Inside Riders: Dysfunction, chaos, and captives in control

When a prisoner decided to hijack a bus inside the Rikers Island prison complex, there was little to stop him.

All he had to do was get up from where he was sitting with a half-dozen other handcuffed people and walk in front of the unprotected vehicle: a gate that could have confined him had been left unprotected. The keys were in the ignition.

Putting the bus into gear, it hit a prison building and then backed up and hit it again, this time with enough force to shake walls and scatter bricks.

To outsiders, the details of the September 16 incident, which were not previously reported, may seem alarming. But for anyone who has spent time on Rikers Island in the past year, such breakdowns are business as usual.

Much has been made of New York City’s main prison complex Rikers’ woes—the pandemic and subsequent staffing emergency have taken a brutal toll on people and jailers alike—but the sheer chaos inside the campus is hard to fathom.

In some buildings detainees occupy close to total control over entire units, deciding who can enter and leave them, records and interviews show. In other buildings, they have been roaming staff break rooms and similar restricted areas, flouting some rules against smoking tobacco and marijuana. Sometimes they would answer phones that should have been operated by guards. Many have stolen the keys and used them to free other detained people, who later committed murder and other acts of violence.

The anarchy was not limited to the closed ones. Correctional officers have participated in beatings or failed to intervene in executions and other urgent situations. Last week, a guard was accused of providing a razor blade to a detainee who planned to use it as a weapon.

City officials have accused prison officials of abusing liberal sick leave policies – hundreds have been out of work – while the officers’ labor union has said guards are not going to work because conditions in prisons are unsafe and inhumane. Huh.

Both sides described the situation as a serious crisis. But troubles on Rikers Island also trace physical grounds, which have been neglected for decades, that cause doors not to close properly, cells that are too bad to contain captives and aging objects such as radiators. There are weapons that can be detached and turned into weapons. The prison complex is also dependent on guards who – due to years of mismanagement and ineffective training – sometimes fail to follow rules designed to keep them and people safe.

The result has been a constant throng of violence and dysfunction – and bizarre scenes also unlikely to play out in other correctional centers.

In August, a man awaiting trial took the keys from a corrections officer, freed another detainee, and then used a knife to slit a guard’s face and neck. Bleeding from his wounds, the jailer locked himself in his assailant’s cell and fled.

Less than three weeks later, another man discovered that a metal mesh in his cell wall was so bad he could have kicked him. He climbed through the opening and stabbed his neighbor.

In September, detainees lit an open flame on a wire mop in a staircase, using it to light cigarettes and joints.

Such incidents have caused the prison population to drop to the lowest level in decades, the result of changes to the state’s bail laws and pressure from the city last year to release hundreds of detainees amid concerns over the pandemic.

Spread across eight prison buildings on an island in the East River between the Bronx and Queens, Rikers holds more than 4,800 inmates a day, most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Most do not commit violent acts, and a significant number struggle with mental illness.

Twelve inmates, the most on the Rikers, have died this year, making 2021 the deadliest in New York City’s prison system since 2015. Four captains and eight corrections officers have been punished for failing to do their jobs properly in relation to those deaths.

Last month, more than a dozen New York Democrats called on the federal government to intervene in Rikers, raising doubts that the city could solve the problems on its own.

City officials said the Department of Corrections is focusing on reducing absenteeism among prison officials to address the disorder on the island, adding that it has made progress. At the height of the staffing crisis, nearly a third of prisons’ nearly 8,000 guards failed to perform, forcing those who could work double and triple shifts for 24 hours or more. Now, officials said, that number is closer to a quarter of the prisons’ workforce.

“We expect and call for further reform in the coming weeks,” Prisons Commissioner Vincent Shiraldi said in a statement Friday. “We will not rest until the situation improves and everyone living and working in our facilities feels safe.”

With the situation unlikely to improve dramatically before the next mayor takes office in January, the crisis presents an immediate test. A spokesman for Eric Adams, who won the Democratic mayoral primary and is likely to become the next mayor of New York City, did not directly respond to a request for comment about Rikers Island, but pointed to previous statements by Mr. Adams that In favor of running more money and resources for prisons.

As city officials struggle to respond to problems in prisons, a sense of futility has taken hold, according to interviews with seven current and former inmates and seven jailers, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. because they were not authorized to discuss at the workplace. Problem. One said he has stopped confiscating weapons – even though stabbings have doubled over the past year – because to do so he would have to use force in an area where he would be left alone with dozens of his captives. Chances are, there is no guarantee of instant backup.

