Salvador Espinoza

Humanize Every Incarcerated Person

Lauren Stossel

March 12, 2024

No reform will be successful without a transformation of jail culture.

No reform will be successful without a transformation of jail culture.

Early in my work seeing patients on Rikers, I spoke to a young man in solitary confinement for mouthing off to a captain. Handcuffed to the wall opposite me in a small room, he told me why he thought people broke jail rules. He said no one gets what they need by asking nicely. 

“You have to bang on the gate,” he said. “The shit-slingers get the utmost respect. It’s too gross to do but it’s the most effective thing. I’m working up to it.” 

When I left Rikers last fall, I was chief of mental health and had been working with the jail population as a psychiatrist for eight years. A daily effort against the insidious, inevitable dehumanization that happens across the gate of a cage was essential to my work. My most dedicated colleagues (in the Department of Correction and civilian alike) shared this outlook. 

In-clinic, often as few as three of my 15 scheduled patients were brought to their appointments. Escort officers sent to fetch them reported they refused or were too violent to come. Every few weeks, I made a list of people I was worried about and went to the housing units to check on them. 

“You haven’t wanted to come to clinic?” I’d ask, my mouth close to the crack at the edge of a steel door. “Are you ok?” 

They’d say, “I want to come. They won’t bring me. Can I come with you now?”

Eventually, I realized my busiest days coincided with one escort officer whom I’ll call Officer B — a lanky, Black woman in her mid 30s with a no-nonsense attitude — assigned to my post. I started adding a few extra names to my request list whenever she was working. 

“B, I really need to see these guys. I know they want to come,” I would tell her. 

“No problem, Stossel,” she’d say, “I got you.” Day after day, she brought them. 

“What do you do differently?” I once asked. She rolled her eyes. “Girl, I just treat them like human beings.” 

Incarcerated individuals are referred to as “bodies.” Waiting rooms are “pens.” Officers in riot gear are “turtles.”

Acknowledgment of the humanity of those detained is too rare among DOC leadership. As chief psychiatrist, I argued on behalf of Correctional Health Services for widespread use of sensory rooms in the borough-based jail floor plans, including in the general population (GP). In sensory rooms, people can sit alone on a comfortable piece of furniture, dim the lights and listen to music. There is one therapeutic housing unit on Rikers with a room like this, but it has been locked for over a year because of staff shortages. 

“We don’t need these in GP,” someone from DOC said. And then, sarcastically, “What’s the evidence these help GP guys?” 

I conceded that the research supporting sensory rooms is focused on hospitalized individuals with mental illness, but I asked everyone to imagine themselves in jail having a hard day. 

“Most of us would be in GP, right? Wouldn’t it make you feel better to sit somewhere comfortable and quiet and play music? Just be somewhere safe and by yourself for a while?”

No one answered me. Someone changed the subject. The sensory rooms were removed from the GP floor plans.

This culture of dehumanization is pervasive for those who work and live on Rikers. Incarcerated individuals are referred to as “bodies.” Waiting rooms are “pens.” Officers in riot gear are “turtles.” This is the substrate from which the violence plaguing Rikers has sustained itself for decades. In my experience, it can be briefly supplanted by someone like Officer B who engages people as equals simply by recognizing their humanity and acting accordingly. But too often, this opportunity is missed. With increasing desperation, a man in a cage bangs on his gate because he needs something, but the inescapable fact of his humanity has become questionable to those responsible for meeting his needs. Somehow, he learns that throwing his feces is his best course of action, but he has to work up to it.