Nicole Gelinas and Rafael A. Mangual join Theodore Kupfer to discuss the dangerous conditions at Rikers Island, the policy choices that have led to the current crisis, and whether the jail complex can be saved.

Audio Transcript

Teddy Kupfer: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Teddy Kupfer, an associate editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today are Nicole Gelinas and Rafael Mangual, both of whom are senior fellows at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editors of City Journal. Ralf is also the head of research for MI's Policing and Public Safety Initiative. Last week, the two of them wrote an article for City Journal about the crisis at the Rikers Island jail complex. Today we'll talk about that crisis and how it can be fixed or made worse. Nicole and Ralf, thank you both very much for joining me.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Teddy.

Rafael Mangual: Thanks so much for having us.

Teddy Kupfer: So everyone agrees, I think, that Rikers Island is in crisis. There's really no other word for it when 12 people have died so far this year while being held in the jail. Conditions there have deteriorated to the extent that medical care, food, and water are scarce, and violence is up both among inmates and between inmates and guards. A federal monitor said on Friday that the jails are in a state of emergency. Mayor Bill de Blasio is set to visit the jail this week. And a group of congressional Democrats have asked President Biden to intervene. Before we turn to the broad story of how we got here, let's focus on the immediate circumstances. Just how bad are things at Rikers right now? Could we see meaningful improvement in the next days and weeks? And how long have conditions been this dreadful? That's a question for either of you.

Rafael Mangual: Well, I'll take a shot at it. Things are really, really bad right now. And I don't know that there is a policy lever we could pull, a combination of levers that we could pull to turn things around in the short term. This is not a problem that has happened overnight, but it's also not a problem that has developed all that gradually either. This is a problem that really started under Mayor de Blasio, and he's essentially done everything in his power to make things worse, albeit with the goal of making things better.

I think one place to start is by reversing some of those, I think misguided policy decisions, but even doing that at this point does not seem to me to be a clear fix. I think one of the things that we're starting to see is that the infrastructure on the island, the number of guards in place, the willingness of staff to come to work, is something that I think is going to be a really difficult problem to overcome, and one that I think you need to solve before anything else really starts to get better.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, I would echo those remarks and also note that the federal monitor who oversees Rikers Island, as Ralf said, it's run by the city, but they've been under a court-ordered oversight for six years now. The monitor petitioned a federal judge last Friday and wants an emergency hearing to bring in some outside management. And the monitor in his petition last week said that people in jail, both inmates and staff, face imminent risk of harm and squarely blamed the de Blasio administration, the, I quote, "ubiquitous mismanagement and prevalent security failures within the jail." So as Ralf said, the conditions are pretty bad.

Teddy Kupfer: If everybody agrees a crisis exists, there's much disagreement about how it came about and how to solve it. Groups of progressive lawmakers argue that the only available solution is to release the nearly 6,000 inmates currently housed in Rikers. Meanwhile, the department of corrections is trying to get prison guards to work more shifts. The federal monitor recommended hiring outside security, though it is unclear if that can actually happen.

Behind these disagreements are broader disagreements over the direction of criminal-justice policy. For years, the New York Times editorial board and others have advocated the closure of Rikers as a symbolic measure against "mass incarceration." The de Blasio administration has drawn up the plan to do just that. In a recent editorial, The Times labeled proposals to improve conditions at Rikers "stopgaps that fail to address the underlying problem," which, in their view, is that "New York, like the rest of the country, locks up far too many people for no good reason."

The two of you disagree. In the article for City Journal that you wrote last week, you identify a series of decarceral policy changes as the true culprits of the current crisis. Bail and parole reforms and restrictions on corrections officers have left behind a harder-to-manage population of inmates and led to critical staffing shortages in the jail. Corrections officers have strong union protections, and can't be replaced by private contractors. So this is a question for Ralf: can you walk us through the policies that you identify in your article as contributing to the crisis? What were these policies and what have they done?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. So a number of things really started to change under the de Blasio administration. I'm going to start with punitive segregation, which is probably better known to listeners as solitary confinement. This was a practice that was heavily scrutinized in the media when de Blasio took office. You had the case of Kalief Browder, who was a young man who was incarcerated on Rikers Island after being hit with a robbery charge, was in solitary confinement for a significant period of time during that period of incarceration. When he was released from jail, he subsequently committed suicide. And it was largely believed that that suicide was, one of the drivers of that suicide was the psychological damage of a prolonged period of time spent in solitary confinement. Mayor de Blasio committed to punitive segregation reform very, very early on in his tenure.

And so in December 2014, you started to see this practice get rolled back. By 2016, the practice was administratively outlawed for all inmates under the age of 18, for 16 and 17 year olds, which back then were still housed in city jails in a lot of cases. That policy was later extended to all inmates 21 and under, and, of course, the de Blasio administration has since moved to eradicate it all together. Now, one of the problems with this is that we know that there is such thing as a problem inmate, and there are inmates who will commit serious violence within jail walls if there are not further incapacitated and separated from the general population. We also know that punitive segregation is something that inmates don't necessarily look forward to. And so it was, for a long time, a tool in the belt of corrections officers, who could threaten that sanction in order to control inmate behavior.

