Tag: rikers island
Who Smuggles Drugs And Weapons Into Prisons? It's An Inside Job

Who Smuggles Drugs And Weapons Into Prisons? It's An Inside Job

Doctors at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York pronounced Michael Nieves, a 40 year old detainee on Rikers Island, dead on August 31, 2022. Nieves had been suspended between life and death since an ambulance brought him from the New York City jail days before. Nieves had slit his own throat and bled out for at least 10 minutes — as jail staffers looked on and did nothing. A video camera captured the entire tragedy.

The New York City Department of Correction has suspended the staffers, two officers and a captain; accountability awaits. The most shocking aspect of what happened isn’t the disregard for life — that’s pretty commonplace — but the fact that this has become a suicide story and not a smuggling one.

A common perception of contraband and smuggling involves outsiders secretly squeezing items through tiny spaces. But that’s not the rule. Most of the time, smuggling’s an inside job, sometimes of goods that no one would identify as prohibited. Anyone who puts something banned into an inmate's hands is a smuggler.

The New York Times has reported that Nieves was actually given the razor as if that makes his possession of it lawful. A razor intended for shaving but used for suicide is contraband; in prisons and jails, anything used for a purpose that wasn’t intended bears that label.

But the larger point, which should go without saying, is that no one in the PACE Center where Nieves was housed — Rikers Island’s intensive psychiatric inpatient unit — should have been allowed to touch a blade of any type. It should be contraband even if it was used for shaving. This isn’t just a story of inaction. It’s a story of unauthorized goods.

Studying smuggling is a challenge. There’s no way to count the number of times contraband is passed — only the number of times someone is caught is numerable — so no one knows exactly how much illegal passing in prisons is initiated by employees.
But the novel coronavirus taught us that it’s a lot. The pandemic acid-tested prison security; every state and the federal Bureau of Prisons suspended in-person, full contact visits when the crisis started. The only people with contact with the outside were people who worked there.

But the flow of contraband barely stopped. The number of drug seizures in Virginia prisons dropped from 967 in 2019 to 871 in 2020. If visitors introduced contraband in a significant way, the reduction should have been more substantial since visits were stopped on March 16, 2020, canceled as a COVID-19 protection. In Connecticut a search turned up marijuana and a cell phone in February 2021 even though contact with the outside had been on hold since the previous March.

In Texas prisons, where an anti-contraband initiative had started before the prisons closed to visitors, staff found drugs 2297 times, only four fewer than the 2301 drug interdictions in 2019, and even though the number of people incarcerated decreased by about 16 percent.

Smuggling isn’t always as clandestine as it seems. Some employees just walk in with it. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz sent Michael Carvajal, the then-Director of the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), an urgent memo last year stating that guards were avoiding being searched when appearing for work.

Carvajal was recently replaced by Colette Peters, the former director of Oregon’s state prisons, but the Senate Judiciary Committee plans on holding another hearing about the failures of the BOP during his tenure when Congress is back in session.
Until such an airing of the ways items land in inmate hands, the federal prison guards union is lobbying to make the number of contraband interdictions the basis for the Bureau of Prisons’ budget — without any irony. So they could bolster their own funding and salaries by bringing in more prohibited goods. An email to the union’s president, Shane Fausey, requesting comment on this position was not returned.

As Nieves' recent story shows, guards freely giving inmates what they’re not supposed to have — either items they brought in or on-site materials — isn’t without consequence. The number of non-COVID deaths in prisons and jails from 2020 to the present time is still being calculated; that data would reveal the human cost of staffer smuggling. Before the pandemic, deaths by drugs and alcohol increased 139 percent between 2016 and 2018 and not because of increased prison populations; the number of inmates barely budged while deaths shot up.

Smuggling problems will be solved only by oversight and there’s almost none of it, even though most everyone agrees it’s needed.
Last month, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an organization dedicated to creating “a more fair and effective justice system that respects our American values of individual accountability and dignity while keeping our communities safe” released the first ever public poll on prison oversight. While the public may not be entirely sympathetic to what inmates experience, they believe that prisons are too loose. Eighty-two percent of survey respondents said we need independent oversight for prisons and jails.

The people polled by FAMM didn’t equivocate; 73 percent of them think “prisons should be inspected by professionals who are independent of the prison system they are inspecting,” 68 percent plainly reported that they don't “trust government agencies to investigate their own problems and honestly report on them,” and almost all of them think that there should be sufficient staffing, authority and access to provide the needed oversight.

