Rikers Island.

We read about it and heard about it in Holland and over here in the US. From people outside the system, from those who have worked there and some who still do: Rikers Island is a bad place.

Even the well-educated and friendly young policy-ladies we met do not argue about the fact that Rikers is very huge, and that there are no facilities and financial resources for programs because most of the incarcerated people do not stay longer then a few days. Most of them: there is also a facility for people who have to stay up to one year and there is also an amount of people who are here from three to five years because there case is “complicated”. The ladies say they are trying to do something about it because it is not possible to properly carry out a detention this long in a facility like this. And I agree and also mention the fact that it is a violation of quit a few international laws.

We are picked up from the subway-station by a van and drive over the bridge to Rikers Island. Carleen is working as a juridical advisor and daughter of an officer who just retired. “Her father was one of the best” our driver says. We get a tour over the Island first. The first buildings were established in the twenties of the last century. The people who built it did not bother about esthetics and you can see the buildings were expanded many times and they are all surrounded by wire with razorblades.”I do not remember that I heard somebody ever escaped from Rikers, at least not from the Island. One guy got away from inside the building but was catched on the premises.” And she wonders: “ What was he thinking?”

I work in the system for almost fourty years and I have been in prisons al over the world: in the US, Russia, Serbia, Georgia, the Caribbean, Suriname, Lithuania, Belgium, England, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria etc.. When I am visiting a prison I try to figure out how much destructive tendencies (which are always there in every prison in the world) occur and I look for the efforts of management and staff to fight these tendencies. I listen to what people say, but I mostly look at the non-verbal interaction between staff, incarcerated people and superiors towards each other and towards us. I smell and feel. This review is not an audit or scientific report but just the impression of this Dutch prison-expert.

And of course: we do not get any detailed information about specific incidents, violence in general, the health of the staff and other human resource information. We had to choose which prison we wanted to see and we choose for the AMKC, because it is the biggest facility of the Island and there are units for mentally disturbed incarcerated people and addiction. And we know they show us a part of the building which is better then the average departments. Mr. Callagher leads the departments for mental health and he is doing “wonderful things”, the ladies tell us. Since a year he tries out a new approach which seems to work well. You do not have to be an Einstein to figure a few things out.

The amount of incarcerated people is huge: about 10.000/11000 today, but they come from 14.000. There are 11000 people working here: 1 on 1, but most of them do not work with the incarcerated people on the wards. The rate staff/incarcerated people on the wards is 1/50. There is a lot of bureaucracy and there are a lot of organizational levels from commissioner via the (deputy) wardens to the levels that directly supervise the executive work. With such a huge concentration of suspects and not yet convicted people I wonder why they do not have a court on the Island: in Holland the transport to the courts cost a lot of money, but houses of detention are relatively small and spread over the country. We try to combine courts and cells (for example at the Schiphol Detention Centre) and try to use videoconferencing as much as possible. But over here one could earn an incredible amount of money. I think the transport of at least a 1000 inmates up and down the courthouses every day costs at least one third of the staff for the transport and the logistic process inside the prison and in the courthouses. I wonder what interests (Unions? Magistrates?) are involved.

The buildings look cheap and inefficient. The people who have built this facility did not care about the living-climate of the incarcerated people and the working climate of the staff. Small rooms and corridors, incredibly long “walking-lines” from the wards to facilities, an unpleasant climate inside. Floors are made of wood and most of the facilities look like they are temporary: which is actually the case our hosts confirm. In most of the building parts there is no direct light from outside. The wards we see are renovated, but we are lead through a building which was closed only a year ago because people actually sunk through the floor. It is a horrible place and the thought of people being locked up or even working here gives me the shivers.

