Change is coming to Rikers Island, but is it too late?

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When I asked the correctional officers during the training session what kinds of deprivation are most likely to cause inmates, they immediately mentioned haircuts. Covid scare kept barbers from coming to Rikers. When someone showed up to a court date with long, unkempt hair, Mr. Schiraldi told me, the judge canceled their proceedings.

In an experiment that began November 1, 14 offenders, mostly facing violent charges, aged between 18 and 22, were placed in a unit where they received freedoms and benefits that are not usually available. They were allowed, for example, to paint their cells brightly, set up a ping-pong table in a common room, have more time with their families, and more programming, job training, and education. Among this cohort at Rikers, the rate of fights among those in custody is nearly three times higher than among the older population. Since the start of the program, there has not been a single case of assault among inmates in the unit, even though members of rival gangs have been placed together, usually a major instigator of violence.

Tuesday afternoon I sat down with two men from the unit, both at Rikers for second-degree murder, one of them a member of the Bloods and the other a Crip. RJ, as he chooses to identify himself, grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn; RE, who came to Rikers three years ago when he was 17, was from the South Bronx. Both explained how they had tried to avoid gang life, but how pressure – and frequent assaults from older gang members – ultimately made it impossible. “I was walking to school and getting beat up, so I thought I’d join for safety,” RE told me.

In previous housing units, RE had hit correctional officers. “A commander told me I would never go home and that really affected me,” he said on one occasion. “So I said, ‘I’m going to show you what someone who never comes home can do.’ RJ set his cell on fire just so he could get out; no one came to see him and he hadn’t seen sunlight in ages and lost it. This is, shockingly, a common occurrence at Rikers: guards refuse to report and inmates start fires in response.

Many professional trainings and courses have been interrupted during Covid, increasing stress and discouragement. But now RJ and RE are both scheduled for most of the day. “All of these other accommodations are about the gang bang,” RE said. “But now, instead of higher rank in gang life, I’m thinking of higher rank in life.”

The city has pledged to close Rikers in five years as it transitions to a system of smaller, more humane jails built near courthouses in the various boroughs. But five years is a long time to leave things as they are, since the status quo is a permanent state of emergency. Mr. Schiraldi’s program is small but promising and suggests how big bureaucracies often lose sight of the obvious. But he seems unlikely to stay in an Adams administration. On Thursday, the mayor-elect said the reprieve from “punitive segregation” or solitary confinement would end on January 1. The outgoing commissioner, Mr Adams said, was someone with “a good heart”. But his own approach would be different.

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