Asad Giles spent 28 months in jail before he was acquitted of all charges. A bill before the New York State Senate is intended to hasten the start of criminal trials. Giles is pictured above in New York City on Sept. 21, 2016. (Photo: Jake Naughton)

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Innocent at Rikers

Three years after the release of Kalief Browder, people are still held for long periods without trial at New York City’s notoriously violent jail, sometimes in solitary confinement.
Sep 23, 2016· 9 MIN READ
Raven Rakia is a New York City-based journalist covering criminal justice and other issues. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Vice, Grist, and elsewhere.

On April 15, 2012, Asad Giles woke up at six in the morning to hear his sister screaming, “What did you do?” Confused, he walked into his family room to find nine plainclothes New York Police Department officers and detectives standing in his doorway. They were looking for him.

Two days earlier, Giles had attended a party with fellow students from his high school in Queens. He was a quarterback and middle linebacker on the football team; the party was a fund-raiser for the school’s new track team, which Giles was to join. When the party ended, Giles got a ride home with his friends. Three or four blocks into the trip, Giles heard gunshots. He was shocked, as there had been no fights at the party. The gunshots made him more determined to get home and stay out of trouble.

The police told Giles he and three of his friends were suspected of shooting a peer outside the party. This made no sense; he considered the victim, a 15-year-old girl, a friend. They said hello in the hallways of school and at lunch; he had no reason to want to harm her. The police brought Giles to the precinct station house and questioned him for six hours. Later, he was transported to the Queens Central Booking Unit and Criminal Court, then to the Robert N. Davoren Center Complex on Rikers Island.

FULL COVERAGE: Violence and Redemption—A Special Report

On Feb. 22, 2012, Candie Hailey-Means had just started a job as a teacher in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood. That Wednesday morning she was arrested and, like Giles, taken to Rikers, where she would spend the next three years.

Hailey-Means’ and Giles’ stories resemble that of Kalief Browder, who in 2010 was arrested at 16 for allegedly stealing a backpack and incarcerated at Rikers for three years. Unable to afford the $3,500 bail set in his case, Browder was held in solitary confinement for two of the three years before his case was dismissed. The time in solitary was widely viewed to have contributed to the decline in Browder’s mental health that led to his suicide in 2015. Hailey-Means also couldn’t afford her bail and also spent two years in solitary confinement. She was found not guilty at trial. His bail set at $100,000, Giles spent two years and four months at Rikers before being acquitted with his alleged accomplices. No one else has been charged in the shooting.

Akeem Browder, brother of deceased former Rikers inmate Kalief Browder, holds a symbolic coffin bearing his brother's name in a demonstration near City Hall in New York City on Feb. 23, 2016. (Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/Getty Images)

According to the New York Criminal Justice Agency, more than 10,000 people incarcerated at Rikers between 2006 and 2010 were never convicted of a crime. Last year, about 1,500 people had been held at Rikers for more than a year without trial. Every year, 40,000 defendants are sent to New York City jails to await trial because they cannot post bail.

Even short stays at Rikers can be traumatizing, especially for people who are marginalized, such as Xena Grandichelli, a trans woman. In December 2014, she said, she was arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge and incarcerated in a men’s facility at Rikers—despite New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte’s announcement that DOC had just opened a segregated unit for transgender detainees. Grandichelli spent four months at Rikers, where she experienced physical and sexual abuse, before her case was dismissed.

When Hailey-Means was sent to Rikers in 2012, she had no idea she would be spending the next three years of her life in jail. “I just thought I was gonna go home. I didn’t think it was gonna take three years. I wasn’t planning on being there all that time,” she said, sitting in her apartment in Harlem. Two months after her arrest, she was accused of assaulting a guard and sent to the solitary confinement unit, where detainees are held for 23 to 24 hours a day in a six-by-10-foot cell. “I never even knew what solitary confinement was, so that was all new to me.”

