City Council Member Keith Powers (photo: John McCarten)
Last week, members of the New York City Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice toured Rikers Island to see for themselves the conditions at the problem-plagued jail complex, which is slated for closure within the next ten years. It was the first visit for the new chair of the committee, Council Member Keith Powers, who spoke with Gotham Gazette about what he and his colleagues saw, their conversations with detainees and corrections officers, and the issues it moved him to pursue.
The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Gotham Gazette (GG): How was Rikers?
Council Member Keith Powers (KP): “It was my first time going. It was quite educational and you know, I wouldn’t use the word ‘surprising’ because I’m not surprised but it certainly reconfirmed my belief that we should be doing what we are doing, which is to move in a hopefully expedited time manner to move into communities and create new borough-based facilities. It was super informative.
“We were surprisingly joined by the head of the correction officers’ union [Elias Husamudeen], who came along. We also had Stanley Richards, who’s the Board of Correction member from The Fortune Society, who also came. So with those two joining it was even better than I think we expected and had more conversation than just sort of what was going to be normally presented to us by the agency.”
GG: What was the tour like? How many buildings did you see? Did you meet with any inmates, any officers?
KP: “Yeah we did, we did a bunch. We saw the visitor’s center. We saw what they call ‘advanced supervision housing,’ which replaced solitary confinement for young inmates. We went there, we saw two parts of that. The one for the most restrictive and the one that’s least restrictive. But they’re all the most violent young, or the ones that have had a violent incident amongst the young folks. In one of them, they’re actually restrained, they can’t even get up from their desks even when they’re in the open area and in the second one there’s more freedom...We stood there and we talked to inmates in both of those facilities.
“These are young inmates who have had an incident, whether it’s a slashing or a fight or something else that led them to get in there, and so we talked to them there. We saw the academy, the school for the young inmates, we saw a sort-of medium facility...we saw the welcoming and visiting center where you actually come and show up if you’re a family member, you drop packages off -- we looked at all the protocols there. And we looked at one unit where there’s a pilot program around bringing dogs actually into one of the units, which is kind of like a reward for good behavior, I think.”
GG: This sounds like a long tour. How long were you there?
KP: “We got there around 10 o’clock and we were there till about 5 o’clock. It was really a long day. We left at 9 a.m. and we got home around 6 so basically 9 to 6, and we sort of spent an hour each way but the [DOC] actually set up the bus so we had a bus to get both ways.”
GG: What was your first impression?
KP: “Certain facilities are almost like a century old and they are, even if they’re not unsafe, even if they maybe were, they were perceived to be safe in the past, they’re certainly not, they’re not really set up to succeed, I think, on a lot of safety measures. You have, and the Department of Correction would say that, there’s some facilities that are old and the materials they used could be used, they don’t have modern materials in some of the cells, in some of the facilities that are, that would make it easier to protect the inmates, not being able to be transformed into weapons, things like that.
“And the second is that, a new facility would seem to lend itself to set up so that you could actually have less direct contact between staff and inmates, especially the very violent ones. And the other thing is that you go into a cell and you see how ridiculously small and lacking a cell is, especially particular cells we saw. It’s incredible to think that you have to spend your entire life for some period of time in one of these cells because they’re tiny and they’re not modern...it depends on where you are but there are jails that go back to the 1930s, so you’re in something that was built before World War II. It’s incredible.
“So it’s shocking, it’s really shocking. When you talk to the inmates directly, some of them are really candid, they didn’t really hide why they were there. They speak openly about what they did to end up in Rikers but also end up in a unit where, what the situation was that caused them to go into a unit with additional security.
“You know getting there and getting into the facility, the time it would take to do a whole trip there and see a loved one, that takes an entire day out of your life. And second, once you’re in there, you can see how these are really not, these are really meant to be upgraded, modernized and put closer to home.”
GG: At any point did you lock yourself in a cell to see how it feels
KP: “We went into one cell...I actually asked them to open one up…[O]ne of the most fascinating points was when Elias [Husamudeen] from the correction officers union and Stanley Richards had a kind of impromptu back and forth about solitary confinement. The argument is that corrections officers want to see solitary, punitive segregation as they call it, restored for inmates that are under the age of 21, believing that they’re still a risk...not having them in solitary, a policy the city took a few years ago to end it.
“So his argument is that it’s basically just the same thing as being in a regular cell, and so all you’re doing is having less hours outside of your cell, it’s not a dungeon or anything. So I actually asked them to open one up so I can walk in and see what it would feel like to be inside of a cell for like a minute, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to be in there for 23 hours a day. We can always talk about ways to keep it more secure but I don’t think, an average stay on Rikers is 60 days and solitary is less than that but any period of time to be in a cell for 23 hours, that seems beyond reason, I think anybody would agree with that.”
GG: How did it feel? Claustrophobic?
KP: “The one I was in was small, I saw other ones that would be claustrophobic and almost impossible to believe that you could stay within your own senses. They were tiny and they were old and they, you know, they’re meant to be jail cells, I mean they’re meant to be restrictive. They’re claustrophobic...you feel your lack of freedom while you’re in there.”
GG: You said you spoke with inmates. What did they feel about the jail? Did anyone talk about what they wanted? About what they felt the jail was like?
KP: “We talked to a few. We went to the high school and we saw some that are getting ready to take the TASC [Test Assessing Secondary Completion] test, which is the new GRE, and were taking actually a sample test, so we talked to them a little about what they were doing. I gotta say, the teacher that was in that classroom won, I think, an award last year for being one of the best teachers in New York City. She seemed fantastic.