Prison oversight shouldn’t be that hard to build if so much of the general public supports it. But an overarching overseer is hard to establish, mostly because such a bunker mentality grips the facilities. The inmates want to blame the guards and the guards want to see the inmates to face consequences. It doesn’t really matter why.

And that’s not oversight’s game. “The point of oversight is not to find out who did something wrong and hold them accountable, it's to prevent these problems," said FAMM’s president, Kevin Ring in an interview.

That mentality makes contraband smuggling an almost intractable problem since no one’s innocent in the contraband racket, no matter who does the smuggling. Recognizing employees as a source of dangerous contraband doesn’t absolve the incarcerated population. Staff bring in drugs and weapons because there’s a demand for it and inmates or their families are willing to pay; they’re not doing it for free.

Similarly, recognizing outsiders as purveyors of the prohibited doesn’t let prison employees off the hook, either. Contraband sneaks in when they’re not looking. And they’re always supposed to be looking. That’s why they’re paid to work there.

Indeed, looking is exactly what the two officers and a captain did while Michael Nieves lay exsanguinating. The cause of his death wasn’t so much their failure to act but their provision of the death instrument in the first place — and the fact that no one above them was watching to prevent that.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

Despite 'Reforms,' The Torture Of Solitary Confinement Persists Unabated

Despite 'Reforms,' The Torture Of Solitary Confinement Persists Unabated

Albert Woodfox passed away on August 4, 2022. In what’s believed to be the record for the longest stint in solitary in American history, Woodfox spent approximately 43 years alone in a 6-by-9-foot cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, colloquially called Angola, the name of the plantation that once occupied the same land.

The circumstances of his incarceration are as mind-boggling as the length of time Woodfox languished in loneliness. Along with an inmate named Herman Wallace, Woodfox was falsely accused — and wrongly convicted twice — of killing a corrections officer. Woodfox, Wallace, and another inmate were known for their indefinite placement in segregation and were dubbed the “Angola 3.”

It’s not as if administrators, lawyers and even judges didn’t know that the Angola 3’s duration in isolation was beyond objectively unreasonable. In 2005, federal United States Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby wrote that the Angola 3’s confinement went “so far beyond the pale” that there seemed not to be “anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.”

Yet Woodfox remained in isolation for over ten more years after that judicial proclamation. Only when he was finally released in 2016 when he pleaded guilty to lesser charges did he get out of the box.

Despite the fact that the United Nations declared that solitary is torture, no prison will completely eliminate the practice of confining people for weeks and even months, sometimes years, in a parking space sized cell. This “affront to our common humanity”— as former President Barack Obama called it — persists. And it will, since even reforms to the system often don’t stick.

In what was heralded as a bipartisan win and demonstration of humanity, the Criminal Justice Reform Act became law in Massachusetts in 2018. It was designed to, among other changes, make the time spent in isolation more humane and bearable, as well as cap periods of time spent in isolation at six months. But the hoopla might have been premature. Inmates filed a class action lawsuit on July 23, 2022 alleging that the Department of Correction isn’t obeying that law and are leaving them in solitary confinement for as long as 10 years.

It’s not just Massachusetts that’s seeing reform’s empty promises; the solitary confinement refit in New York City isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The Board of Correction, the oversight body for New York City Department of Correction, had put forth new rules that former Mayor Bill DeBlasio claimed would “end” solitary confinement in the city.

But overhauling the “restricted housing” at Rikers Island came to a “screeching halt” according to reporting in the publication The City when Mayor Eric Adams signed Executive Order 148 in July, pausing implementation because the department lacks sufficient staff.

Even if the rules went into effect, they’re not that drastic of a change. Solitary confinement goes by different names so reforming it can be as easy as changing a label. Indeed, that’s what the Board of Correction will be doing should Mayor Adams ever give them the green light. The new rules will christen the system as the Risk Assessment and Management System or RAMS instead of ‘Punitive Segregation’ or ‘PSEG.’

Typical conditions for solitary confinement are 23+ hours of isolation with only a few minutes of time in an outside area - alone. The new rules boast 10 hours of out-of-cell time - longer than an average work shift. The problem is that this freedom happens in a literal cage placed outside of the cell. The out-of-cell time allows people to see and hear each other - through indoor chain link fencing.

The now-indefinitely paused new rules for New York City don’t limit the amount of time a person can be held in these conditions, a stark contrast to the state statute, the HALT Solitary (Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement) Act, which limits segregation stays to 15 days no more than 20 days every 60 days, in accordance with what the United Nations calls The Nelson Mandela rules. United States District Court judge Mae A. D’Agostino recently tossed a lawsuit filed by New York State Correctional Officers And Police Benevolent Association, Inc. — the guards’ union — that sought to invalidate the law, so this statute might have some staying power.

