island, where we offer discharge planning; educational, therapeutic, and vocational programs; and visiting support.
Rikers Island, a jail complex that holds people awaiting trial, people awaiting hearings for violating conditions of parole, and people convicted of crimes and sentenced to less than a year, has come to represent the epitome of a penal colony: violent, ungovernable, and set apart from the so-called civilized world. In 2017, a combination of investigations and activism led New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to commit to closing Rikers within 10 years. In 2020, under the further pressure of Covid, the City released hundreds of people incarcerated at Rikers, bringing the population below 4,000, from a height of over 20,000 in the early 1990s and nearly 12,000 at the start of the de Blasio administration. But now it’s back up, to nearly 6,000. Osborne staff who work there are hearing clients say they have never seen Rikers like this—they’re just trying to stay alive. They cite unstaffed housing units, the use of pepper spray and other chemicals as routine methods of control, repeatedly ignored requests for medical attention, and—until a shuttered facility was reopened to accommodate intakes (its black mold notwithstanding)—an intake facility so mismanaged that people were fighting over clean spots on the floor or laying out scraps of cardboard to protect themselves from overflowing sewage while they slept.
No one should be subject to these conditions. But it’s worth noting that over 85 percent of those 6,000 people are presumed innocent of any current charges, and typically 200 are held for alleged technical violations of parole conditions, meaning they are not being charged with any crime. This was true of Karim Isaabdul, who told our staff he contracted Covid while stuck in the intake “bullpen.” He had significant medical vulnerabilities and asked to be taken to the locked unit at Bellevue, but instead was moved to the jail infirmary. On September 19, after reporting to our staff that he was “falling to pieces,” he died, leaving behind two young children. His death was one of 12 on Rikers since January 2021, which include at least five suicides. The high mortality, along with appalling conditions and the routine absence of correction officers, has led to public hearings, visits from elected officials, and outraged news coverage. But will anything change?
For more than 40 years I have visited Rikers Island as a lawyer, a family member, and a service provider. Drawing on my experience and Osborne’s 30 years on the Island, I believe it can. This is how to (1) cut the city jail populations and (2) improve conditions for the people who now live, work and visit the Island, until we (3) close Rikers.
1. Cut the Jail Population
Jail populations are a function of just two numbers: number of admissions and length of stay. The math is easy: We need to send fewer people to Rikers and reduce the time they spend there.
Send fewer people to Rikers.
If you believe the New York Post story that crime spikes are caused by bail reform and the reduction in the use of cash bail, it may come as news to you that Rikers is not filled with murderers. Almost as soon as New York state reformed its antiquated bail laws that were needlessly holding thousands of people solely because of their inability to pay, many of the reforms were rolled back as police and politicians began to claim (without any supporting data) that the reforms led to spikes in crime and violence. In fact, even with the more limited reforms, New York jail reform has been sorely under-implemented, as courts continue to impose cash bail even in “nonviolent” misdemeanors and low-level felonies. While it’s easy (and false) to link bail reform to the concerning rise in gun violence, the law provides multiple options for safely releasing people.
For example, there’s Project Reset, run by Osborne in Upper Manhattan, which offers an alternative to court arraignment for those referred by police and who complete a short intervention, followed by the district attorney declining prosecution, so that no foot touches the island. The program could easily expand to include more charges and reach more people. Supervised release, a wise investment of City funding, actually is as or more successful in terms of people returning to court and avoiding rearrest than release on money bail—and definitely less risk of injury and trauma. Our newest tool is the Less is More Act, signed into law by Governor Kathy Hochul in September, which makes it more difficult to re-incarcerate people on parole for “technical” (non-criminal) violations of community supervision rules. None of these options is being used to near maximum effect. That should change, now.
Send more people home, faster.
We have several tools to make this happen, too.
The Department of Correction could employ an existing provision that allows sentenced people to serve the remainder of their time at home, and the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision could issue parole violation warrants against fewer people and/or process them faster.
