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Locked in a Vicious Cycle: How Past is Prologue at Rikers

Martha King

February 15, 2023

Two new books detail the impossible burden of turning around the city’s jails.

Two new books detail the impossible burden of turning around the city’s jails.

Foul dungeons do not make decent citizens… I believe the principal reason for our unspeakably vile jail conditions to be, not that the public is indifferent, but that it is not informed. I have endeavored, therefore, to bring home the fact that, relics of the dark ages as they are, such conditions do exist, and not in occasional instances but in almost every jail in America…once the public became cognizant of this barbarous situation, it would demand a swift change.

-Joseph Fulling Fishman, “Crucibles of Crime: The Shocking Story of the American Jail,” 1923

For a hesitant moment the lid on the garbage can is lifted. We look inside, see and smell the muck we’ve probably known was in there all along, experience the appropriate shock, revulsion and shame, and then move on to the next garbage can…changing nothing… After spending hour after hour inside the Tombs and speaking with hundreds of the inmates, I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps there is only one meaningful reform: Let them out.

-Geraldo Rivera, former Board of Correction mayoral appointee, letter to the editor, New York Times, 1971


It has been 100 years since Joseph Fishman, the first inspector of jails for the U.S. government, wrote that most American jails are “repellant human dumping grounds,” and about 50 years since NYC Board of Correction member Geraldo Rivera, sounding like an abolitionist, resigned. Both of them, like two recently published histories of New York City’s jails — “Rikers: An Oral History” by Graham Rayman and Reuven Blau and “Captives: How Rikers Island Took New York City Hostage” by Jarrod Shanahan — force us to ask: Why has little to nothing changed for the better inside New York City’s jails?

The two books use different methods, but both make forceful cases for the closure of Rikers Island and for sweeping changes to the way we incarcerate. Together, the books give the reader the sense that either reform of NYC’s jails is doomed to inevitable failure or we must try something extraordinarily different, starting with fewer jails and people in jail.

The only reasonable conclusion from these well-researched histories is that Rikers Island is irredeemable and must be shuttered.

As Elizabeth Glazer has written in Vital City, “every available measure of violence [inside NYC jails] is exponentially higher than in 2015 when the City submitted to a federal consent decree aimed at reducing the then-unconstitutional levels of violence.” And yet, the two options aimed at fundamentally disrupting the culture of violence and dysfunction in the jails — instituting a federal receiver and closing Rikers Island — are off or about to fall off the table.

The federal judge who could institute a receiver, free of political and city and state legal restraints, to rebuild the Department of Correction from the bottom up and top down, has been successfully encouraged by the Nunez federal monitor. Meanwhile, Mayor Adams is developing a “Plan B” to the “Close Rikers” plan endorsed by the former mayor, City Council and many advocates. That vision articulated plans to keep the number of people incarcerated below 3,300 and create four jails located in proximity to courts, families and lawyers.

Both “Rikers” and “Captives” make painfully clear that from one mayoral administration to the next, and despite many efforts at reform, preventable human suffering and death continue unabated. In our current political context, the only reasonable conclusion from these well-researched histories is that Rikers Island is irredeemable and must be shuttered.

Captives” documents crises as nothing new in New York City jails. It chronicles a cyclical pattern over more than 60 years: protests or rebellions by detained people in response to deplorable and often unconstitutional conditions, scathing investigations, attempts by management to keep the “lid on the garbage can” and obstruction by DOC uniformed staff in the form of insubordination, slowdowns, stoppages and violence. 

The result of these efforts? More tax dollars, officers and jail beds, even as inhumane conditions persist.

Rikers” shows that crisis should not be understood in abstract numbers but instead as a daily, individual experience of shocking brutality and harmful negligence. Kandra Clark described seeing a young woman in the admission “pens” in 2010. The woman repeatedly asked for food as officers ate and laughed at her. Kandra said she “pushed her hand outside through the bar… grabbed the garbage can that was sitting next to the bullpen…and grabbed out pieces of half-eaten baloney.”

Paul Wooster, who was detained in 2016, describes “archaic” and “dungeon”-like conditions on Rikers, deeming the jail intake “the seven chambers of hell” — complete with overcrowding, overflowing toilets, extreme temperatures, lack of food and access to drinking water only when it was served in plastic gloves.