Once that possibility was taken off the table, we saw violence within New York City jail start to skyrocket. Going back from 2018 to 1998, so a 20 year period, you had a close to 50 percent decline in the population in New York City jails, and then you're doubling in the number of violent assaults and fight infractions. That's not something that you would've expected to see as the numbers went down. I think one of the reasons that we saw that is just this inability of guards to further incapacitate problem inmates through punitive segregation. One of the other things that happened was there was a class action lawsuit called Nunez, which is what resulted in the federal monitor that's currently overseeing the jails. And that whole monitorship came with a number of administrative policy changes, among them were severe restrictions on the force the physical force that guards could use to control inmates, high impact blows to the head, to the groin, neck restraints, et cetera.

Now, given that these guards are not armed, are often outnumbered, restricting their ability to use physical force when engaged with an inmate that's resisting, and at the same time not being able to impose punitive segregation on significant chunks of that inmate population, I think really contributed to the really risky working conditions that have made so many of these guards, I think, unwilling, or frightened to come to work. Now, again, I think we can have a whole conversation about setting up a system in which the city has more power over its workforce. And I think there is something to be said for some of the public employee union protections that I think we've seen get out of hand in many contexts, but it's also not at all surprising to me that you would see guards less willing to come to work when you've so radically changed the risk profile of their day-to-day life.

In addition to fight-assault infractions between and among inmates, we saw huge increases in the rates of assaults on staff. There were other changes such as deciding to house gang members together, which while that may avoid inter gang fights, it does allow inmates to gang up on staff and makes it harder for them to be controlled. And then there was also just a lack of investment in equality corrections workforce. Not a lot of hires in the corrections department over the last seven years. And it's not a particularly high paying job. And I think the combination of a lack of investment, making the environment more risky, and not paying a lot ends us up in this place where you get what you pay for. And I think every outcome measure that we care about is moving in the wrong direction as a result.

Teddy Kupfer: The increase in violence: is it fair to describe that as a foreseeable consequence of these policy choices? In other words, is there research out there suggesting that many of these decisions would produce a rise in violence?

Rafael Mangual: Yeah. Well, there's not a ton of causal analysis on solitary confinement's impact on immediate violence; a lot of that research is conducted with an eye toward making a case against solitary confinement and doesn't really answer the key question of what its incapacitated effects are within jail walls. There's lots of research on the psychological harms associated with solitary confinement and other problematic prison conditions. And I think all of that stuff should be addressed, but what we can't do, and I think that's the lesson of what's happened in New York City jails, is take away these incapacitated sanctions wholesale without replacing them with something that can be expected to offer the same security benefit in the immediate term. Because what happens is what we've seen over the last seven years, which is a serious deterioration in the safety for inmates and staff alike. And as that happens, and continues to happen, those outcomes are going to continue to move in the wrong direction.

And I want people to understand that the people dealing with the brunt of the impact here, of these policy choices, are inmates themselves. I know for a lot of people that's not a particularly sympathetic group, but they are in the city's charge and the city owes it to them to provide them a secure environment, and it's been failing them in every respect. And so, for those who would jump to the argument that we shouldn't impose further psychological harm on the inmates that might find themselves in solitary confinement, I think it's incumbent upon them to come up with an answer to the question of how it is you can provide the same level of security that we saw just ten, 15 years ago.

Teddy Kupfer: So Nicole, you've written at length about the plan, the campaign to close Rikers Island. The de Blasio administration plans to replace it with four high-rise jails that would be located in boroughs across the city. I think the most recent estimate, although correct me if I'm wrong, is that the plan would've been operative by 2026. So practically speaking, what does any of this mean for the Close Rikers campaign? Are we still on track to see the Rikers Island jail complex close, or if the decarceration push really has made things worse, might we see a future administration reverse course and resolve to fix conditions there rather than shut it down?

Nicole Gelinas: Well, in addition to everything that Ralf talked about, about why conditions are so bad at Rikers right now, I would add another reason: the push by the de Blasio administration and the city council to close Rikers and build four borough-based jails. Two years ago next month, de Blasio stood at city hall and announced what he considered a huge victory that the city was closing Rikers Island, closing "torture island," as he called it, and ending the era of mass incarceration. Now, this plan to close Rikers Island and build four jails in every borough except for Staten Island, this was a long time coming for the decarceration advocates, the former city council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, this was one of the main goals of her administration. She passed it along to Corey Johnson, who took over as speaker. This was one of his main accomplishments.

