A Call for Community Review of Rikers Island Jail

Amid reports of human rights abuses of prisoners at Rikers Island and plans for a new solitary confinement wing, grassroots organizing groups demand a real say by the community in changes made at the jail.

On December 19, the New York City Board of Correction gathered in lower Manhattan for a public hearing on proposed housing for prisoners at Rikers Island, the second-largest jail in the country. They were discussing a new, 250-bed Enhanced Segregated Housing (ESH) unit – which got final approval in a vote last month – to be filled with “prisoners who require an enhanced level of supervision for security reasons.”

Can raw activist energy change a jail as large and entrenched as Rikers, or will activists have to settle for some tinkering at the edges?

Emerging in the wake of a federal lawsuit against the city for conditions at Rikers, the new housing program – coupled with the end of solitary confinement for prisoners younger than 21 – may seem, on the surface at least, like the breath of fresh air the floating jail complex could use right now. Certainly this is the line being peddled by city government and the Department of Corrections. However The New York Times reported recently, using the most recent available Corrections Department data, that use of force by guards against Rikers’ youngest inmates dramatically increased in December, and use of force by corrections officers against inmates reached the highest numbers in a more than a decade last year.

But December’s hearing saw a handful of grassroots social justice organizations operating in New York City put forth demands of their own, with the formation of an ad-hoc Community Review Board (CRB) chief among them. The idea is that citizens should be actively taking part in the management of the facility, which begs comparison to Guantanamo, that other, floating American hellhole of extended detention. Organizers from the Rikers Action Committee, Stop Mass Incarceration, and Network and the Negation – citing authority from section 1043 of the Administrative Procedure Act, which provides guidelines for administrative bodies granted legal legitimacy through local New York state government – want a real say in changes made at the jail.

Their mission raises the question: Can raw activist energy change a jail as large and entrenched as Rikers, or will activists have to settle for some tinkering at the edges?

As envisioned in the resolution, the CRB would consist of grassroots organizers and those directly affected by mass incarceration, including former prisoners and their families. More than half the population at Rikers consists of black and Latino people from low-income neighborhoods, and the CRB would ensure preference is given to board applicants with similar racial, ethnic and geographic backgrounds. Powers of the CRB would include oversight of educational, disciplinary and vocational activity, the authority to staff Rikers’ Grievance Committee, and making sure that New York City complies with the United Nation’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. (At this time, it does not: Prolonged stints in solitary confinement are still common at Rikers Island, though the UN considers this practice to be a form of torture.)

“The prison management does not reflect the prison population or any of the demographics that relate to it,” Dakem, an organizer with New York City’s Jails Action Coalition told Truthout. “The only way in which the population is ever going to be able to reintegrate and become a progressive part of the community is if they’re reeducated and re-socialized.”

It’s unclear whether the New York City Council would allow the formation of a CRB. When asked whether a community review board like the one proposed in December is a plausible scenario, Sarah Solon, director of press and public information at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told me opaquely over email, “Our office routinely meets with grassroots advocates, just as we do with defenders and DAs, and asks for their opinion on policy proposals.”

Corizon will also oversee health-care management at the ESH unit at Rikers and have significant sway in deciding who is placed in solitary in this new ultra-restrictive housing.

A few days before the hearing, I sat in on a meeting of Resist Rikers, a horizontally structured association of activists that formed out of the Rikers Action Committee. Most of those in attendance expressed a desire to push forward with the CRB, with or without the city’s blessing. It remains unclear what the CRB could look like if the city does not come on board; Resist Rikers has not publically announced an action or proposal related to the possible CRB since December.

Enhanced Segregation Housing (ESH) will impose harsher sanctions on prisoners and lower the minimum standards for their treatment, as articulated and approved by the BOC – making the January hearing an ideal moment to agitate for a CRB. According to the Department of Corrections, the ESH will not be used for “punitive segregation,” but there’s a long list of offenses that can land a prisoner in the new unit, including engaging in violent activities or possession of a scalpel-like weapon. Prisoners can also be placed in ESH for being identified as a “security risk group leader,” an ill-defined status the DOC may ascertain via confidential informants, mail and phone monitoring, officer observations and the like.

Prisoners with mental health diagnoses, who make up nearly 40 percent of the Rikers incarcerated population, will also be considered for placement within the ESH. People housed there would have a minimum of one hour of recreation per day, “enhanced restraint status” (mitts, side-cuffing and leg shackles may be used) for all “movement outside the housing unit,” and a maximum of 17 hours of lock-in time every day.

In an op-ed published in the New York Daily News just ahead of the vote, recently appointed Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte wrote of the proposed reforms, “There are those who argue that ESH is another form of punitive segregation. Nothing could be further from the truth. . . . The Board of Corrections can approve the rules changes and allow Mayor de Blasio’s agenda of meaningful reforms to move forward. Or it can vote for the failed status quo.”

Dakem spoke to me of the DOC’s plans in stark terms. “Enhanced security housing, what does that sound like?” he asked. “Enhanced interrogation technique. Torture.”

It is extremely rare for communities most affected by mass incarceration to have any say in inmate correction in the United States, home to a quarter of the world’s prison population. When outsourcing inmate management, the overwhelming preference of the American prison system is to bring in private companies, not citizens. A quick glance at the steep rise of for-profit prison companies – the largest being the Corrections Corporation of America and the GEO Group – over the past two decades confirms this much. Between 1999 and 2010 alone, the federal private prison population grew by 784 percent.

