Held indefinitely: Will anything ever change at Rikers Island?

City & State New York

Last fall, a group of New School students decided to participate in some subway vandalism. After noticing the official MTA subway map didn’t have Rikers Island labeled, they began posting stickers around the beige oval near LaGuardia Airport in Queens. “Rikers is here,” the red circles said, and below that, “#SeeRikers.” In April the project really started grabbing attention, getting write-ups in The Atlantic, Fusion and Untapped Cities. When the MTA released new maps in November to add the W line, something else was added, too: Neighborhood labels were back, and so was Rikers’ name.

The past 12 months have revealed a lot of New Yorkers who want to treat Rikers Island a little more like a neighborhood. Some mean it literally, hoping to clear the island of its notorious jails to build housing. Others, more broadly, hope to fix Rikers as it is and make it a place that New Yorkers can be proud of, rather than a dysfunctional, violent and isolated remnant of an older New York. But outside of the subway map, nobody yet has gotten their wish. 

Just as the movement to shut down Rikers was re-emerging in November 2015, City & State published a series evaluating the idea of closing the island’s jails and moving inmates elsewhere. In the year since, there have been three massive changes regarding the operation of Rikers island, each one big enough to shake up the island on its own. The dormant movement to shut down the jails was revived, with support from some of the city’s biggest political players. A federal monitor began overseeing reform in the jails. And the president of the correction officers’ union, long considered an opponent to reform, was arrested and replaced with a new leader.

And yet, the overall picture of Rikers Island looks the same as it did in 2015. To be sure, real, lasting change is often slow, but the turbulence of the last 12 months has not yet brought real change – and by some measures the situation has gotten even worse. The leadership of Rikers – City Hall and the Correction Department – was given an opportunity, but hasn’t been able to capitalize. Rikers Island itself seems to be held in indefinite detention.

“We will not allow the mayor to hold himself out as national progressive while maintaining Rikers Island in his backyard.”

– Glenn Martin, #CLOSErikers founder

However you hash it out – #ShutDownRikers, #CLOSErikers, #ClosingRikers – the notion of getting rid of Rikers has clearly entered the mainstream. Considered for periods under the Koch and Bloomberg administrations, the conversation was all but dead outside of some activist circles until early this year. Closing Rikers became front-page news on Feb. 11 when New YorkCity Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito made jail reform a major topic of her State of the City address, ultimately saying, “We must explore how we can get the population of Rikers to be so small that the dream of shutting it down becomes a reality.” 

Mark-Viverito created a commission led by former state Chief Justice Jonathan Lippman to consider ways to reform and ultimately shut down the island. That same week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo admitted he was intrigued by the idea, calling it a “big solution” to a “big problem.” Real estate developers, arguably the most powerful force in the city, quickly made no secret of salivating over the 415-acre island’s potential, sharing mock-ups with Crain’s New York Business of the island redeveloped with housing, extended runways for nearby LaGuardia Airport and even a velodrome.

Criminal justice activists, some of whom had long been calling for the closing of Rikers, seemed energized. After months of social media activism and a protest at a Board of Correction meeting, the Campaign to Shut Down Rikers held its first rally on Feb. 23 in City Hall Park. Gabriel Sayegh, a longtime advocate with the Drug Policy Alliance, co-founded the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice at that time and partnered with other advocacy groups on the #CLOSErikers campaign, then less than a year old. With Mark-Viverito and Cuomo’s support, he said, closing Rikers was “all of a sudden being presented as a realistic direction … and the only person who hedges is de Blasio.” 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threw cold water on the idea of closing Rikers days after Mark-Viverito’s speech. The mayor, who is ultimately in charge of Rikers Island and the Department of Correction, called it a “noble concept” but noted the significant financial and logistical challenges that would be involved. 