But even if the HALT Solitary Act endures as a public law, legislation is a long way from implementation as the claims of the Massachusetts inmates demonstrate. James Pingeon, litigation director for the Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts, told Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger in a recent interview that Massachusetts’ Criminal Justice Reform Act came about because advocates had used litigation to garner political support.

The same is true for New York’s trajectory of limiting use of isolation; it started in response to litigation. In 2016, the state of New York settled a class action case — it consolidated a number of pro se prisoner suits into one case — and agreed to remove young, pregnant, and disabled prisoners from extreme segregation and set first-ever maximum limits on the time people can spend in extreme isolation. The Peoples v. Fischer settlement paved the way for the 2021 passage of the HALT Solitary Act. The law is brand new. In four years, the State of New York may be facing litigation similar to what Massachusetts confronts right now, amid allegations that the changes aren’t panning out.

Addressing honest complaints about continued reliance on solitary confinement need not take so long. New Jersey’s reform wasn’t in place for even a year when the law appeared to be violated. The Isolated Confinement Restriction Law went into effect in 2020, with segregation limited to 20 day terms — five more than the 15 day limit established in the Mandela rules — or no more than 30 days in a 60 day period. However, a review of disciplinary records found that women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility were sent to “Restorative Housing” — another clever name change — for anywhere between 60 days and a year.

It’s not that reform of solitary hasn’t made any strides. The American Civil Liberties Union called 2019 a watershed year for change, with twelve states enacting some measure of reform. A new law in Connecticut limits the use of confinement to no more than 15 days at a time and no more than 30 days within a 60-day timeframe. Ridding correctional spaces of torturous practices will require patience because it’s an incremental process.

But that’s the problem. Incrementally phasing out human rights abuses seems insufficient. When faced with atrocities, we ban them. Implementation may take time but the moral position is clear immediately.

Not only is this slow reform ethically dubious, it’s not even effective. Passing a law about solitary confinement seems almost meaningless at this point, leading to changes that are largely cosmetic if they happen at all.

It’s one of the most perplexing realities of modern corrections: Despite substantial consensus — five of six voters support restricting use of this type of isolation — and broad acknowledgment that solitary confinement is abusive and harmful to people with disabilities and mental illness, reducing its use is almost impossible, even with statutes in place that demand change.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

Everyone Knows Rikers Island Must Close, But That Doesn't Mean It Will

Everyone Knows Rikers Island Must Close, But That Doesn't Mean It Will

No one’s going to close Rikers Island.

After a 2017 report from the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform — also known as the Lippman Commission, a committee tasked with assessing problems at the New York City jail headed by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman — insisted that Rikers Island should cease to exist, the New York City Council voted in 2019 to close the jail by 2026, but that date has been moved back even further, to 2027.

Rikers conditions have worsened since that City Council decision. Sixteen detainees perished in 2021, overtired officers inadvertsently released a man accused of murder, and a captain who watched an inmate hang himself was charged with criminally negligent homicide. A judge lowered the bond for a defendant accused of attempted murder because other detainees had beaten him so severely that the judge wasn’t convinced he wasn’t going to be murdered himself. Thousands of detainees are suing over a lack of medical care, a situation so slow to be remedied that lawyers recommended this week that the city be fined $500,000.

As many advocates have pointed out, the Rikers shutdown needs to be speeded up but nothing has come of that, despite the fact that New York City elected a new tough-on-crime mayor who, even with his punitive and carceral inclinations, concedes that Rikers has to go.

It seemed like a harbinger of closures to come when the Board of Correction moved female and transgender detainees to state prisons upstate in October because of the staffing crisis. But no, they were moved back to Rikers last month, ostensibly because over 1000 guards returned to work, not because conditions had improved materially.

For all intents and purposes, Rikers is closed. It’s hardly operational. The detainees run the place — literally.

When a prison or jail reaches a certain point of dysfunction, there’s no improvement, no more investigation needed. Governors and administrators are admitting as much; in 2021 they announced three major prison closures. Last August, the Bureau of Prisons announced that the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), the federal detention center where Jeffrey Epstein died in July 2019, would shutter because a gun had appeared inside, along with cellphones, drugs. That contraband, combined with complaints about a lack of COVID precautions, was enough for Department of Justice officials to throw up their hands and shut it down.

