Opinion

Keep Rikers open, with stronger leadership

By Bernard Kerik |  

December 6, 2015 |  

Twenty-one years ago, the New York City jail system, by all accounts, was about to explode.

The city’s Department of Correction employed 13,000 uniformed and civilian personnel, 16 jails – 10 of which were on Rikers Island, one of the world’s largest penal complexes – 15 court detention pens and four hospital prison wards.

The average daily inmate population was close to 22,000, with 110,410 inmate admissions annually, and close to a $900 million budget. Inmate-on-inmate violence averaged between 100 to 150 stabbings and slashings per months, overtime was running at $112 million a year, and staff sick abuse was an average of 22 days a year, higher than any other city agency. It was, by far, the most violent and mismanaged jail or prison system in the nation, and both government critics and reform advocates agreed that it was too far gone to be fixed – and perhaps should be closed down.

In 1994, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came into office and demanded change. From 1995 through 2000, I served as the correction department’s first deputy and then commissioner, during which, contrary to every expert prediction, the threats within the system diminished, violence plummeted to historical lows and the management of the facilities were run with the same efficiencies as a major department store – clean, quiet and orderly.

This historical and unparalleled transformation of the system was accomplished through a performance measurement and accountability system, comparable to the NYPD’s CompStat program, but far more expansive - with more than 600 performance measures being accounted for daily to monitor violence, programs, facility and vehicle maintenance, and administrative services.

It also took very aggressive and inspired leadership to ensure accountability at every level of the agency – bureau chiefs, wardens, mid-level managers, officers and civilian staff, as well as inmates.

Over that six-year period, our annual inmate admissions increased to 133,000, but the department achieved a 93 percent reduction of inmate-on-inmate violence (slashing and stabbings), a 72 percent reduction in serious use of force incidents, a 33 percent reduction in overtime spending, a 31 percent reduction in staff sick abuse, and a 48 percent reduction in assaults of staff. We increased our searches by 164 percent, which resulted in a 50 percent increase in weapons seized. Overtime spending plummeted from $112 million annually, to less than $50 million, and all this was accomplished at the same time that dozens of federal court-ordered consent decrees were eliminated through compliance.

These seismic changes did not happen overnight and it wasn’t magic; it was institutional leadership and organizational reform that was “well worth studying and emulating,” according to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. The American Correctional Association during that period recommended numerous correction departments from all over the country to visit Rikers Island and look at the transformation of the department.

Today, that same correction department, with close to a 50 percent smaller inmate population and a budget of $1.2 billion ($350 million more than we had in 1995), is completely out of control. Inmate-on-inmate violence and internal corruption is off the charts, and the department’s critics and the “experts” are once again looking for answers, and calling for a dismantling of the agency.

As the first deputy and chief executive of that agency for close to six years, I’m curious as to what the mayor’s Department of Investigations and inspector general were doing between 2007 and 2013? Why did the Bronx District Attorney’s office stop prosecuting violent behavior by inmates against staff and other inmates? Why were the Emergency Service, and Gang Intelligence units diminished, when they were the units that were clearly responsible for addressing gang violence?

Where was the New York City Board of Correction? The state Correction Commission? Former city correction commissioners Martin Horne and Dora Schriro diminished or eliminated almost every program put in place to reduce violence and keep staff and inmates safe, increase services and reduce spending. Where was the deputy commissioner of investigations? What happened to the collection and analysis of more than 600 daily performance measures? Why are the wardens and managers not held accountable for their failures to meet the department’s goals and objectives?

During that period, the leadership void led to some of the most substantial security breaches in any jail or prison system that I have ever seen – a bar mitzvah being held in the gymnasium of the Manhattan Detention Complex, and a lunatic posing as a city employee who gained access to numerous facilities on and off of Rikers Island and interacted with high-classification inmates.

I’ve listened to media and department critics blame the correction officers union – the same exact union leaders that I dealt with in the mid-‘90s. For the record, the union does not run the department, the commissioner and his staff does. Some have blamed the present commissioner, Joe Ponte, who was appointed in 2014. The reality is, Commissioner Ponte was brought in to clean up a mess that was created over the prior 12 years.

The violence, corruption and mismanagement of the department is something that we all should be concerned with, but under no circumstance does the department need to be dismantled and Rikers Island closed.

For those that use today’s problems as the justification for those calls, the violence in early 90s, made today's problems on Rikers look minimal. The average daily population was almost double what it is today. We had five to10 times the violence, and, just like today, people said it could never be fixed, an argument that proved farce.

It should have never taken a U.S. Justice Department report to create a call for action. The correction commissioner, his managers, the Bronx district attorney and the various oversight agencies failed to do their jobs.

Rikers Island doesn’t need to be closed, it needs to be fixed. It has been done before, and the correction department can do it again – with real leadership and accountability.

Bernard Kerik served as the first deputy and commissioner of the city Department of Correction from 1995 through 2000. He later served as commissioner of the NYPD from 2000 through 2001.

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