Anna Gristina was detained and placed in a condemned psychiatric ward in 2012 where the temperature was so high, she suffered heatstroke. She said, “Every time I took a shower there were two-inch water bugs and it reeked of cat urine, because there is a cat colony under there. There was no water source other than orange juice or milk they gave me at meals.”

These and countless other stories, covering at least four decades, validate systemwide data and numerous investigations and reveal that reform efforts have failed time and again.

In a jail system where in a recent three-month period incarcerated people filed more than 9,000 complaints, most frequently about medical care, staff conduct, housing, physical plant conditions and assaults, there is no shortage of documentation from incarcerated people about the harm occurring inside. Those complaints and stories are frequently silenced, ignored or minimized by DOC — but “Rikers” shows great consistency in the interviews of detained people and former staff.

“Captives,” a political narrative that functions as an indispensable companion, shows that again and again, across mayoral administrations, commissioners, facilities and reform efforts, suffering and atrocities have continued within New York City’s jails. 

Today’s headlines, reports and debates are strikingly like those of the past. New York State Committee on Crime and Correction’s investigations into the city jails in 1968 and 1970, after a significant rise in suicides and multiple rebellions and jail takeovers, found: key DOC positions unfilled, low officer morale, managerial staff constantly rotating and excessive court delays.

State Sen. John Dunne concluded in 1969: “Intense overcrowding, inadequate personnel and poorly designed facilities have resulted in turning detention facilities into settings less humane than our public zoos and more fertile breeding grounds for crime than the streets from which they have been taken.” In 1971, the Board of Correction found that “services to inmates had broken down, food served cold and late, working conditions had deteriorated to the point where on-duty officers walked off their posts and left the cellblocks unmanned.”

Why have these abhorrent conditions continued?

The books hint at multiple reasons, including a failure of leadership, vision and execution on the part of mayors and commissioners, endemic corruption with the jails and a politically powerful union that has systematically blocked reforms.

Some past administrations had limited vision. Commissioner Benjamin Ward said that Mayor Ed Koch’s plan for DOC was the “same agenda as every other chief executive officer... Sit on the lid of the can and keep the garbage inside. Don’t let it rise. Don’t let them get out.”

But more often, commissioners have struggled and failed to gain control. A theme of “Captives” is a continuous power struggle between DOC commissioners and the officers’ union (COBA) for control of the jails. When Commissioner Anna Kross was appointed in 1954, she was appalled by the “horse and buggy” conditions of the jails and a highly decentralized structure that permitted each jail to run rogue. Twenty-three years later, Commissioner William Ciuros was still trying to get consistency in policy and practice across the jails. Ciuros was shunned by COBA for bringing in civilian inspectors to monitor officer activity, restricting use of force and demoting staff who took excessive overtime or sick leave.

In 1979, Ciuros wrote that he would no longer tolerate wardens’ and deputy wardens’ “imagined” table of organization and their acting independently of his office. He continued, “It is this misperception that has caused some of you to view your primary role as that of advocate for your subordinates. In fact, you are responsible for and are paid substantial salaries to help develop and then to carry out policy rather than defend others’ failure of it.” When he arrived in 1998, Commissioner Bernie Kerik still found an “uncoordinated” “mess” on Rikers.

One fundamental barrier for management depicted in both books is that DOC officers have a tenacious habit of inconsistently following policy.

Even when commissioners thought they’d fixed something, it didn’t stick. Kross claimed victory over two problems that persist. In 1954, she announced an end to staff’s “lock-’em-up-forget-about-’em policy.” But the Board of Correction found people locked in and hidden in closed housing units without running water or mattresses in 2016 and 2017, and in 2022, the Board of Correction and the Nunez Monitor documented people languishing in intakes and caged showers for lengthy periods.

Kross also took aim at messy, unsanctioned housing classification (“cell blocks were permitted to be dominated by the prisoners”) that contributed to smuggling and violence in the jails. Kross and every commissioner since has failed at solving this problem. Retired correction officer Fitzgerald David (1987-2014) says in “Rikers” that DOC management “tell[s] everyone, ‘Oh, we house inmates by classification.’ They’re lying. You’re not housing these inmates by classification. You’re housing by gang affiliation.” More recently, DOC’s Action Plan required by the federal court includes the creation of a centralized custody management unit to ensure people are housed according to policy and that one gang does not dominate any housing unit. As past Nunez Monitor reports document, similar efforts were pursued in 2015 and the intervening years.

