How Can NYC End Rikers Island Chaos? We Asked Four People on the Front Lines
A mother whose son died behind bars, a top jail supervisor, the city’s former head of criminal justice and a recently released detainee weigh in on the crisis — and what can be done amid growing violence and staff absences.
A dozen deaths so far this year. More than a thousand officers calling out sick each day. Skyrocketing violence.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and top jail officials blame spiralling chaos at Rikers Island and other city lockups on officers allegedly faking illness or injuries, as well as on a clogged court system. They also contend officers in cushy spots away from direct contact with detainees don’t want to return to jails.
Officers say they’ve been held back by reforms imposed by a mayorally controlled board — especially strict limits on using solitary confinement. The officers argue that jail overseers nitpick their every move whenever they break up fights or take other action.
Escalating violence and inhumane conditions have spurred calls from local politicians who have asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to bring in the National Guard and pleaded with President Joe Biden to intervene. Steve Martin, the federal monitor charged with watchdogging the system in a case known as Nunez, has decried the system’s rampant “disorder and chaos.”
De Blasio, who recently visited Rikers Island for the first time in about four years, has put the jails in the hands of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, a long-time reformer appointed to the post in May. Schiraldi has promised change is on the way.
THE CITY spoke separately to four people on the front lines of the turmoil shaking the city’s jail system: a mother whose son died behind bars, a top jail supervisor who has worked in multiple units, the city’s former head of criminal justice and a recently released detainee.
They were each asked one question: What needs to be done to improve conditions?
Here’s what they had to say:
Her Son Endured ‘Horror’
Tamara Carter’s son, Brandon Rodriguez, 25, died inside a Rikers Island intake cell on Aug. 10. His cause of death has not been determined yet by the city’s medical examiner.
Carter: I am sad to know that my son went through that horror. I didn’t know he was in jail. I found out through Facebook of his death. One of his friends got in contact with my best friend. After that, to verify was three excruciating hours. I was being given numbers from his friends. I was looking online. [The department’s website] gave me different numbers. I was just calling and they’d switch me from spot to spot.
I said, “Listen, I was told my son has passed away. I just want to know if he’s still there.” There was one person, I don’t know what her name is, and she was trying so hard to help me. And then really, the rest of them were really so rude. I was calling the medical examiner’s office. No answer, after messages and messages. To this day, I never got a call back. It was really hard. And then in the third hour to finally speak to the chaplain, to find out the devastating news, it was difficult.
Elizabeth Glazer was the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice from 2014 until 2020.
Glazer: I think it’s been just a spiral or deterioration, really gradually, then all of a sudden, and it’s now this snarl of problems that it seems it is going to be hard to turn back. Obviously this is not something that just started today or yesterday.
Conditions have been bad for a really, really long time. You know, and I think about somebody like James Murdough, the homeless vet who died in Rikers because of the heat thing — which people don’t talk about any more because of the drumbeat of terrible things that have happened since. But he was a poster child, I think, for a lot of different things that are happening there: too many people coming in for not for the right reasons, terrible conditions inside, lack of attention, and violence has been bad for a long, long time. Weapons being fashioned from buildings that are crumbling.
‘Environment Has Changed’
This health care provider has worked in multiple city jails. The medical professional requested anonymity.
Health Care Provider: There are 10 pages of names of people in a large jail waiting to be seen by a health care provider. Patients tell me they’ve been waiting for days after they’ve made an appointment. When people delay medical care, their conditions can get much worse. I’ve seen patients whose pain got worse because they weren’t seen. I make sure they understand that it’s not me who doesn’t want to see them. We are doing our best to provide high-quality health care as quickly as possible, but the environment has changed.
‘I Was Screaming’
This former detainee spent several weeks on Rikers before being released in August. He requested anonymity.
Former detainee: I was screaming and telling multiple people I needed my psychological medication. But you just keep on getting ignored unless you fake a seizure.
I was in intake for four days, but there were a lot of people who were there longer than me. There were people who were there for two weeks. Anywhere from 40 to 100 people packed in a cell. There’s one toilet and sink that doesn’t work. It’s just piled to the top with feces. Feces all over the floor. People going through withdrawals and throwing up on people. People hanging themselves just because the lack of attention that we were getting. A lot of times there wasn’t enough food or water to go around for everybody.
There was someone with a gunshot wound who couldn’t even see the doctor. The wound was rotting. It took me five days to get to the clinic. I didn’t get my medicine until that. It was bad. Very bad.
This jail supervisor has more than a decade of experience in charge of several large housing units. He requested anonymity.
Jail Supervisor: I’m not an advocate for using force and, God forbid, hurting people. But unfortunately in the current chaos there needs to be force used to break up fights. Basically, there’s lawlessness and chaos right now. We have to be able to use force to enforce policy. Inmates want structure, safety and order. But they can’t get that without us being able to do our jobs.