Hailey-Means says the guard attacked her and then accused her of initiating the altercation. She wouldn’t leave solitary for two years. Two weeks into her stint in administrative detention, Hailey-Means attempted suicide. She was punished with additional time in solitary. Small infractions, such as refusing to obey a direct order and blocking her cell window, added more time to her stay. At one point, she was not provided with sanitary napkins despite her repeated requests. Desperate, she ripped the DOC shirt she had been issued and used it as a pad in an attempt to stanch the bleeding. She was punished with 90 additional days in solitary for destroying DOC property. (DOC would not comment on the record on Hailey-Means' allegations.)

(Photo: Jake Naughton)

The United Nations’ Committee Against Torture considers solitary confinement for longer than 15 days to be torture. Isolation for 23 to 24 hours a day is known to cause paranoia, suicidal thoughts, trauma, and other mental health issues. “Human beings are not designed to be in isolation for long periods of time,” said Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist at Yale School of Medicine who has studied solitary confinement conditions at Rikers. “Social interaction is not an option; it’s a requirement just like oxygen or food.” She called the high levels of self-harm at Rikers “a barometer of the level of suffering that goes on in that setting.”

Grandichelli said she was repeatedly assaulted and taunted by inmates during the four months she awaited adjudication of her case. Over five days at Rikers' Anna M. Kross Center, she said, her cellmate sexually assaulted her. She said guards stood by as it happened. She later reported the abuse to a guard she trusted and received medical attention at Columbia Medical Center.

On release from the hospital, she was returned to Rikers and placed in solitary confinement for a month before being moved to the trans housing area. She described her time there as “hell,” saying her well-being was entirely dependent on the guards. “If they didn't want to feed you, they don’t feed you. If they don’t want to give you that hour of rec, you don’t get it. If they don’t want to give you commissary, you don’t get it. If they don’t want to give you a shower, you don’t get it,” she said. “Emotionally, it hurt. Mentally, it hurt. But you either get tough or it destroys you.”

(A DOC spokesperson responded, "Commissioner Ponte has zero tolerance for sexual abuse and assaults of inmates. We are taking many steps to ensure that all staff adhere to the highest professionalism. As part of our top-to-bottom reform initiative, we are working to bring our agency into compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.")

Rikers Island, in the East River, holds New York City's largest jails. (Photo: Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images)

Giles did not experience solitary confinement at Rikers, but in the general population, he witnessed the abuse and violence that made the jail infamous. “I believe I witnessed it all—like the cutting, people getting jumped,” he said. “You get so immune to somebody just getting beat up right in front of you. It doesn’t faze you. Seeing somebody getting stomped out didn’t faze me anymore because I’ve seen it so much. And that’s actually bad. Things that are so inhumane [become] regular to you.” He described the routine strip searches before every 20-minute visit with his family as the most humiliating part of his incarceration.

In August 2014, an investigation by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara found that the Robert N. Davoren Center, where all 16- to 18-year-olds are housed and where Giles spent 19 of his 28 months at the jail, had “a deep-seated culture of violence” that was “pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely utilize force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.”

Giles tried to pass his time inside by reading. The books that resonated with him the most concerned the criminal justice system, including The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander; Are Prisons Obsolete?, by Angela Davis; and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Though he kept a positive outlook, he grew depressed, especially during birthdays and holidays. Two people he was close to on the outside died while he was at Rikers.

Giles said he held out hope that he would be released, but as time went on, he became terrified he would be railroaded by the system for a crime he didn’t commit. “Knowing the system, you get scared,” he said, “because there’s plenty of people I know that’s incarcerated that’s innocent, and they got, like, 25 to life. So it’s scary.”

Giles will never forget the day of his release. “I was just so happy,” he recalled. “It felt so unreal, like, it was so shiny outside. I’ll never forget that day. The sun never shined so bright.”

Home at last, Giles received support from his family and Friends of Island Academy, a nonprofit organization that assists young people after they’re released from prison; it hooked him up with a job as an administrative assistant at a hotel in Manhattan. He’s studying toward an associate’s degree and plans to complete his bachelor’s degree, and has spoken at rallies concerning criminal justice reform.