Due to the fact that people usually stay here for a short time there is hardly any possibility for incarcerated people and guards to get to know each other and to built a sort of secure relationship. And there is not much to do: no labor, no active daily program. People hang around or stay in their cells. The guard sits, stands and watches them: not very active either! I am sure the guards feel often victims of the situation too, powerless, neglected and not heard or respected. With all the consequences for his attitude towards the incarcerated people…… One thing is for sure: when an incarcerated person comes in here as a healthy, proud and energetic person the chance that you break some rule is almost a 100 percent and you will be one of the hundreds of people who stay in solitary confinement where you learn to become passive and dependent and where you learn to “eat” your anger and frustration inside: a process which Eddie Rosario called “internal damaging”. The incarcerated people come straight from the streets, mostly from one of the seven neighborhoods where all the incarcerated people come from: places of violence, poverty, drugs gangs, unemployment and people who are excluded from the benefits of the American Dream. And they come in when their situation is insecure, they do not have the prison-rhythm yet and they are scared to lose a lot.

In this very unsafe situation for everybody the presence of destructive tendencies is hardly avoidable if not a logical fact. It is hardly possible to imagine staff and incarcerated people see each other as unique human beings like themselves over here. It is an ideal environment for violence amongst incarcerated people, authorized and unauthorized violence by staff, antagonism, depersonalization, abuse of the weaker incarcerated people, traumatization, corruption etc..

Mr Gallagher and his team try to make a difference. They are from the mental health department. We stayed for quit a while on this departments and spoke with staff and incarcerated people. There are only seventeen incarcerated people per ward. “A very expensive ward we have!” says mr Gallagher with a smile. The guards feel that they are doing totally different things than usual in the other parts of Rikers. For starters: they speak with the incarcerated people and ask them to express their opinion about what they do and do not want. They call the department a “community” and there are is a wooden blade on plastic boxes used for Ping-Pong and a basketball-ring. Pretty unique for Rikers and even more: “we have this stuff since a year now and no-one ever used this stuff to become violent!”. Mr. Gallagher, complete with heavy New York accent works 24 years in the system and used to “throw the inmates in their cells and that was it. Did not care at all.” Now he runs this “experiment” which is obviously created due to negative media and political attention. The people on his wards are visibly suffering from psychiatric deseases and often mentally retarded or a combination of them. Often combined with a personality disorder which makes us talk about the population of the psychiatric hospital of the Dutch Prison System https://youtu.be/4EVNbqxHPso Gallagher is a people-man: he has immediate contact with all the staffmembers we meet on our way. People like him, he obviously is “one of the guys” makes jokes, speaks about serious things, supports, listens. The incarcerated people approach him freely: “Can I ask you something, only takes a second…..”. He knows them, takes some time for everybody, listens carefully. “ Callagher openly tells about the fact that he had a serious burnout last year. “This place really gets to you. I had a sky-high blood pressure. When you want to built an airplane you need more then a propeller.” When I say I think it is important and remarkable that he openly speaks about his burnout. Because his example can invite his people to also express their feelings. He tells that there is no real evaluation-session after violent incidents, because everybody goes back to their post immediately. I remember the policyadvisor of Rikers telling that she is looking into the causes of every incident to learn and to use it for improvement. But I have the idea that the results stay with the higher people and is used for external explanation. And that evaluation is not part of the daily practice and used for learning on the spot for staff and, maybe, incarcerated people. But its hard to start new things: there is a lot of opposition against the more personal and human approach on his department. I feel Gallagher is not totally recovered yet and that he experiences a lot of stress. During our tour he gets into a situation “I do not want you to observe”. One of the guys of his department is caught with some pot on him. The boss wants to transport the guy to a housing unit for solitary confinement, like they use to do on Rikers. Gallagher gets very angry and stressed (“this is one of my fights”) and says: “ The guy has pot on him: what would you do when you were in prison? The only problem is that I cannot stand the smell in my nose of that stuff. He cannot stand isolation, which is very bad in his mental state. I want to give him a fine, which is hard enough for him and keep him on the ward. I am tempted to just do what I think is right and probably will be fired!” We talk about the fact that there is so little to do. I ask if it is not possible to put a few tables on the ward and give the incarcerated people some simple work. I speak about it with the psychologist and the guards and they are sure it would be a very positive thing. But it also seems that doing such a thing would be unbelievable revolution in the harsh climate of Rikers and they do not see it happen soon…. They all react enthusiastic on the idea to start a staff exchange with Bellevue Hospital or other institutions to promote exchange of knowledge and get to know the place where the incarcerated people come from and are going to. One could organize it without extra funding or staff: just work in each-others place for a while. We also talk about staff getting a training to support their colleagues immediately after a violent incident. Talking, listening, stays with them during evaluation, medical treatment, bring them home if necessary. They love the idea but I also feel like speaking from another planet. Guards of the psychiatric ward say: “ People in this uniform often behaved very bad and dis-respectful towards the incarcerated people. When they come in I have to work hard to get their trust back. Just by being normal and respectful to them.”

