Prisons

Rikers Island Offers a Glimpse of America's Hellhole Prisons

Formal sentences cover for informal penalties including crowding, poor sanitation, beatings, and rape.

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It's well known that the United States has an unusually high share of its population behind bars. What's less frequently acknowledged is that conditions in American jails and prisons are often barbaric, subjecting prisoners to punishment far beyond the severity of their formal sentences. The crisis at New York City's Rikers Island is forcing the matter into the public spotlight, but remedying the disaster there is only the beginning of necessary reform.

"There's garbage everywhere, rotting food with maggots, cockroaches, worms in the showers, human feces and piss," New York State Assemblymember Emily Gallagher tweeted on September 14 after a tour of the city jail. "Most of the toilets are broken so men are given plastic bags to relieve themselves in."

The rote comeback to complaints about conditions in detention facilities is that the inmates are criminals and therefore deserve brutal treatment. But Rikers Island is a jail complex—the vast majority of those held there are awaiting trial, and waiting, and waiting.

"[Otis Bantum Correctional Center] is where people are taken to be processed and wait for a hearing. People are supposed to be in and out within 24 hours," Gallagher added. "I met people who had been there for 3 months. No contact with family. Overcrowded. No air conditioning."

That center isn't even some legacy museum of archaic standards. "Opened in June 1985, it was completed in less than 15 months using modern design and construction methods," the New York City Department of Correction boasts. Nevertheless, conditions are so foul that the guards don't want to be there—many have been calling in sick and leaving the facilities understaffed.

Overall, "the pervasive level of disorder and chaos in the Facilities is alarming," a federal monitor noted earlier this year.

Not that any of this is a revelation. New York City has planned for years to close Rikers, but proposals to replace the facility with smaller jails scattered throughout the boroughs have dragged on—until recent violent outbreaks prompted new revelations that forced the issue. As conditions at Rikers grabbed headlines, Mayor Bill de Blasio belatedly acknowledged that those awaiting their days in court should finally get trials. Last week, his office announced the city would be "calendaring 500 court cases immediately out of the 5,000 people on Rikers Island in pre-trial, including over 1,500 people have been held for over one year."

Not to be outdone, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the immediate release of 191 Rikers prisoners, and the transfer of some others to state-run facilities.

"New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country," she also noted as she signed a bill reforming the practice. "That is a point of shame for us, and it needs to be fixed."

That's well and good, assuming these moves result in long-term reforms, and those new procedures and replacement facilities improve on what went before. We'll see. There's also the issue, though, that Rikers Island may have grabbed the headlines, but similar conditions prevail elsewhere.

"Prisoner-on-prisoner homicide and sexual abuse is common," the U.S. Justice Department warned of Alabama's prisons in 2019. "Prisoners who are seriously injured or stabbed must find their way to security staff elsewhere in the facility or bang on the door of the dormitory to gain the attention of correctional officers. Prisoners have been tied up for days by other prisoners while unnoticed by security staff."

Last year, a follow-up report implicated Alabama's prison guards in "uses of excessive force—which include the use of batons, chemical spray, and physical altercations such as kicking—often result in serious injuries and, sometimes, death."

"Across Chicago and its surrounding counties, more than 1,000 inmates are packed in jails as they await transfer to state prisons due to an ongoing fight over COVID-19 safety protocols between state and local law enforcement agencies," the Chicago Sun-Times found in June. Across Illinois, this has resulted in "dangerous overcrowding and fights in those jails."

"Over the last decade or so, Arizona's prisons have become synonymous with mismanagement, lack of safety, unconstitutional health care, and abysmal conditions for people in custody," according to an Arizona State Law Review article published in January.

"Today, prisons and jails in America are in crisis," reports the Equal Justice Initiative, which works to improve conditions for prisoners. "Incarcerated people are beaten, stabbed, raped, and killed in facilities run by corrupt officials who abuse their power with impunity. People who need medical care, help managing their disabilities, mental health and addiction treatment, and suicide prevention are denied care, ignored, punished, and placed in solitary confinement."

