Gotham Gazette

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Little Has Changed Since I was Held on Rikers; It's Time to Shift Resources as We Close the Jail

A classroom on Rikers Island (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

I spent three-and-a-half years on Rikers Island, as both an adolescent and adult. During this time, I experienced and witnessed countless episodes of abuse and neglect, including frequent medical and mental health neglect, and the inadequacy of programming that properly prepares those detained for community reentry. 

It appears that very little has changed in the 31 years since I was incarcerated, and conditions may have worsened. In the past two years, 36 people have died after being held in the custody of the Department of Correction, including 19 people last year alone. 

Instead of relying on this broken system, we should close Rikers Island by 2027, as is the law, and invest in resources that will keep all of us safe: supports for those reentering our communities, such as behavioral health services, substance use treatment, medical care, employment support, and more.

Those held on Rikers are suffering needlessly and in ways that render everyone there – staff and people in custody alike – unsafe. Over half of the people in Correction’s custody have a mental health diagnosis – and between 20% and 50% desperately need consistent mental health treatment of some kind – yet from February to October of 2022, people in custody missed over 12,000 medical appointments, in part because staff were not there to escort them.

This is simply unacceptable and must not be rewarded by increasing the budget for an agency that is failing to provide basic services to those in its custody and control.  

The proposed city budget for the Department of Correction represents an increase of more than $35 million, and projects that 88.5% of agency expenses are earmarked for staff salaries and benefits. This is both disproportionate and shocking, because the Department does not lack financial resources.  

The problems in our jails will not be solved by increasing funding for the same line items that are not only failing to produce results but resulting in harm and death. In 2022, our city spent 350% more for each incarcerated person than the two other largest jail systems in the country — Los Angeles and Cook County, Illinois — and yet individuals in its custody are being subjected to horrific conditions.  

One way that cost savings from the budget could be utilized is to enhance funding for supportive housing for people leaving jail and prison, to prevent them from returning. Current funding for Justice Involved Supportive Housing is so far below what is sufficient that no current service provider, including my organization, The Fortune Society, submitted a proposal to receive that funding.  

That was a painful choice to make given the need, because the Fortune Society, which supports successful reentry from incarceration and promotes alternatives to incarceration, has been in the business of providing such housing for more than two decades.

Another solution would be to enhance the Board of Correction: the Board must have the staff necessary to perform its city charter-mandated oversight of the Department of Correction. The Board needs the resources to conduct regular, unscheduled visits to observe jail conditions and speak with people in custody, as well as Correction staff. Having eyes and ears on the ground has proven crucial to the Board’s ability to report on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of people in custody.

At The Fortune Society, we believe in the power of people to change. But the city must change as well in the face of the record number of deaths and persistent dysfunction at Rikers.

The city is bound by law to close Rikers Island by 2027. Given the waste of our taxpayer funds on a broken system, the mayoral administration must adhere to that timeline, while investing in crucial jail oversight, alternatives to incarceration programs, reentry services, and supportive housing.  

This is not only a pathway to humane treatment, but also one with a proven track record of improving public safety. We can no longer avoid what has become a stain on the conscience of our city – and continue to put too many lives at stake.  

Andre Ward is the Associate Vice President of The David Rothenberg Center for Public Policy at The Fortune Society. On Twitter @AAWardSR1 & @thefortunesoc.

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