‘I had very tough years as a guard in other prisons. But I love my work over here. I really feel I can do something good and I feel secure with both the inmates and the colleagues. Right now I am working since sixteen hours, I started working yesterdaynight and I took an extra shift. But I am still happy and fit!”

“ They treat you like they treat them. When I meet former incarcerated people on the street they say hello to me. And they say: I do not blame you for what happened to me at Rikers!”

“The rest of Rikers is rude and violent and there is also a lot of stuff going on amongst colleagues. Over here we are a family we take care of each other and we form a community of human beings with the inmates!”

“My mother visited some friends and there was a guy who had been in Rikers. My mother has exactly the same face as I have and the guy asked if she had a son working in Rikers. My mother said “yes” and then the guy said: your son is a good and honest guy. He always treated us with respect. You can be proud of him!”

Ps: I did not write this review to criticize the people who work at Rikers Island. I saw and heard that there are a lot of people working there, on every ward of the Island, who do their utmost best. Within the very strict limits of the strict rules and regulations and despite the fact that they have to function in this very unhealthy environment. A lot of them come from the same background as the incarcerated people and just want to survive and support their family. Just like them. It is an incredible challenge to get rid of the destructive mechanisms in society which lead to mass incarceration, solitary-confinement and places like Rikers Island. Which actually is a beautiful Island on a breathtaking view on New York. You could either close the prison and create a top-location to live and recreate, or start a prison based om human dignity, solidarity and equality with gardens, workshops and a lot of open space and daylight. To support and encourage incarcerated people to grab a second, third of fourth chance on socially acceptable life.

Nico 2

I was happy to be able to visit Nico again at MCC. I came later then the last time and knew the procedures. That was because we came from Rikers and Nico really appreciated that. We had a nice conversation: Nico is a smart and creative guy who absorbs as much information as he can about what happens outside. He has a wide interest in politics, society, juridical matters etc.. His analyzes are sharp and interesting to listen too. I sincerely hope he wins his case and comes back to Holland. And I am sure he could add a lot of value to our ideal to give people a voice who suffer the most severe consequences of the system.

Center for Court Innovation, Bronx Criminal Court, Bronx Community Solutions and dinner with, amongst others, Michael Jacobson, former warden of Rikers Island.

http://www.courtinnovation.com, http://www.nycourts.gov

Another nice office in Manhattan. We meet Greg Berman and Adam Mansky of the center of Court Innivation. Guys look like (and speak like) law school people: sharp, intelligent. This foundation is doing research and consultancy on improving  the juridical system. They support and initiate projects nation wide and all over the world, They work with intensively with  a London organization on Problem Solving Justice. Our hosts express themselves in a very political way: they want to stay in connection with all the different forces in the system but they are clear about the fact that humanity and respect should be the base of all court systems and that one of the most difficult powers are those of the chosen proscecuters who want to be tough on crime.

We visit the Bronx Centre Court. A depressing building in the middle of the Bronx. Extreme security messuers when we walk in and a lac of space: small rooms, narrow corridors. In the cells we see the incarcerated people,waiting in groups. The court works 24/7 dependent on the amount of cases. It is a big logistic proces of thousands of cases a year. We meet judge Grasso who started as a street-cop in the Bronx, tidied in the evenings, became a lawyer and later a judge. He is a good guy, always looking for improvement of the system. He designed a software system which gives the judge the opportunity to have all the necessary information available when he needs it during the court sessions.  He invites me to join him behind his desk and we attend three court sessions. What I see is that he is always looking for a constructive solution: offering a suspect a program, treatment or another possibility, like avoiding to get a criminal record in the first place! Of course he depends on the possibilities that are available. Therefore he often sends people to Bronx Community Solutions. He brings us in contact with thm.