Days later, a federal prison, US Penitentiary Atlanta, was revealed to be in the process of closing, after investigations uncovered misconduct by guards that had corrupted the entire system; staff had smuggled a gun there, too, along with drugs and other contraband. Security had become so lax that inmates were leaving through a hole in a fence, heading to local restaurants and returning.

Last June, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy decided to close the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility based on a report that women endured from physical and sexual abuse from staff. Edna Mahan is a small facility — fewer than 400 women — which means that abuse is harder to hide. Indeed, abuse reigned there, in the open, for years. Murphy hasn’t closed Edna Mahan just yet but he’s appointed a board of experts to oversee the closure.

Neither MCC, nor USP Atlanta nor Edna Mahan compete with Rikers’ record of human rights abuses and dysfunction and none of them will take a decade to close.

The endless debate over closing Rikers might paint prison and jail closures as momentous events but they’re not. Prisons close often. The state of New York will turn out the lights in six facilities this year alone. Another closed ahead of schedule in Connecticut and Gov. Ned Lamont threw in two more closures. Illinois is mulling a partial closure. Between 2007 and 2013, 31 states closed 120 prisons.

But cost savings motivated those closings. The more recent closures are different because they concede that these facilities are so bad that no justification exists for continuing to house people in them. That’s why the City Council voted to close Rikers. But people still languish there.

The lesson on Rikers’ isn’t the fecklessness of local government. It’s that abolition isn’t as radical as it seems.
The concept of abolition strikes fear in the public, much the way the slogan “Defund the police” does because it calls to mind moratorium, decarceration, desistance and a boomeranging of the crime rate.

But that’s the wrong way to think about prison abolition. The right way is this: Abolition is eliminating what we do now and replacing it with something unrecognizable.

At this point, replacing Rikers Island with something unrecognizable would be a facility with employees who don’t skip work for four to eight months. One without sexual violence. One where food is not only edible, but rather simply served to the mouths expecting it.

It’s true the closing of Rikers Island waits on the completion of new, replacement jail complexes. Considering that process of accepting bids from construction companies commenced late last year, almost three years after the decision to close “Torture Island.” New York construction is notorious for delays and cost overruns. 2011 was the projected completion date for New York’s East Side Access extension of the Long Island Railroad; it’s still not done. To think that construction will be completed in the next five years is overly sanguine, to say the least. And a lot can happen in those five years.

The need for more space is an insufficient excuse for keeping people in the jail complex, especially after administrators in the federal system moved incarcerees out immediately last year. When the constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment is in play, no serious public servant would wait a decade to remove people from unacceptable living conditions.
Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. wrote that “If Sandy Hook didn't change gun laws, nothing will.” Pitts was right; almost 10 years after an unstable gun enthusiast gunned down 20 second graders, sensible gun legislation eludes us.

Rikers is the Sandy Hook of correctional crises. That the jail complex hasn’t been closed already while human rights abuses abound means nothing will precipitate its demise.

Stop looking for closure. It’s not coming.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

U.S. Sues New York City Over Treatment Of Young Rikers Island Inmates

U.S. Sues New York City Over Treatment Of Young Rikers Island Inmates

By Kurtis Lee, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Federal prosecutors sued New York City on Thursday over its handling of violence against young inmates held on Rikers Island.

The lawsuit, filed by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York, seeks to speed reforms to the jail complex following a Justice Department report released in August that found “Rikers is a dangerous place for adolescents” where a “pervasive climate of fear exists.”

In the lawsuit, Bharara and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said young inmates were being “subjected to unconstitutional conditions and confinement.”

In the 79-page August report, Bharara said there were 1,050 cases of young prisoners injured in the past two years. In almost half of such incidents in the past year, the inmates required emergency care, according to the report. Shortly after the release of the report, Holder said his department would work closely with New York City officials to make improvements to the jail.

Allegations of abuse at Rikers Island — New York City’s main jail complex, which houses juveniles, men and women in separate wards — go back at least two decades, when an officer, according to the August report, created an enforcement gang of teenage prisoners called “the Program” and let them beat fellow teenage inmates in order to help control the inmate population.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio toured Rikers Island this week and announced the city would end solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds by the end of the year.

“By ending the use of punitive segregation for adolescents, we are shifting away from a jail system that punishes its youngest inmates, to one that is focused on rehabilitation with the goal of helping put these young New Yorkers on the path to better outcomes,” de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

Photo: Tim Rodenberg via Flickr

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