Officials Scramble to Reduce Prison Violence After Attempted Rape of Guard

Violence behind bars has dropped dramatically in recent years, but the recent incident at RIkers has rattled officials.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 13, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Hayley Fox is a regular contributor to TakePart who has covered breaking news and the occasional animal story for public radio station KPCC in Los Angeles.

Amid an uptick in jail stabbings, increased public scrutiny, and the recent attempted rape of a correctional officer, New York’s largest system of jails faces a major overhaul aimed at reducing inmate-on-inmate violence and safety of prison workers. A 14-point plan for reform was released Thursday that will focus on creating a safer environment at New York City’s Rikers Island after decades of neglect, as announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte.

The release comes just a week after four of Rikers’ largest facilities were put on a 34-hour lockdown in an effort to curb gang violence. Inmates were confined to their cells to allow correctional officers to search for drugs and weapons. During the lockdown, four inmates were slashed, and another was stabbed. Over the past 10 years, inmate-on-inmate violence has increased, and in 2015 alone, 711 inmates have been involved in an attack on another inmate, according to the mayor’s office.

“From changing the visitor policy to intercept contraband to smartly placing inmates to avoid conflict to providing our inmates with expanded educational opportunities and services, we are taking on the growing number of violent incidents at Rikers from every angle,” de Blasio said in a statement.

New York currently has permissive and liberal rules that govern jails in the state, and they are “definitely out of sync” with the rest of U.S. jails, said Martin Horn, former commissioner of the New York Department of Correction and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“It was critically necessary that they do something,” said Horn, “The jails in New York City operate very differently than jails elsewhere in the country.”

A History of Violence

As bad as it’s gotten, inmate violence has been much worse at Rikers Island. The peak (or low point) was 1,552 stabbings and slashings over the course of 1990, The Associated Press reports. Recent data shows a much-improved situation these days, but things are once again moving in the wrong direction. In 2014, there were 88 stabbings and slashings, compared with 73 in 2013, according to statistics from the Department of Correction.

The violence extends to corrections staff. A report released last year by the U.S. Department of Justice examined how corrections staff treated Rikers’ younger inmates, those between the ages of 16 and 18. Federal officials found a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the adolescent Rikers facilities, as well as a “pattern and practice of conduct” that violates the constitutional rights teen inmates.

“In particular, we find that adolescent inmates at Rikers are not adequately protected from harm, including serious physical harm from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by DOC staff,” the report states.

A Country in Need of Jail Reform

In 2013, there were nearly 3 million Americans behind bars, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Of that number, more than 731,000 were being held in local jails. Although jails are intended to be short-term holding facilities, they are vastly overused, said Horn.

This can lead to high rates of overcrowding, which not only packs prisoners in like sardines but can lead to increases in jail violence as supervision deteriorates and services such as mental health care are impacted. To correct this, Horn said, there need to be sweeping policy changes, such as reforming bail and pretrial supervision practices, as well as improving community mental health services to help keep the mentally ill out of jail.

Cutting Down on Contraband

Current visiting policies at Rikers allow most inmates to meet with their visitors in person; they are face-to-face in a room, able to touch and hug, and in some instances pass contraband. From this past Nov. 14 to Jan. 31, New York’s corrections officials confiscated 10 weapons and thwarted 69 attempts to smuggle drugs to incarcerated gang members, according to the mayor’s office. To crack down on contraband, Rikers Island will be adopting a visitor policy closer to that of other metropolitan jail systems, such as those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In these locations, face-to-face contact is limited, and certain visitors may be restricted because of safety concerns. Rikers’ new policy focuses on reviewing visits on a case-by-case basis, and expanding the criteria for restricting jail visitors.

Although these changes sound promising, they will definitely face opposition from those concerned about the limitations they place on visiting family members, said Horn. “I tried to get some of these rules changed when I was the commissioner,” he said.

Under this new provision, Rikers staff will also be trained in “enhanced TSA-style procedures” by the end of this year to help create more secure entrances to the jails.

Divide and Conquer

Currently, some inmates with gang affiliations are housed together, and others live in general population. Under the new plan at Rikers, enemy gang members will be better separated, and inmates who are especially violent will all be held together in high-security units. Rikers used to have a similar prisoner classification system, but it was dismantled by a previous commissioner, said Horn.

He attributes this decision, in part, to the recent spike in violence. “They’re not only catching up [with the rest of the country], but they’re going back to things that they’ve done in the past,” he said.

Keep Inmates Occupied

The majority of U.S. prisons don’t invest in educational services for their inmates because most of them are there on a (relatively) short-term basis, said Horn.

“This leads to a lot of idleness,” he added. “Young kids sitting around with nothing to do, and that’s what leads to a lot of the problems.”

The average stay of an inmate is 50 days, said Horn, but some may stay longer than a year. New York’s new plan aims to give these individuals something productive to do by providing a minimum of five hours of “non-school” programs per day. This way, inmates will focus more on activities that further their rehabilitation, such as workplace training, instead of engaging in violence borne from boredom. This facet may be the “single most important” aspect of the new plan, and it could set a precedent for other jail systems throughout the country, Horn said.

Slow and Steady

Prior to this 14-point plan, the Department of Correction had already begun an effort to improve inmate treatment, most notably by getting rid of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates at the end of last year.

Moving forward, some improvements, such as providing more inmate education opportunities, are slated to begin as early as this year. Others, including adding full video and camera coverage to all Rikers facilities, won’t be complete until 2018. While he praises New York’s push for reform and said the initiatives “offer a lot of promise,” Horn said it will be some time before Rikers Island sees a tangible change in environment.

“These proposed changes are not going to have an impact overnight,” he said.