“Rikers have long been useless, outdated and dangerous,” said Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, a research and advocacy organization. “What we are seeing today is the next level. It is also the inability to deliver basic services – something we have not seen in a long time, if never.

For the guards, detainees and their lawyers, the most important aspect of the current dysfunction at Rikers Island is the extent to which inmates run parts of the complex.

The New York Times reviewed thousands of pages of court filings and city records and conducted more than two dozen interviews, and from July alone found more than a dozen instances in which detainees roamed freely in prisons or enjoyed unusual access. took.

On five occasions in the past 18 months, those in captivity who should have been confined or closely monitored were free to commit violent acts in return.

After fighting broke out in a building in June 2020, a detainee leaves an unlocked housing unit, grabs a can of pepper spray from a food cart where a guard had left it and uses it to give staff members Had to spray.

About two months later, Alicia Butler, a Rikers nurse, was working in a secure office in a mental health ward when a detainee opened the security door and thrashed her with his fists, injuring her hip and knee which It was so severe that he needed surgery.

A group of men in another housing unit, upset because they said they were not getting enough to eat this summer, stopped two guards in another housing unit from locking a security door, asking them to hold keys and Took a body camera and crushed the camera under their heels as the jailer hid in a control station.

The instability inside prisons has become such that regular visitors to the buildings can never be sure what they will encounter.

Civilian staff members who arrived at a prison in September were greeted by a group of detainees who offered to escort them through the building to keep them safe.

Moving further into the prison, seeing the jailed men roaming freely, passing them in the halls and milling on the stairs, without any guards, the staff worried.

In another area, he observed that an officer in a control station allowed men to move carelessly from one unit to another.

As the crews were leaving, they encountered three guards who were escorting them to the scene without interference and a captain who ignored their requests to leave the accommodation area. The fourth guard heard the staff shouting for help and opened the gate.

Following his arrest on charges of probation violations, 49-year-old Richard Brown was brought to an area he said had others jailed last month.

Within two hours of arriving at the intake cell, he was confronted by gang members, who tried to steal his sneakers at the sight of the guards.

He said that he went for two days without eating because the others in the pen controlled the food distribution and did not allow him to eat.

When the guards tried to break up the fights, which were frequent, they destroyed all the occupants of the cell with pepper spray, whether they were fighters or not.

At the end of his two-week stay, Mr. Brown saw a group of men brutally thrash another captive in an unprotected housing area.

Mr Brown said he was still troubled by the man’s screams. “It’s worse than any torture chamber,” he said of Rikers Island. “No human should ever go through this.”

Persistent failures to repair crumbling infrastructure and to train and effectively manage guards have compounded the problems at Rikers.

The deteriorating condition inside buildings has been flagged repeatedly in court filings, inspection reports and other city records since the 1970s. A city report in 2015 warned that poor physical conditions inside prisons were providing detainees with “raw materials for fashion weapons”, with buildings full of old pipes, metal radiators and other objects that were torn down, beaten. Or could be engraved in a raw blade.

Mayor Bill de Blasio noted two years later that extensive repairs and renovations of the buildings were still needed to ensure that conditions were safe and humane. But until then his focus was on closing Rikers Island completely, rather than overseeing long-term reforms.

Problems with prison staff have been marked equally frequently, especially over the past five years. They were mentioned in federal inspection reports in 2016, when the Monitor found that staff members continued to engage in violent confrontations with detainees at the mildest provocation. And then in 2017, when the Monitor repeatedly mentioned “security lapses” by staff that led to prison chaos. The tone of the report became more critical in recent years, and monitors noted staff disobedience, a lack of basic conflict-management skills, and chronic delays in the disciplinary process.

Each time concerns were raised, the city promised to do better – and then largely failed to deliver, records and interviews show.

Despite years of reform rhetoric, “the de Blasio administration has been unable or unwilling to make serious changes,” said Mary Lynn Verlavas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

As the crisis deepened this summer, the city made more promises.

In response to reports of crippling, widespread absenteeism by prison staff in September, the mayor promised to act again, signing an emergency order imposing suspensions on corrections officers who did not show up for positions, new clinics and intakes. For repair and cleaning of prisons to open centers and to hire emergency contractors.

Still the problems persisted. A week after Mr. de Blasio signed that order, another prisoner was out of his cell when he should not have been. Free to roam the row, he stopped in a friend’s cell, and they were talking through the door when the friend’s cellmate approached holding a makeshift metal blade.

Inflicting a wound on the face of the wandering captive, his hand extended beyond the slot of food.

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