For a mayor with clear aspirations of being a national standard-bearer for progressive causes, de Blasio’s caution on Rikers confused advocates like Sayegh. He noted that people called de Blasio’s plan for universal pre-K crazy and unrealistic, but he stuck with it. “For that guy to come out and say (closing Rikers) is too big,” Sayegh said. “The level of hypocrisy is too much to bear almost!” 

Glenn Martin, founder of the #CLOSErikers campaign and executive director of nonprofit JustLeadershipUSA, used the same argument. “We will not allow the mayor to hold himself out as national progressive while maintaining Rikers Island in his backyard,” he told City & State.

Martin thinks the closure of Rikers is in line with de Blasio’s values, and the mayor just needs to be shown a path to get there. “He may not be there now,” Martin said, “but I’m confident we’re going to build the kind of community pressure that’s going to get him there.” 

This is not to say de Blasio is alone in his hesitation. Shutting down Rikers would most likely necessitate a major overhaul of sentencing and bail in the criminal justice system to reduce the city's inmate population, which now averages a little under 10,000. And with the vast majority of them detained in 10 jails on Rikers Island, the city would need to build multiple new jails elsewhere in the five boroughs to supplement its three off-island facilities. Building these jails would be expensive and take years to complete, and assuming the usual land review procedure is followed, local City Council members would have to approve putting the jails in their districts. The de Blasio administration has identified potential sites for new jails in the Bronx, Staten Island and elsewhere, but as Queens City Councilman Paul Vallone put it at a November hearing, “There’s not a council member in the city who’s going to say, ‘Put that facility in our district. We really want it there.’ It’s never going to happen. Never.”

De Blasio, of course, has an election to worry about, and many of the sites that would be considered for new jails are in the outer-borough neighborhoods where he needs to earn votes in order to win re-election next year. While a push to build in northeast Queens or Staten Island may lose de Blasio some votes, there’s reason to believe the real Rikers-related challenge could come from his left. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, whose name has been floated as a possible Democratic primary challenger to de Blasio, has not shied away from talking about Rikers, calling for it to be closed in November 2015, a few months before Mark-Viverito’s speech, and recently releasing an audit showing a rise in both violence and spending per inmate. 

“If the mayor doesn’t get a challenge, who cares?” said Bill Cunningham, a former aide to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, now with Dan Klores Communications. But he says if there’s a candidate who wants to talk about criminal justice issues a few months from now, “then the mayor might feel some political heat.” 

This debate around new facilities has become the main focus of the conversation around closing Rikers in the last few months as de Blasio and city Correction Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte scrambled to get on the same page. There is consensus among stakeholders in Rikers that at least some of the jails on the island are old and poorly designed and need to be either renovated or replaced. Ponte said he preferred building new facilities to renovating old ones in a Sept. 16 speech at New York Law School, but shared a sort of ambivalence over where new facilities would be built. “We’ll hear a lot more about the on- and off-Rikers model,” he said, “but as we speak, we do need new facilities.”

A month later, Ponte’s prayers seemed to be answered as the Village Voice reported that prep work had resumed on a brand-new, 1,500-bed jail on Rikers Island. Asked about it at a press conference two days later on Oct. 14, de Blasio punted, saying he didn’t know anything about a new facility, but he once again questioned the practicality of closing Rikers.

While it’s still unclear how much work has been done on the potential new jail on Rikers, Ponte shed some light on the reason for the administration’s hesitations at a Nov. 14 City Council hearing. “I think as we look at construction and kind of the movement to close Rikers all those things politically have to be taken into consideration,” he said. “So the 1,500-bed facility is still at a pause right now.” 

One year after the movement to shut down Rikers resurfaced, all eyes are on Lippman’s  27-membercommission, which is expected to publish its first report early this spring. While much of the conversation seems to be on pause, anything is possible once the recommendations come out. The de Blasio administration could resume construction on Rikers, getting Ponte closer to his desired jail, or de Blasio could decide – in an election year – that closing Rikers is a necessity. The activists are doing their best to remind the mayor they’re still here, including holding a Dec. 4 vigil outside Gracie Mansion, but for the moment City Hall seems to be waiting. 