But the vast majority of people on Rikers are pretrial detainees, and in virtually every jail in the United States, the length of time they remain detained is solely within the purview of judges, prosecutors, and defense counsel. Typically, jails have no control over who comes in, or how long they say. Rikers is an outlier. While courts need to control their calendars and move cases faster, the increased time people spend on Rikers is in large part due to missed appearances and repeated adjournments—which often occur not because the incarcerated person chooses not to show up but because DOC staff aren’t able to transport or present defendants. When people miss court appearances, they stay in jail longer, sometimes with deadly consequences. Governor Hochul has suggested holding video hearings, but not all aspects of case processing can be done remotely, and moving people within Rikers has often been as problematic as getting them to an outside court. For example, 24-year-old Esias Johnson, who died in DOC custody in September, missed three consecutive video hearings at which a judge could have heard his case for $1 bail.
Failing to get people to hearings is not an entirely new problem. When I first came to Osborne nearly 40 years ago, the “Failure to Appear” rate was worse for those in detention than for those who were released pretrial. With a population hovering at 20,000, that might have been understandable. Not now, when the population is a third that size. As an immediate measure to address this, judges should travel to Rikers and hold court there.
2. Improve Conditions on Rikers
The challenge of ensuring that jailers escort jailed people to hearings that might get them out of jail brings us to the oft-cited claim that there are too few correction officers to get people to court on time and safely manage the Island. This is not so. Even with officers calling in sick, Rikers still has the highest ratio of COs to detainees in the country, if not the world. The clamor to hire more correction officers for a system that already spends $438,000 annually for every person held by the DOC—or, as they have announced, to bring in private contractors (as if we needed Rikers to be any more like Abu Ghraib) requires making the claim that the people inside are so dangerous, so subhuman, that having the highest staff ratio of any locked facility on the planet is not enough. It is true that violence has increased during Covid—but it is also true that people subjected to disgusting and dangerous conditions will react, get into arguments, and fight back. I would, and so would you.
The answer is not more people in uniform. We receive frequent reports that officers are relegated to noncustodial areas and forbidden to work outside designated units, even when there are dangerous shortages elsewhere. Our staff have witnessed officers crowded at one location while other units have virtually no one on duty.
Programs like Osborne’s can play a role in addressing this, but Covid makes our work even harder. Last month, Osborne pulled all our staff off Rikers because housing units we serve were “exposed,” meaning incarcerated people tested positive for Covid and the units were placed under quarantine. At the same time, not everyone with Covid was isolated, and the DOC needs to make a commitment to masking, testing, exposure protocols, and vaccinations. When uncontrolled Covid drives programs like Osborne’s out of jails, we lose critical tools to reduce violence and idle time, inspire transformation, and support successful reentry.
Measures are also needed to address the reality that working in a jail, like living in a jail, is traumatizing. Research shows higher PTSD rates among COs than among Iraq war veterans. Prior to Covid, concerns about the job’s exceptional stress led to the creation of the DOC Staff Wellness Center. But seeking out mental health care remains highly stigmatized in a paramilitary agency like the DOC. A universal approach is needed, in which every officer is required to see a mental health professional on a set schedule.
3. Close Rikers
The fact that these dangerous conditions persist even when the people who have taken over running the system are making every effort to get it right means that there is no hope of getting Rikers “right.” We see mighty efforts at the women’s jail; in the visiting spaces, where Covid precautions are taken seriously; in the video court areas, where many officers are very helpful; and among the tireless DOC programs staff. Recognizing the oldest motto in corrections—Good Programs Are Good Security—we and other community-based service providers will be adding recreational counselors because the New York City Department of Correction recognizes that when we have civilian staff and programs inside, everyone is safer. But safer isn’t safe, and the jails on Rikers need to close now. If fewer people entered the jails, and stayed for a shorter time, the population could be moved off the island and into existing or upgraded or new facilities, without waiting five more years.
Any new jails opened as alternatives must be small, to ensure reasonable management; local, so that their operations are transparent and visible to its neighbors; full of programs that promote education, employment, and well-being; and designed to welcome visiting families and preserve the dignity of detained individuals. These measures cannot remove the line that burns straight from a jail filled with Black and brown people through convict leasing back to chattel slavery. There are limits to what we can expect from a system that puts humans in cages. There are no limits to what is possible when we shift our goals from retribution to healing.