When I worked in the Rikers Island Mental Health Department in the late 90’s, I was frequently called to the “Receiving Room” to assess newly arrested inmates who appeared to have psychiatric issues—the disheveled, the ones who were muttering to themselves, those who stood apart from the rest, ranting to the world, and to no one. I asked them the usual litany of psych questions: Do you know where you are right now? Do you ever hear voices? Have you ever taken psychiatric medications – been hospitalized? Few answered, and even fewer made eye contact. By the time they’d reached Rikers, they were acutely psychotic. I often reflected that these were the would-be residents of the big state psychiatric hospitals had they not been shut down. Although these hospitals had been initially constructed with high hopes for humane care of the mentally ill, tragically, over time they deteriorated into snake-pits, and public outcry demanded their closure, with masses of mentally ill people simply emptied out onto the streets. And now, here they were-- on Rikers Island. Unable to cut it on their own, they often got into trouble with the police, usually for petty offenses, such as trespassing and loitering. As I filled out the forms to transfer them to a more protective unit apart from the general population, I often wondered how it was that the best of intentions in shutting down the psych hospitals could have resulted in such a terrible outcome.
And now, with the recent media spotlight on Rikers and its “culture of violence,” the jail complex, itself, is in the crosshairs of a shutdown movement. I understand where this cry is coming from. When I left Rikers in 2000, I spent the next ten years writing about the brutality and injustice I witnessed, determined to tell the world just how far our criminal justice system had strayed from the ideals we espouse. Yet I’m hesitant to embrace the shutdown crusade, skeptical of shutdowns as solutions.
In an effort to better understand the arguments for a closure, I recently attended a “CloseRikers” rally, strategically held across the street from Gracie Mansion. A series of passionate speakers took the microphone, each one depicting horrific stories including the tragic plight of Kalief Browder, the sixteen-year-old who was arrested for stealing a backpack, a crime he never committed. Browder’s family could not afford his bail of a few thousand dollars, and he was remanded to Rikers, where he was beaten by guards and held in solitary confinement for close to two years. After three agonizing years of waiting for trial, his charges were simply dismissed. However, he returned home a far different person than the carefree teenager he’d once been; unable to recover from the trauma he’d endured, Kalief Browder committed suicide.
Like most people, I am appalled by Kalief Browder’s horrific ordeal, as well as that of so many other inmates I worked with on Rikers. But as disturbed as I am, I am also hard pressed to see how a shutdown would address the underlying factors that drive much of the Rikers misery, chief among them, bail unfairness, lengthy waits for trial, brutality, and solitary confinement.
I was especially interested when one of the rally speakers was the charismatic Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Senator Robert Kennedy, who tackled the bail issue, stating that of those who can afford bail and are able to fight their charges from home, 90% will ultimately be exonerated, whereas for those who can’t afford bail (like Kalief Browder), 90% will be found guilty. These are critical statistics that strike at the heart of the notion that our criminal justice system is fair. But what would closing Rikers do to rectify this inequity? Nothing. The same goes for lengthy trial delays. Despite the Constitution’s guarantee of a “speedy trial,” people can sit on Rikers for years awaiting their day in court. But the problem of clogged courtrooms and loopholes in the speedy trial guarantee could never be touched by a Rikers closure. Ditto for solitary confinement, which is not a Rikers phenomenon, but standard practice in jails and prisons across the country. Interestingly enough though, within the last year, encouraging reforms to solitary confinement have already been instituted on Rikers. In terms of brutality, Rikers stands out only because of an unrelenting media spotlight on the complex – if the same light were to be shone into jails and prisons across the country, the shameful fact is that horrific violence would be found in the majority of these settings. This is not in any way to defend the Rikers brutality, but to dispel the notion that Rikers Island is an outlier in an otherwise humane penal system. On the contrary, Rikers is a microcosm of a larger picture of brutality, and this serious matter needs to be acknowledged and addressed on a nationwide level. Even if Rikers was to be closed and a new facility opened, without a forceful and sustained intervention, what would keep brutality from bubbling right back up?
As the speakers harped on these topics, amid chants to “Shut it down!” -- I felt the passion and righteous indignation of good people, and felt proud to stand among them. The current level of interest in the incarcerated is unprecedented – an important moment in time that may not last. But while it does, we need to use it wisely. While it is so tempting to believe that a shutdown is the answer to all the ills that plague Rikers, this is a dangerous oversimplification. The factors driving the Rikers misery are complex and need to be addressed with the same rigor as the shutdown movement. If these issues are not tackled and Rikers is closed, the end result could very well be nothing more than a grand day for the real estate developers who are waiting in the wings for a Rikers closure -- while the Kalief Browder’s of tomorrow languish for years awaiting trial – just inside a gleaming new facility. Maybe people think that could never happen, but I’m sure the good folks who forced the hospital shutdowns never envisioned that the new home for the mentally ill would be Rikers Island.