Boerum Hill

OPINION: I worked at Rikers Island. It’s time for better jails.

October 1, 2019 Mary Buser
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In the oft-referenced words of Dostoevsky, a society can be judged by entering its jails. I have seen Rikers Island from the inside and it does not speak well of us.

For five years, I was a clinical social worker there, rising to be an assistant chief in the Mental Health Department. I support the current plan to close the eight active jails on Rikers, including through a rebuilt, better-designed facility in downtown Brooklyn, where I have been a lifelong resident. Here’s why.

When I worked at Rikers, the population hovered at 22,000. Today, the census has dropped to under 7,300, and crime is at historic lows. With the city seeking alternatives to jail for people with mental illness, and bail reforms to be implemented in January, that number will be further reduced. The city’s ultimate goal is no more than 4,000 people in jail — remarkable for a city of almost 9 million.

The large majority of the people in city jails are in that tense pre-trial window characterized by futures uncertain. Tightly restricted quarters surrounded by people consumed with the same pressures, coupled with severely limited outside contact, drive desperation. Family visits bring calm and hope like nothing else. But due to Rikers’ isolation, they are often not possible: Many families cannot take the entire day necessary just for an hourlong visit.

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People’s court dates get pushed back constantly because buses bringing them from Rikers get stuck in traffic or never arrive at all. Each delay can add weeks more behind bars.

Physical conditions add to the stress. Most of the jails lack air conditioning or adequate heating. They have sewage backups, mold, leaking roofs, even asbestos. Decrepit conditions plague the three operating borough jails too, including the non-air-conditioned cellblocks on Atlantic Avenue.

Over 90 percent of the people incarcerated will ultimately return to our communities. Do we want them to come back better or worse?

At a rebuilt jail in Downtown Brooklyn, open spaces combined with opportunities for privacy will allow for badly needed breathing room, and allow officers to actually see what’s happening. People can be walked to court through a tunnel. With dedicated space for education, job training, and therapeutic programming, the jails will be better able to address people’s needs. And family will actually be able to visit — they do so now at that jail at twice the rate as at Rikers.

Of course, the Department of Correction is a central player here. The officers’ work is unenviable and deserving of respect, often managing the most difficult people in our midst. The new jails will improve their workplace significantly. But they must also embrace a complete culture change. No longer can they refer to incarcerated people as “bodies” or continue well-publicized brutish behavior.

I think the best way to convey the urgent need for change is through the story of a man I met at Rikers, which I recounted in my book “Lockdown on Rikers:”

I stepped out to the waiting area where Hector Rodriguez was pacing the floor. As soon as I introduced myself, he said, “Can you get me outta here, Miss? Can you get me back to the Brooklyn House? They brought me out here to Rikers last night and the thing is, my mother’s very sick. She’ll never be able to make the trip out here — we don’t have a car. I’m scared she could die! My bail’s only a few hundred bucks, but we just don’t have it. Being in jail is bad enough, but at least let me see my family. Please, miss — please!”

My heart sunk. This was a familiar request. The smaller jails are closer to home, easier for family visits, and they all wanted to go back. But this was strictly a DOC matter, and there was nothing the Mental Health Department could do. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “Maybe you could speak to a captain.”

“Yeah, I will,” he said, hopefully. “Maybe this is just temporary.”

Although I hoped he would be sent back, I’d never known of anyone being returned to a borough house, and sure enough, Hector Rodriguez remained at Rikers.

But tragically, about three months later, his worst fear was realized when his mother died. The distraught man was brought to the clinic where we tried to console him as best we could. “I didn’t get to see her,” he cried. “My mother’s dead and I never got to see her one last time. Oh my God!”

In mid-October, the City Council will vote on the plan to close Rikers and create something entirely different — new smaller jails in the boroughs that will actually uphold human dignity. May the voices of people like Mr. Rodriguez be heard. Let’s close the disgrace of Rikers Island once and for all.

Mary Buser was an assistant mental health chief on Rikers Island. She is the author of the award-winning book “Lockdown on Rikers: Shocking Stories of Abuse and Injustice at New York’s Notorious Jail.” She is also the co-founder of Samaritans of New York Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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  1. Ali Winters, DSW, LCSW

    Beautifully written article, a must-read for anyone interested in criminal justice reform. It brings forth a set of compelling arguments for why Rikers needs to go. Well done!