Part of the problem is the sheer mass of inmates crowded into America's prisons and jails. Despite some progress towards reducing the numbers of people behind bars, the country still has a sky-high incarceration rate relative to most countries and certainly by comparison to other liberal democracies. (Nominally, it's the highest in the world, but you should take data released by the governments of such prisons-with-flags as China and Cuba with a sizeable grain of salt.)

Another serious concern is the very limited sympathy many people feel for those behind bars. Leaving aside the important issues of detention for those who have yet to be convicted of crime, and of what acts should even be punishable by the state, this creates a situation in which formal sentences cover for informal penalties including crowding, poor sanitation, beatings, and rape. The actual terms of incarceration are open-ended and determined by guards and other prisoners.

That's not a criminal justice system; it's neglect and torture.

The conditions at Rikers Island are sufficiently horrendous to have, again, captured the public's attention. That creates an opportunity for improvement of conditions at a jail complex that has long been known as a hellhole. If we're smart, we'll remember that the problem doesn't stop there, and neither should the reforms.

NEXT: Walking the Delicate Line Between Reporter and Activist

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  1. We could immediately solve the problem of hellhole prisons if we simply #EmptyThePrisons.

    Not only is this the humanitarian thing to do, it would also increase the labor supply for billionaire employers like Reason.com’s benefactor Charles Koch.

    1. Wait. . But what about the jan 6th insurrectionists??

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    3. #DefundThePrisons—That’s much trendier than “#empty” while being every bit as asinine.

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  2. Equity demands either incarcerating many more women or releasing a lot of locked up men.

  3. I can understand GQP Alabama having a problem, But Democratic bastions like NYC and Chicago? Must be fake news. I’m sure prisoners awaiting trial there get healthful and delicious meals, top-notch health care, daily cell and bathroom cleaning, and first-run movies.

    1. Reports yesterday show the Virginia prisons holding jan 6th protestors being held in isolation getting 2 pieces of bread, tartar sauce, and a cookie.

    2. Interesting that the article mentions how messed up the parolee imprisonment situation is in New Yoel. It’s messed up in my state too—California. But no pattern there—YOU GOTTA KEEP EM SEPARATED!

  4. Democrats are just as bad as Republicans on criminal justice. Ignore the nice guy lip service.

    1. I’m not sure many would disagree with that. But no politician is going to let some challenger say they’re not “tough on crime” so here we are.

      Our population is too vindictive to have real prison reform.

      1. One can be tough on crime without being an asshole. Most politicians are assholes, because they’ve never spent a night on a concrete bed.

    2. Bullshit. Neither party is remotely libertarian. We are not even what we were 50 years ago when we had only about 10% of the incarcerated that we have now. But R’s much more actively run their elections based on ensuring no reform (unless reform means making things harsher). And you can see the results in the incarceration rates by states. R states imprison 2-3x more people per capita than D states do – even if the D states themselves are still ‘worst in the world’.

      1. No reform… like The First Step Act?

        Your pull for the left blinds you.

      2. And you can see the results in the incarceration rates by states. R states imprison 2-3x more people per capita than D states do

        Are individuals incarcerated in federal prisons in R states included in those numbers you just whipped out of your donkey? Do you reassess every time the party in control of the state (legislature, governorship???) changes? You’re not stupid enough to think this has anything to do with anything…

        Are you?

  5. Another serious concern is the very limited sympathy many people feel for those behind bars… That’s not a criminal justice system; it’s neglect and torture.

    It’s not that we should empathize with those behind bars. That can be too much to ask if we assume they are all guilty. The goal should be to have some goal for the justice system beyond simple retribution and incapacitation – and some willingness to publicly acknowledge (meaning via our voting habits) that the system needs reform.

    If retribution and incapacitation are the sole goals, then a simple ‘throw them in a dungeon and lose the key forever’ is the IDEAL solution. Problem is – for anything less than life without parole – you have now created a massive problem on the exit side of that sentence. And if you use no sentencing alternatives because you have no further goals, then you can’t even see how reform starts.

