Opinion

Our shared vision of a post-Rikers New York

By Glenn Martin and Roy Caldwood |  

October 23, 2017 |  

Mayor Bill de Blasio meets with Correction Officers on Rikers Island. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

One of us is a retired assistant deputy warden at Rikers Island with a 21-year career in correction. The other spent a year at Rikers in the 1980s as a detainee awaiting trial and is today a national criminal justice reform advocate. Though we come from different sides of the jail cell door, we share the conviction that closing the Rikers Island jail complex should be one of our city’s highest priorities and that Mayor de Blasio’s 10-year timeline is too long. His permanent appointment of Acting Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who has spent the past several years trying to prop up a dying institution and placate the guard union, is further evidence that his commitment to closing this torture island is weak.

We share a vision of what the city’s correctional system should look like in the future. We are co-authoring this op-ed to show that the interests of correction officers (COs) and detainees are not in conflict; in fact they can be complementary. Rikers must be closed as soon as possible because it is hazardous to the health, safety and sanity of those who work there and those who are locked inside. We can do much better.

In closing Rikers, New York City has the opportunity to reimagine its correction system. We can create a smaller, safer and more humane model that other cities will emulate. We must reduce the number of people being detained through a combination of bail and speedy trial reform and the diversion of people with mental health and substance issues. We call upon our political leaders to accelerate these and other reforms to create a much smaller system going forward.

What will the smaller correction system of the future look like? We offer four principles we believe will produce the humane, safe, and modern facilities all New Yorkers deserve.

1. Create an environment based on mutual respect.

It is the responsibility of the correction commissioner to set the tone in the institutions under his or her supervision. The correction officer’s job should be to protect the people under their care, not to punish them further. An attitude of disrespect can escalate into hostility and violence, infecting every interaction, be it between detainee and correction officer or detainee and detainee. When you give respect, you get respect. That includes listening to complaints and acting swiftly to address them.

Having correction officers treat people with dignity is not just a matter of training. It requires firm direction from the top. Poor leadership leads to the horrific outcomes we see today at Rikers. The next correction commissioner must be committed to bringing about a radical change in the way detained people are treated. A culture of mutual respect is the best antidote to violence. It will result in a safer place of detention and a safer workplace for correction officers.

2. Make rehabilitation the main goal.

The vast majority of people who end up in jail will be released back into the community. It is in everyone’s interest that they return in better shape than when they went in. This is about us; there is no “them.”

Our city can learn from countries in Europe who have developed jails and prisons along a different model. In 2015 a group of American correction officials went to Germany and toured that country’s prisons. They found that people being detained live in rooms, wear their own clothes, cook their own meals and receive decent pay for their work. They have opportunities to visit family, learn skills and gain education. Correction officers join social workers and mental health professionals to be part of a "therapeutic culture," and they receive more training and higher pay than ours do. There is little violence in German jails and the recidivism rates are much lower.

3. Encourage maximum interaction with the surrounding community.

Smaller, borough-based facilities can allow for positive interactions between correction officers, detained people and the facilities’ neighbors. One of the biggest problems with Rikers is its isolation and resulting lack of transparency and accountability. The new smaller facilities should be part of the community so those on the outside feel a sense of involvement and responsibility for what transpires on the inside, and vice versa. Community engagement should begin immediately. To avoid NIMBY concerns, the city should bring community stakeholders, including faith and business leaders along with representatives from the correction union, social service agencies and grassroots organizations, into the planning process.

Once operational, the new facilities should foster programs that take advantage of the cultural and educational resources that surround them. New York is one of the most resource-rich cities in the world with hundreds of cultural institutions, colleges and universities. Years of research show that access to quality educational and vocational programs reduces violence and recidivism and improves the chances of finding employment after release.

4. Build communities.

Our city spends $247,000 per year to detain one person on Rikers Island – money that could be much better spent on building communities. For generations, people of color from New York City’s most impoverished neighborhoods have borne the brunt of Rikers’ brutality and neglect. Hundreds of thousands have been removed from their homes before being convicted of any crime, causing injury not only to them but to their families and communities. If we want to fix the problems in jails, we need to fix the problems outside the jails as well. That means investing in the health, education and employment needs of the communities from which the vast majority of people detained at Rikers have come.

If these four principles are followed, the men and women who work in the city’s correctional institutions – many of whom come from the same communities and even the same families as those being detained--will be among the greatest beneficiaries. Instead of going to work on an isolated penal colony rife with violence and dysfunction, they will be working in smaller, safer workplaces where their well being is taken seriously. This is the very definition of a win-win.

Glenn E. Martin is the founder and President of JustLeadershipUSA, a national, member-driven advocacy organization that seeks to cut the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. Roy J. Caldwood is a retired assistant deputy warden for the New York City Department of Correction, the author of "Making the Right Moves - Rikers Island & NYC Corrections: Being Calm in the Storm," and an advocate for criminal justice reform.

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