I’m not an advocate for locking people down. I understand there’s a push across the nation to limit [solitary confinement]. But there has to be repercussions. When [inmates] assault staff and each other, our hands are tied. They can walk up, punch me in the face, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Some form of taking them out of the general population to some place where they can get the help they need or in isolation. You can call it reformatory housing where it’s focused on why they did what they did.
Former Detainee: I don’t think solitary confinement helps people. It doesn’t help the situation. I think solitary confinement should be taken out of Rikers and every prison. You should take the violent inmates and keep them together.
Carter: I get being strict because as a parent, I have four children, I’m strict. But from my understanding my son was being hit with batons and was very violently extracted from a cell. I don’t agree with that.
I think everybody needs to be removed from Rikers and placed somewhere else for their own safety. Where that would be I don’t know. I understand that we need jails. But to be put in there and not stay alive for your case, it just doesn’t make sense to me. My son was there for seven days and he’s no longer here. It just doesn’t make sense.
‘A Human Rights Emergency’
Health Care Provider: There’s a human rights emergency taking place on the island and the boat [the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a 800-bed jail barge] right now. We need help from people who can care for detainees. That means more people escorting detainees to clinics. More people who can provide care, custody and control now.
Suddenly, I think if the number of people in jails is smaller than even with the current staffing levels, we’ll be able to provide high-quality health care. So decarceration is a natural [move], whether that means fewer people coming in, more people getting out, or a combination of both. It’s possible. We saw it happen last year during COVID. It can happen now. Prosecutors need to send fewer people to jail. And the authorities need to release more people from jail.
Glazer: I do not say this lightly but it does seem like we are at a point — gridlock — where we need a solution that is different in kind, not degree. The [federal] monitor’s report and the list of issues that have to be addressed from broken doors to missing staff is really just a call to manage better. But for whatever reason the department and the city aren’t able to do that.
Former [Correction Commissioner] Michael Jacobson and I call for high level and daily attention — a deputy mayor for justice — to do this. But the current crises may call for something different and it may be that a receiver — really a solution of last resort — is it.
The reason I hedge is that it has to be nimble and temporary: the city is already mired in consent decrees it is unable to resolve. The receiver would need to be a highly skilled manager, with deep correctional operational experience, and demonstrated skills in mediation. The peril — emergency powers — may also be the promise: the ability to cut through a range of city bureaucracy to get things done.
The receiver would need to be deeply integrated into city decision-making so that, upon leaving, there is a management structure in place that will be effective once the receiver and whatever scaffolding staff the receiver sets up is gone.
‘It’s an Accountability Thing’
Jail Supervisor: I don’t know if receivership is the answer. Look at the jails the feds run. They are worse than Rikers Island. The Nunez case is a very big topic. I’m gonna say this about [federal monitor] Steve Martin. He’s been on this for a pretty long time. We’ve followed what he has said and nothing has helped. I think a new person needs to take the helm of Nunez and take the reins.
Glazer: In some ways, it does seem like it’s an accountability thing. Steve Martin is a very able and knowledgeable guy. But he’s not actually responsible for executing. The department has to execute. So then the question is, suppose you had a receiver who was responsible for executing, it might change the tenor of as well as sharpen the focus on what needs to be done.
Jail Supervisor: They need to totally revamp the [inmate] classification system. In the past, we had a four-tier system. That went by the wayside in the early 2000s. Then we went to a three-tier system. They were supposed to house people based on their propensity for violence. We are back to four right now: low, medium low, medium high, and high. But the department doesn’t follow that even remotely. They don’t follow a classification system at all. There’s no avenue to separate the lambs from the wolves.
Also, they are really not separating people the way they should. When you are a high [classification] there’s no avenue to bring that down. There’s no incentive. It should be reassessed every 60 days so people can get moved to a different area. It needs to be based upon their current actions.
Former Detainee: A lot more people need to be hired. There’s a major shortage of staff. They need to screen the staff better. There are a lot of people who aren’t fit to do the job. And the staff that is there doesn’t do their job correctly.
‘Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence’
Jail Supervisor: These are not complicated fixes and they will have a direct impact. It used to be uniformed staff reports to the chief of the department and the non-uniformed staff falls under the purview of the first deputy commissioner. Now, there’s uniformed staff reporting to civilians. It doesn’t make any sense. They need to revamp the table of organization. People will start to come back to work once they see we have some ability to control things. And not this chaos.
Also, inmate payroll hasn’t been revamped in over 30 years. Regular detainees are not mandated to work but a lot choose to work to be busy or make money for their families. They get paid 27 cents an hour. That’s like slavery. That’s crazy. We raised our commissary [costs] but we didn’t raise the pay.
It’s $10.80 if you work your 40 hours a week. What can you buy with that? Let guys work and make enough money for the commissary. There was one guy who sent money back to his grandkids to buy food at home. He worked 80 hours a week. Most just like getting out of the housing area and being busy.
Carter: You can’t let everybody out. That’s not how the system works. And I get that. And you can’t have dangerous people out on the streets. I get that as well. But they do need to be transferred into other places that are safe for them. And have due process, going on Rikers Island shouldn’t be a death sentence for anyone.
(Interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)