Rikers Island is no stranger to the trendy privatization of prisons and jails and related services: Inmate services within the jail are increasingly being outsourced to private companies. Since 2001, the jail has contracted the largest private prison health provider in the country, Corizon Correctional Healthcare, and its predecessors, to manage prisoner health care. Corizon has a history of attracting lawsuits for brutally negligent care, such as frequently refusing to send prisoners to hospitals. At Rikers, denial of medical care – even in dire cases – is routine. Corizon will also oversee health-care management at the ESH unit at Rikers and have significant sway in deciding who is placed in solitary in this new ultra-restrictive housing.

One of Ponte’s first acts as commissioner, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s support, was to bring in consulting firm McKinsey & Company to reform prisoner and correction officer violence. McKinsey has worked with American Express and Verizon, but it’s unclear whether it has any experience advising prisons and jails.

Glenn E. Martin – a prison justice reform advocate for the past two decades, whose organization JustLeadershipUSA also hopes to implement a community review board (though they were not affiliated with the petition presented last month) – said of the decision to bring in the consulting firm, “$1.7 million is what McKinsey uses to buy their coffee, so I don’t think that’s going to change anything.”

Normally, this sort of institutional irresponsibility remains, well, private. But that’s changing. Mayor de Blasio visited Rikers for the first time in December, the day before the federal government announced its plans to sue the state of New York for civil rights abuses regarding treatment of juvenile prisoners at the jail. This comes on the heels of a horrifying report released over the summer by the US Attorney Preet Bharara on abuses of adolescent prisoners at the facility.

The idea of a CRB arose as a way to combat these and so many other daily, systemic wrongs at the jail.

The city does already have a few mechanisms in place for evaluating conditions at Rikers and processing prisoner grievances. Members of New York City BOC are charged with monitoring conditions in the city’s jails, reviewing prisoner and correction officer grievances, evaluating the DOC’s performance, and making recommendations regarding jail facilities and practices.

The board consists of nine individuals: three appointed by the mayor and nominated jointly by the justices of the appellate division of the Supreme Court for the first and second judicial departments, three appointed directly by the mayor, and three appointed by the city council. Board members serve for terms of six years.

“These are people who are friends of the mayor, friends of the council, and they’re not advocates. I love them; they do good work, but they’re not gonna call the mayor on his shit.”

Three of those seats remained empty for several months until, in October – under pressure from the federal government to introduce a plan for reform at Rikers – de Blasio filled the two vacant positions. State judges appointed a third. The new board members are a hospital executive, a corporate lawyer and a former city official. As you might expect, none of them have ever been incarcerated at Rikers.

A few of those seats continue to be warmed by local oligarchs, including the vice chairman, a billionaire who made his fortune in the fertilizer business and often misses meetings. Another is a managing director at JP Morgan Chase.

But even if the board has some well-meaning reformers in its midst, it still has little power to enact significant change in the lives of Rikers’ 11,500 prisoners. According to Martin, “These are people who are friends of the mayor, friends of the council, and they’re not advocates. I love them; they do good work, but they’re not gonna call the mayor on his shit.”

Martin put some of the blame on de Blasio for “cherry-picking” his board members.

“I think he’s very sensitive to attacks by the press on being soft on crime,” Martin said. “And it’s too bad.” The murder of two NYPD officers in Bed-Stuy last month threw into sharp relief the stewing tensions between de Blasio and the NYPD, making his stated goal of improving conditions at Rikers that much harder to bring to fruition.

Within the jail, there are two ways prisoners can register their own grievances: the Prisoner Grievance and Request Program and the Prisoner Council. The former essentially deals with personal grievances, the latter with communal ones.

Cecily McMillan, a founder of the Rikers Organizing Committee, spent 58 days in Rikers this past summer after being convicted of assaulting a police officer – who, she claims, grabbed her right breast from behind – at an Occupy Wall Street protest.

McMillan, after filing a certain grievance regarding access to the press for several weeks, was finally allowed to meet with Inmate Grievances and Request Program staff. McMillan claims that she should have been granted her request, according to privilieges enumerated in the inmate handbook, the rules for prisoners at Rikers. When presented with McMillan’s request, the staff member allegedly told her that she could not oblige it, because she did not have a copy of the inmate handbook, nor did she know where to get one. The request was later officially processed and found by the program to be “ungrievable.”

As for the prisoner council, in which prisoners from each housing unit select representatives to air grievances with the administration, according to McMillan, “Nobody cares about being represented, because nobody believes in it.”

These experiences, among others, led McMillan, Dakem – who was incarcerated at Rikers as a minor – and the third member of the Rikers Action Committee, Paul Funkhouser, to begin laying the groundwork for a CRB this fall.

In November, the plan to implement an ad hoc review board was first announced at a rally at the gates of Rikers Island in Queens, attended by a few dozen activists and a couple of news vans. “This is not democracy,” McMillan shouted to the crowd, “and it will not be democracy until we stand with our brothers and our sisters, our friends and our families, right over there, who are made to be an underclass.”

That the public is allowed to see so little of what goes on at Rikers, much less have a chance to improve upon its abysmal conditions, is perhaps the greatest roadblock to reform. If nothing else, that’s something a community review panel could help begin to remedy.

“The problem,” according to Martin, who’s spent half a dozen years in New York prisons, “is that we haven’t done a good job of reminding the mayor, and the city council, and New York residents, that they own what happens there.”