Thank you very much for the “key” and the photo, Frans

It was a great pleasure to meet you and your group! I am always interested in getting a new perspective on some of the seemingly intractable problems that we try and deal with in the Criminal Justice System. It seems to me that you have much to be proud of in your country’s approach. God willing, I hope that one day that I will have the opportunity to see your system in action first hand. In the interim, I will keep trying my best to figure out how we might do a better job in NYC!

My Best,

George Grasso

We meet Maria and her colleagues of the Community Solutions Centre. They are an interface between the judges and the organanisations that provide care and other programs for the people facing court. They connect to all kind of organization and like to work innovative and community-based. One of their people attends the sessions too, to immediately provide solutions in specific cases and help the judge to avoid incarceration and find alternatives.

In the evening we have dinner with a few scientists and also with Michael Jacobson, former commissioner of, amongst other facilities, Rikers Island. He and his wife, who is a sociologist, are very nice people. Michael has a long history within the person system and he is not at all positive about the system in the United States. We have an extended and very interesting exchange on a number of subjects, like only colleagues can have. He and his wife and two will visit Holland in juin and we will fill in one day for them: as a special guest of the city of Hoorn (and visiting Oostereiland and the Halve Moon) and taking the bike to Heerhugowaard where we will visit the prison! I look forward to see them again. Michael has visited the Dutch and German piston system a few years ago. Holland has a nice and friendly juridical climate, he says, but the Germans are a lot more innovative. I am not surprised…….

CEO Works!!!!!

IMG_4641 1 IMG_4640 1 IMG_4639 1 IMG_4638 1 IMG_4637 1 IMG_4636 1 IMG_4980 IMG_4979 IMG_4978 IMG_4977

http://ceoworks.org/our-offices/new-york-city/nyc-headquarters/

On a glamorous few floors centre in the middle of Wallstreet we visited CEO-works. It is a foundation which leads former incarcerated persons to a job. They are financed by the State for 70 percent and from foundations and individual gifts for the rest. Former incarcerated people are sent to them, mostly by parole officers who consider these people ready to go through the program. Because they need it and because they wanted. In the incredible amount of people leaving prisons there is a relatively small group going to CEO, But that is not because they do not need help: the people that come in have huge problems, often being incarcerated for a long time wit a huge lost of network and facilities like housing, job, educational background. Traumatized by being in such a suppressive surrounding.

What CEO does is offering them a two month program. The people gain work-experience on several governmental organizations of four days a week and do class for one day a week. They are attended by work-coaches and other professionals supporting them and the employers and from that situation CEO has a big network of companies where the people can apply for a job. In the program they learn to present themselves properly, learn how to behave in a working situation like coming in time etc. and they are stimulated to direct themselves to positivity and the opportunities there are for them.

The content of the program is very similar to the Kiezen Voor Verandering-program (Choose for Change) in our system and what we do in our Penitentiary Training Centers and (half-) open prisons, and it is painful to realize that our government just stopped with all this in the last few years.

We had the chance to attend a class and also had an interview with a few selected former incarcerated people. It was very impressive to experience this and to hear the stories of the people in the program. Of course there is a lot of misery: people being incarcerated for a long time, telling about brutality inside, the unsafe environment they lived in. One guy had been inside for nine years and just met his nine year old son for the first time, another guy stayed inside for 36 years and tells how he learns to text on a mobile phone and that he really needs this program because otherwise he would sit in his room without knowing what to do. The atmosphere in the institute is strict but also warm and positive. Mary Lewis, who teaches a big group of older recidivists and former long-sentenced people personalizes te system. One of the guys says:”She is honest and gives right and wrong straight to you. But she is sweet like a mother for all of us!”