One fundamental barrier for management depicted in both books is that DOC officers have a tenacious habit of inconsistently following policy. An anonymous detained person in 1962 noted that activity in the jail just “depends on the officer who’s on.” Someone detained in 1968 similarly said of staff: “If they feel like letting you go out again, they let you… It’s really what they feel.”

Past efforts to hold staff accountable generated blowback. Even the first DOC career correction officer to be appointed commissioner, Commissioner Jacqueline McMickens, was not immune to COBA’s criticism. In 1984, when she implemented stricter limits on sick leave, COBA responded with a full-page advertisement in The Chief calling her “Anti-Officer.” When she hosted the American Correctional Association conference, COBA picketed it.

Considering the history of management’s failure to get staff to do what they ask, it should not be surprising that the interviews in “Rikers” describe intransigent staff corruption.

Eddie Rosario, detained in 1990, said, “When you walk into a place where your body is owned by the state…when you see them acting worse than the people incarcerated, there is no law. I never saw the absence of the rule of law that I experienced in Rikers [in NYS prisons].”

During the dedication of the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men on Atlantic Avenue in 1956, the jail was described as replacing a “dungeon” with a spacious, airy and light jail.

Testimonials in “Rikers” are filled with details of criminal acts by staff and zero accountability. Hector “Pastor Benny” Custodio, detained in the early 1990s, said, “The officers…would smuggle cocaine, heroin, phones, anything we needed.” Detained from 1983 to 1987, Amin “Minister” King similarly described “badges” working for detained people who would dole out favors and violence in exchange for compensation.

Rick Lombardi, a gang investigator for DOC until 2011, and Nestor Eversley, detained multiple times between 1969 and 2010s, described officers who were gang members and assisted detained gang members in perpetrating violence. Frank Pasqua III, detained in 2003 and 2012, described paying officers “a flat salary every week” in exchange for contraband phones, preferential treatment in housing, and smuggled tobacco and suboxone that he sold.

The author of “Captives” is an abolitionist and documents how every NYC jail built to replace one that was mired in crisis and dilapidation only came to reflect the same conditions. During the dedication of the Brooklyn House of Detention for Men on Atlantic Avenue in 1956, the jail was described as replacing a “dungeon” with a spacious, airy and light jail that the New York Times celebrated as “colorful and modern.” The Brooklyn House of Detention closed in 2020, widely known as one of the most decrepit, dangerous and poorly planned jails in recent history.

C-76, later renamed the Eric M. Taylor Center, opened in 1964 as the reception center for men detained in the jails. DOC announced, “a maximum of light and air is made possible through spaciousness and layout of building design,” and the “walls are painted in harmonizing blends of pastel shades that lend a tone of pleasant brightness within the institution and seem to blend in with the spreading green lawns outside. It is all calculated to lift the spirits not only of the inmates but of the institutional staff as well.” EMTC closed in 2020 and re-opened in 2021. It again serves as the admission jail for men coming into city custody, and earned 2022 headlines for inhumane conditions and staff attempts to cover them up. Shanahan’s work reminds us that a new jail is no antidote to suffering and corruption.

But today a “no new jails” platform seems like self-immolation and even more disconnected from New Yorkers than when Shanahan was writing. Mayor Adams has embraced a law-and-order mandate and the vast majority of New Yorkers think crime is a serious problem. Many resist or outright reject alternative solutions other than policing and jails. In 2023, we face emergency conditions inside the city jails but also contend with an increasing number of people detained and the strong likelihood that, rather than closing Rikers and opening four borough jails, New York City will have an expanded jail system that includes Rikers.

DOC has created an Action Plan with a recycled playbook promising to meet their basic responsibilities and do what they’ve always been required to do by law. Moreover, the department has retaliated against and sought to debilitate the city’s independent watchdog, the Board of Correction, and limit the press’ access to information. The Nunez federal monitor and DOC management have conspired to keep their next data report confidential, arguing bizarrely and condescendingly that the public will be confused by transparency.

“Rikers” and “Captives” prove that another promise to fulfill the same old plans, while trying to keep scrutiny at bay, will not succeed. Instead, closing Rikers and incarcerating fewer people are prerequisites to disrupting the broken culture that has festered there for a century.