“There’s not a council member in the city who’s going to say, ‘Put that facility in our district. We really want it there.’ It’s never going to happen. Never.” – City Councilman Paul Vallone

The past year on Rikers gave City Hall another opportunity for big change in the form of a court mandate. In late October 2015, an independent monitor began overseeing the Department of Correction as part of a settlement the city reached with the U.S. Attorney’s office. The “Nuñez settlement” came out of a class-action accusing the Department of Correction of widespread civil rights abuses, including excessive and unnecessary use of force by correction officers on Rikers detainees – much of it occurring before de Blasio took office.

The first report issued by the monitoring team on May 31 called the settlement an effort to “dismantle the decades-long culture of violence” on Rikers and ensure the safety of both staff and inmates – especially young inmates. These goals, and the idea that Rikers needs reform, face none of the opposition that shutting down Rikers does. In a statement, de Blasio even hailed the agreement as a “strong step toward our goal of reversing the decades of abuse.”

The two reports released so far have been largely positive. The first report credited the Correction Department with making “significant strides toward developing and implementing the foundational steps necessary to establish enduring reform.” The second report, released on Oct. 31, likewise noted “the department’s accomplishments during this monitoring period demonstrate their commitment to reform.” Across more than 60 provisions in the first report, the Department of Correction did not earn a single “non-compliance” and in fact a majority were given “substantial compliance,” the highest rating possible. The department earned similarly high marks among almost 90 provisions rated in the second report.

But the monitoring team was not entirely satisfied. The second report noted that the DOC continued to struggle with issues that gave rise to the judgment in the first place: excessive and unnecessary uses of force and violence at jails holding young inmates. “The road to sustainable reform will be neither swift nor painless,” the monitoring team wrote. “It must be traversed in an incremental, well-reasoned, and methodical manner.” The DOC was finally moving in the right direction, but it was still far from the finish line.

The tone was less forgiving at a Nov. 14 oversight hearing on compliance with the Nuñez settlement. Members of the City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice questioned the department’s leadership for an hour in hostile tones. Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Crowley questioned the DOC’s reports of the situation at Rikers improving, noting there had been an overall uptick in both inmate and staff injuries, repeatedly asking, “How. Are. You. Safer?”

Throughout the hearing, City Council members and those they called up to testify criticized both the slow pace of change and the reforms themselves, like the ending of punitive segregation – better known as solitary confinement – for 16- and 17-year-old inmates. This change has been seized upon by critics of the de Blasio administration’s jail policies, like the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, whose leadership believes that solitary confinement is the best way to keep correction officers safe. Young inmates were nine times more likely to be subject to the use of force by correction officers than the adult population in the first period examined by the compliance team.

Many other reforms were met with reservation by the committee. The development of a new use-of-force policy was a good thing, but training working officers in the policy was going too slow. Moving 16- and 17-year-olds off the island to a new facility was a great idea, but there was no timeline for its implementation. Fewer correction officers were getting seriously injured on Rikers, but overall violence had not been reduced.

Criticism of the reform agenda has even come from those who know the department best, including Bernard Kerik, who served as DOC commissioner from 1998 to 2000. In a phone interview with City & State, Kerik said that Rikers Island has the same amount of violence today as it did when it had double the current inmate population of around 9,000. “They brought in Joe Ponte,” he said, “to reduce the violence, stop the corruption, enhance morale within in the agency. And in all three of those categories it’s either gotten worse or nothing’s changed.”

The Department of Correction under Ponte had been attempting to reform Rikers Island before the independent monitor began overseeing the island, but this past year under the monitor was an opportunity to shake the island free of its toxic reputation. While some indicators have shown improvement, violence on Rikers has not gone down in the 13 months since the oversight began. As Ponte said at the City Council hearing, “I’m not sure who’s trying to paint a rosy picture, but we have work to do and clearly we all admit to that.”