  6. “New York State incarcerates more people for parole violations than anywhere in the country,” she also noted as she signed a bill reforming the practice. “That is a point of shame for us, and it needs to be fixed.”

    “I mean, those fu, uh, people have to be better informed that they are not to violate parole.”

    1. It is a source of shame for our society that convicted criminals refuse to follow the law.

      The problem is how do you fix the problem beyond either incarceration (since that is the only punishment really available) or ignoring violations. Realizing also, that you cannot presume that these people have bad convictions or violated things that should not be against the law.

      1. Make it easier for them to follow the law? I’m not talking about parolees, but for probationers/deferred adjudication etc, the State definitely makes it difficult (and most importantly, expensive!) to get off paper.

  7. “It’s well known that the United States has an unusually high share of its population behind bars.”

    It’s also well known that most Americans who commit crimes and who are incarcerated didn’t have a father in their home.

    It’s also well known that left wing media outlets and Democrats (who have advocated disastrous Big Brother welfare programs that sharply increased the number and rate of fatherless homes) remain in denial of their disastrous policies and stupidity, and instead continue to demand even more disastrous Big Brother policies.

    1. And of course, the Equal Justice Initiative falsely blames white supremacy and racism for all of the incarcerations of blacks, while failing to even mention that 75% of black children in the US have no father in their home (which is the underlying cause of most crime and incarcerations).
      https://eji.org/report/race-and-the-jury/

      1. Maybe if, increasingly leftist governments, spent the money, they now put into destroying the nuclear family, on solving the overcrowding, sanitation, and individual security from other prisoners, both situations would improve.
        Sounds better than throwing dangerous “babies” out on the streets, with the bathwater of “closing all the prisons”.

  8. Blue state, blue county, blue city. Democrats suck at everything.

  9. Are there any private prisons that have this issue? Controversial yes. From what I’ve read over the years, humane conditions and a system that prisoners ask to be transferred into. Public unions and governments (guards) (NYCHA) take the resources from the exact population they claim to represent.

  10. First, why is it that one thinks that a high incarceration rate is abnormal? In a totalitarian state, there are degrees of incarceration. Being behind bars is not the only way one was imprisoned in Soviet Union.

    Second, where citizens have freedom, then those who cannot manage it should be separated from decent folk.

    Third, a minimum of conditions should be set and practiced for prisons and jails. Those not convicted have greater rights than those convicted, and that has to be respected.

    Fourth, we are in a cycle of institutional crisis. It is not surprising that the incarceration system is failing as badly as our military and medical/scientific institutions.

    1. Second, where citizens have freedom, then those who cannot manage it should be separated from decent folk.

      OK. So the reason we have 10x more people in prison than we did 50 years ago is because we are freer now?

      1. No. A generation ago, America had a much smaller population of illegal aliens and 100,000,000 less people overall.

    2. “You gonna get used to wearin’ them chains after a while, Luke. Don’t you never stop listenin’ to them clinking. ‘Cause they gonna remind you of what I been saying. For your own good.”
      ― Captain

  11. Another reason not to go anywhere near NYC anymore

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  13. Only those who commit violent crimes should ever see any type of cell. We simply have too many non violent offenders in custody which puts them further behind as they can lose their jobs.

  14. when the state makes someone a ward of the state in the form of incarceration the state assumes responsibility for that person. i have little sympathy for those incarcerated, but they should not fear for their lives. it is unacceptable that prisoners need to fear rape, violence and unsafe/unhealthy conditions. those in charge of these prisons should be tried for this as crimes against those in their care. this only happens because there is no accountability. i guarantee that if there were serious consequences this would end.

    1. Taxpayers would refuse to pay for safe, healthy prisons. If rathole jails and prisons were outlawed, then criminal law enforcement would virtually stop. Yes, some here will ask, “What’s the down side?”

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