But much of the four-borough jails program, in fact, all of it at the moment, because it's now two years late, as you said, it was supposed to be finished 2026, it's already been pushed off to 2028. This is all symbolic. And so in saying that they were going to close Rikers and open four borough jails two years ago, the city government essentially walked away from Rikers Island and considered the problem solved, they made the advocates happy. This was over with. Anytime anyone ever criticized conditions at Rikers Island, the city could respond by saying, we know Rikers Island is terrible. That is why we are closing Rikers Island once and for all, but that outlook toward Rikers first ignores the fact that even under the best of conditions, Rikers will be open another seven years from today. And then under the worst of conditions, we will see even more delays to the four borough jails program. So you could be looking at more than a decade.

So effectively you've had the city say we can't do anything at all about Rikers right now. We have to open the four borough jails, but never gave any solutions about what they would do in the meantime, whether it was supposed to be 2026, 2028, that is a long time to leave inmates sitting at what the city admits is a broken Rikers Island system. Now, can Rikers be fixed without building four borough jails? Yes. There's nothing about the Rikers location that is at the root of any of Riker's problems. Yes, it's remotely located just like the airports are remotely located. You can fix that problem by better, more frequent bus transportation. You could build a ferry to Rikers Island. That is a straw man argument that it has fallen into these conditions because of its location. We could build modern low rise jail facilities at Rikers Island and do it on a much faster schedule than we can build four high rise jails in four dense urban neighborhoods. Something that no city has ever done successfully.

Teddy Kupfer: Listening to both of you, I'm struck that this was something of an avoidable tragedy. But what has to happen intellectually, or on the policy level, for further tragedy to be avoided? I guess my final question is that if public officials should realize one thing, whether it's a policy recommendation or general approach to these sorts of issues, that would help them solve the problem, what would it be?

Rafael Mangual: Well, the one thing that I would hope that they internalize is that laudable goals alone are not enough. I think the de Blasio administration had nothing but the best intentions in mind when it set out to engage in the reform agenda that it has engaged in with respect to Rikers Island and the criminal justice system more broadly. But we also have to be willing to be held accountable as the results come in, as the outcome measures that we care about become apparent. And when we see those moving in the wrong directions, we have to be willing as a city to maybe back away from the policies that sounded nice in our head and that sounded noble when we outlined them in a stump speech, but I think the reality is, is that when you're talking about New York City jails, you're talking about a population of very violent persistent criminals. At least as of 2019, something like 75 percent of the Rikers population on any given day had been there before.

These are not first-time, low-level offenders. These are people who are facing serious felony charges with lengthy criminal histories. And as the data seemed to show, are perfectly willing to engage in serious violence as a way to exert control within jail walls. And so we have to get over the idea that we know how to, at scale, correct these individuals, which is to say that we know how to rehabilitate them and integrate them back into society. Jails and prisons are going to continue to play a necessary role in the provision of security to the rest of us. And I think lots of people have become uncomfortable with that proposition. And I think a lot of the reform agenda has followed from that sense of discomfort.

Nicole Gelinas: Yeah. I would say if there's an inkling of good news, it comes from all of this bad news. Would it have been much better to avoid all of the bad news? Of course, but finally de Blasio realizes he cannot run out the clock on the Rikers crisis. He's got a little bit fewer than a hundred days left in office. I think his hope before was he can keep coasting on his plan to build the four borough jails and close Rikers and leave this headache to the next mayor. That is obviously not the case. He came under such pressure from the press and from other elected officials and from the federal monitor over the past few weeks that he has had to go visit Rikers, which he has not done during his second term at all. And he has had to announce some stop-gap measures, which should make a marginal difference.

One of the measures he took last week was reopening a jail complex on Rikers, the Taylor building that he had closed a year and a half ago. He had closed this Taylor building as part of the proof that we were making progress on the four-borough jails program. Closing down Rikers jails was obviously not a good idea. It resulted in more overcrowding and more chaos during the pandemic. So he's at least undoing a symbolic move that actually did more harm than good, imposing more disciplinary procedures for guards who are not showing up to work to get some of these one-third of guards every day who aren't coming in to start to show up. Also transferring 200 inmates to upstate prisons, people who are serving short sentences. So all of those things should at least mildly alleviate the short-term condition.

I think the bigger step that the next mayor most likely will have to take in his first days in office is acknowledging that we cannot rely on the four-borough jails, close Riker slogan as the way to get our way out of this mess. For years, de Blasio has been saying we have to change the culture at Rikers, the new four-borough jails will change the culture. There's never been any credible evidence that just moving to different jail locations will change the culture. So I think it's time to take a hard look at what kind of changes in the culture can we make now to make the working conditions for the staff better, to make the conditions for the inmates better. There are more modest, incremental steps that we can take rather than wait another seven years for four new jails to open up.

Teddy Kupfer: Wise words. So on that note, listeners do not forget to check out Nicole and Ralf's work on the City Journal website. We will link to their author pages in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter at @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. Nicole and Ralf, thank you very much for joining me and for shining some light on this story.

Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Teddy.

Rafael Mangual: Thank you.

Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/WireImage

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