The single biggest change on Rikers Island this year may have come with the arrest of Norman Seabrook, who had been president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association – the biggest union on Rikers – since 1995. Seabrook was accused of investing the union’s pension fund into a risky hedge fund in exchange for kickbacks – including $60,000 in cash hand-delivered in a Ferragamo bag. Endless stories have been told about Seabrook’s power in the jails. He was known to shut down all traffic on the single bridge on and off Rikers Island in order to make his demands heard, or even to keep certain detainees from going to court and testifying against his officers. Seabrook was not afraid to criticize Ponte, particularly on issues of officer safety, and was a strong opponent of efforts to end solitary confinement for younger inmates.

After Seabrook’s arrest in June 2016, his second-in-command, Elias Husamudeen, took over as president. For Ponte and the DOC, it was an opportunity to start anew and push for a healthier relationship than they’d had with Seabrook, who The New York Times called a “roadblock to reform.” But any hopes for a new era of good feelings were quickly tempered. Husamudeen had been a part of COBA’s leadership since 1995, faithfully serving Seabrook as treasurer and vice president. While he may lack his old boss’s taste for Ferragamo handbags, by all accounts Husamudeen shares similar views on advocacy for members and antagonism for city leadership.

In less than five months as president, Husamudeen has brought a lawsuit against the mayor, the City Council and the Board of Correction, which oversees the DOC, alleging that correction officer complaints were not being investigated. He has taken out radio and newspaper ads riffing on de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign message, saying that while violence is down in New York City, it’s up on Rikers. And Husamudeen has taken up Seabrook’s calls for Ponte to resign.

Martin of the #CLOSErikers Campaign said Seabrook’s arrest hasn’t changed much. “I think that the union has a set of messages that don’t change just because their leadership changes, unfortunately. When I listen to Elias talk, it could be Norman talking or it could be any other member.”

Ponte and the DOC leadership seem to be coming to the same conclusion. At the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee’s oversight hearing on Nuñez settlement compliance, City Council members used Husamudeen’s testimony to confirm their misgivings about the department’s reform efforts on Rikers. For some 45 minutes, Husamudeen eagerly shared his thoughts on how ending solitary confinement would mean “open season” on correction officers, on the disturbing lack of mental health training for his officers and more. Husamudeen praised the Committee, and Chairwoman Elizabeth Crowley in particular. “Finally they’re asking real questions,” he said. “That committee up there today, they did their job. They really did. They asked the questions that are on the mind of my members.”

In January 2015, former New York City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn wrote an op-ed for criminal justice news site The Marshall Project that now seems prescient. “If a federal monitor is appointed, and if Norman Seabrook were no longer the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the problems and failures of the city’s jails would continue to exist,” he wrote. While today Rikers has a federal monitor and Seabrook is out as president, as Horn explained then, there have been monitors in the past, and Seabrook was merely the latest in a long line of colorful union leaders. 

In an interview with City & State, Horn, who served as DOC commissioner from 2003 to 2009, stood by his previous prescription for reform. “It’s not either reform Rikers Island or get off Rikers Island. It’s do both,” he said. In his estimation, if the mayor decided to shut down Rikers, it would take 10 years to actually get all the inmates off the island into new facilities. “In those 10 years, a lot of damage could occur. So you’ve got to deal with Rikers Island today. At the same time that you think about, as you should, getting off.”

Reforming a jail system is slow work, and City Hall is certainly trying, but the situation around Rikers Island looks remarkably like it did a year ago. The de Blasio administration will enter 2017 much like it entered 2016: a new Rikers jail on hold while activists seethe; a combative COBA president calling for a new commissioner; complaints of increasing violence against both correction officers and detainees; and reform proceeding all too slowly. 

But at least Rikers is back on the map.

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