Giles’ incarceration continues to haunt him. Local news outlets reported his arrest, noting the charges of attempted murder and gang assault. “They portrayed me as just like a killer, a threat to the world, basically,” Giles said. A Google search of his name brings up those media reports among the top results; none of the outlets reported his acquittal. One published Giles’ home address. The articles threaten to affect his future and his ability to find work and further his education.

Giles sometimes experiences depression and anxiety: “Every time a group of cops come around, I get paranoid because of what they did, like how they just locked me up for no reason.” He’s less social and rarely goes to parties, opting to stay home, which he describes as a complete change in personality since his time in jail.

Hailey-Means also still bears scars from her time at Rikers. She has received little support since her release and has found it difficult to maintain housing or a job. Prior to her arrest, she lived in a public housing complex in the Bronx, but the arrest caused her to lose the apartment. After getting out of jail, she was on the waiting list for an apartment for nine months before learning that her infractions in solitary confinement were charged as misdemeanors, making her ineligible for public housing. She has experienced stints of homelessness since her release. “If [Browder] is going through what I’m going through, I see exactly why he killed himself. I see exactly why,” she said. She struggles with suicidal thoughts.

Hailey-Means gave two reasons she wants to keep living: her two children and to tell her story so that she can bring change to the criminal justice system. “When I was in jail I made a pact with God,” she said. “I said if you get me out of here, I’m going to fight until they end [solitary confinement].” She has attended demonstrations advocating for an end to the practice in New York City jails and New York state prisons, and she has testified about her experience behind bars before the New York City Board of Correction, which sets the rules for DOC in operating city jails. She’s also fighting to regain custody of her children.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner Ponte have touted recent changes to policy at Rikers. Others are not convinced they will transform the facility.

Though BOC has limited the time inmates may be held in administrative detention to 30-day periods, with a minimum seven-day break between stints, the DOC successfully petitioned for exceptions. Inmates who commit certain infractions, such as assaulting a guard, can be held in solitary confinement for 60 days and can be returned in fewer than seven days. Hailey-Means advocated against this exception, noting at a BOC hearing that she had been falsely accused of assaulting a guard and that such occurrences are common at Rikers.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (center), joined by Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte and Rikers Island Prison Complex Warden Becky Scott, talks during de Blasio's tour of Second Chance Housing at Rikers Island on Dec. 17, 2014. Second Chance Housing is an alternative to solitary confinement for incarcerated adolescents. (Photo: Susan Watts/Getty Images)

De Blasio and Ponte have lauded the construction of a new housing unit, called Enhanced Supervision Housing, which will hold the most troubling detainees without subjecting them to a setting like punitive segregation. But as I reported in The Nation last year, ESH often has conditions similar to punitive segregation, with inmates being locked down in their cells for the entire day. De Blasio has also formed a plan to move 16- and 17-year-olds from Rikers Island to a new DOC jail, though the teenagers will still be automatically charged as adults and controlled by the same DOC officers—who, De Blasio recently announced, will soon be equipped with Tasers.

Lifting the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18, which some experts and advocates favor, would remove most, if not all, kids from DOC adult jails; the legislation has stalled in Albany. Meanwhile, a new bail diversion program reaches just 3,000 of the 40,000 defendants a year who are sent to DOC jails because they cannot pay bail. The Decarceration Project, an advocacy group, notes New York City judges almost never select the bail alternatives that are available to them.

In June, the New York State Assembly passed a law named after Browder that addressed a loophole allowing district attorneys to bypass indefinitely an inmate’s constitutional right to a speedy trial. (The bill awaits action in the state Senate.)

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But advocates say the best way to reduce court delays and avoid detention resulting from the inability to afford bail is to address over-policing and over-incarceration in New York City.

“The norm should be that presumptively innocent people are not jailed,” said Peter Goldberg, executive director of the Brooklyn Bail Fund, a nonprofit that helps the poor post bail. “A decrease in arrests of so many low-income individuals on low-level crimes would be the first most important fundamental step” to reforming bail and the court system.

Johnny Perez, a reentry advocate at the Urban Justice Center, is among those in the city who believe no reforms in the world can fix Rikers.

“The problem with Rikers is Rikers,” he said. “Certain things are just beyond fixing. I think Rikers should just be completely shut down.”