“I think they were just reading ‘The Alienist’ and she seemed to really challenge them, but the challenge in that setting is that they can be only there for 100 days or a year and so it’s only a moment in time where they’re getting a particular education. We talked to them a bit..Then we went to the unit where we really talked about what got them in and, you know, look there was a sense of frustration. We had certainly some complaints about process-related stuff, about them believing that they were supposed to get a hearing and that the hearings weren’t getting recorded...wasn’t being recorded correctly. Two of them told us that they received notice that they had refused a hearing and they hadn’t. So there were a lot of process related complaints.
“One of them talked about an altercation that he had with a corrections officer where he admitted that he got in a fight with a corrections officer and instigated it, well, was part of the instigation of it. A lot of it was about the relationship between the staff and the inmates...But I think we all understood that I think almost anybody in a restrictive climate would feel restricted and then thereby would have complaints about those who they have to deal with on a daily basis. You know a lot of it was talking about why they got in, particularly what got them in a specific unit, and then a lot of it was about process of getting a hearing, but acknowledging they had an audience and they knew we were City Council members and that this was an opportunity to raise any points that they wanted to.”
GG: Did you talk to any of the guards?
KP: “We talked to a lot of them. I will certainly tell you two things. One is, we met with a lot of guards, we met with wardens, deputy wardens, we met with corrections officers, we met with people working in the mental health unit. We met with one of them in the mental health unit who I would say demonstrated to me a real compassion and care, he was deputy warden, I think, in that unit, been there for like 30 years. Elias told me he retired and then unretired and really seemed to care.
“I thought the staff was, I thought they were really impressive. They were smart, they had a real care for the job, the ones we met at least. They really had a deep knowledge, not beyond just the job they do but more like the whole ecosystem around Rikers Island. We were there briefly for a security incident where they actually put the vests on and there was light that was going off, and we talked a lot about security and safety in there.
“Look, they have a really, really, really tough job and I was impressed by a lot of the staff that we met and their commitment to the job but recognizing that they would all tell you how difficult it can be and how safety and security is the top priority for them, not just themselves but for the inmates as well, the inmate-on-inmate violence and keeping people safe.
“I’m recognizing that there are people on that island who are not even guilty, who potentially could not be found guilty... so there’s a lot of different constituencies...in any building on the whole island. So we talked to a lot of staff and they were knowledgeable and they were smart and had a care for the job. But none of them would tell you it’s an easy job or that they feel safe at all moments.”
GG: Has it pushed you on wanting to move on one specific thing first? Has it changed your priorities at all?
KP: “Yeah it did. Number one is, it reaffirmed to me that we can build safer facilities and put people close to home and the proximity to your family and loved ones, the ability to have safer facilities and more modernized facilities and the ability for people to come and get there much easier is all worth it. It’s all worth what we’ve been talking about all along. The Close Rikers campaign was grounded in people’s real experiences, it was not just an ideological goal. People had come to this with real concerns.
“The second part of it is, I think we want to look at safety and security protocols in two ways. This opened my eyes. One is the procedures ongoing about keeping the people that work there safe in light of the incident a few weeks ago [where a guard was attacked] and in light of the things that we talked about. I think I would like to have a hearing at some point on the safety and security of everybody who works there and ways we can improve it. And second is, we were already planning on talking about contraband, but my visit to the visitors center, or the welcome center where you first walk in, did highlight for myself and some members the idea that it seems to me we could be doing more around preventing people from getting contraband into the prison.
“We asked a number of questions about packages and people that are entering into the jail and I think we still have a lot unanswered questions about safety of the inmates and security based on who and what is coming onto the island. So I think a hearing on two safety items - you know the people that work in the facility and people who work in the jails and two is the contraband.
“And the third one I think is grounded in conversations I had...today with [Board of Corrections] members but also based on being there, which is health services on the island and ensuring that we’re providing appropriate medical services to people on that island who really need it. And we didn’t get to go to the women’s facility but I think in that facility particularly there’s probably a lot of services that are required. So I think we should dive into health care on the island and connected to the island as well.”
GG: What do you think about what’s happening with the Bronx jail site proposal?
KP: “I think that, when the announcement was made and that was obviously the newest jail, while the other ones had been discussed and previewed in the past, and they’re based on existing sites, this is a totally new one. So it’s not totally surprising to me that there are a lot of questions that are coming from the community and that we end up talking about concerns.
“I think that there is a way that we can work with the community and the elected officials there to find something or find some compromise, or some way to work to site it there. I think that everybody understands the need and the importance of having the borough-based facilities and the fact that the Bronx would be one of them. But the elected officials that represent that area or nearby...found out about it from a press conference and were concerned about it. I think every community, every elected official wants to find out well in advance, at least have an opportunity to talk to the community about it.
“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised that it’s caused a conversation about location and the siting of it but I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get to a place where all communities that are receiving new sites will be comfortable with them and will find the appropriate balance between their needs and the needs of the city.”
GG: Do you think Rikers will be shut down in less than 10 years?
KP: “Yes, I do. I do and I think that there’s two points that matter here. One is, we’re now on the land use, siting, and design process part of it -- which is, we’ve actually put us on a timeline on the process...if they certify the ULURP in November or December, which is what I think they’re expecting to do, and then they go through the ULURP. Then that’s a year or so by which they’re sited. That’s the good news. That was the importance of doing this now, to actually get that year of process out...I think we’re ahead of the ten-year schedule and we’re gonna be moving faster. And if we can get some reforms in Albany like speedy trials and bail reform and design-build...I think we move even faster than expected.”