I think the strengths of the program is the close and very focused combination of training, possibility to gain work-experience and a network of employers to get permanent work, and all the professional support around it. Despite the fact that the challenge over here is a sort of mission impossible, due to mass-incarceration, poverty and exclusion there is no doubt in my mind that this is an excellent program, doing a good and effective job. And that we can learn from this program. In Holland we do not have these internships in  governmental organizations and we do not have programs where everything necessary is brought together in such a focused way!

Centre of NU Leadership on Urban Solutions

IMG_4967 IMG_4966 IMG_4968 IMG_4971You can find info about the centre n:http://centerfornuleadership.org.

We  find the centre in the middle of one of the seven neighborhoods of New York where all incarcerated people from NYC come from. You find the “million dollar blocks” here, called after the amount of money the state has to pay every year to incarcerate  the people of this block! Our host is Kate Rhee, the deputy director (which usually is understood as the executive director).of the centre and Divine Pryor and Bryonn Bain also join the meeting for a short while. They are busy with numerous projects: Divine, who is a professor, is also a priest and had to move his church from one place to the other this afternoon. Bryonn is involved in about 30 projects all the time. They are all very intelligent, energetic and passionate people and from the “do everything in an unusual way”. I understand it is very community-based, they want the neighborhood to be the owner of the innovation, involve everybody, be connected to very relevant player in the context they are working in. That means: very hard work, avoid time and energy asking “bullshit” and institutionalization. And they are innovative. Which has to be done “bottom up” and appears to be intelligent, effective and chaotic. 

Very inspiring is the “arrest diversion project” for juveniles. In cooperation with the police they want these juveniles which the police wants to arrests to be brought straight to the centre. The youngsters in the neighborhood are stopped several times a year and usually manhandled in the proces, thrown in a cell for one or a few days and released. A very traumatizing fact as I also found out in my prison in Holland: waking up incarcerated people very early reminds them of arrests in the early morning….. Divine says: “we even do not want them to be handcuffed: we do not want them to experience that”. The youngsters get help, programs, courses and social assistance. “They often do not believe that anything could be done for them, do not know that there are ways for them to get out of their hopeless situation”. The chief of the police cooperates: NYPD is very worried about the whole situation and this guy, who will retire in two years, want to try to do something valuable.

The people of the centre are also very busy with the new legislation on raising the age to be treated like an adult in the juridical process from 16 till 18. We heard about this upcoming law from John Flateau. It turns out that the governor has been advised by a committee not to involve violent crimes. Which turns this law into windowdressing. As we know: a child using violence is still a child and you have to look into the violence done to him and find manners to support his recovery.

Another issue is the fact that everybody who gets in touch with the police, guilty or not, gets a criminal record. Due to RAP sheet errors, which is not uncommon, people who are convicted of a non-criminal act (violation) whose records should NOT be revealed when a background check is run by a potential employer, sometimes face questions about arrest charges that did not result in any criminal conviction.”  There is a trade in criminal records: the authorities sell them to companies and special bureau’s hired by employers to track the records of their (future) employees

We were invited spontaneously to perform in a documentary about Human Justice. We did our best, despite the English of some of us (like me) and I hope it attributes something valuable. And it was a very interesting experience.

And at the end we only had a few minutes left for the matter for what we travelled to New York for in the first place: preparing Prison Dialogue and Action day. We exchanged a few remarks and decided to continue the discussion by email and a video-conference in the course of juin. I remember a few remarks:

– Start with an oversight of figures about the different countries/cities involved: crime, incarceration, recidivism etc.

– Try to give a voice to those who suffer the most severe consequences of the system: (former) incarcerated persons, victims, their families. Others, like scientists and professionals are there mainly to (learn to) facilitate the empowerment of those who are in the worst situation.

– Prepare well, do not make it to big. Probably less cities and/or countries.

– Use a better communication-system then Skype to do the videoconference!

– For Holland: ask the people who were involved in the conference of 2014 if they have idea ‘s and/or what they think can be done better in 2015!

And while I am typing this, Stefan van der Heijden dents me a whatsapp to have contact tomorrow. He is on a big conference in London for numerous former incarcerated persons from various countries in which he will stand on stage with the pope himself. He will discuss with them how they can participate in Prison Action Day!i

Weekend: The Bronx and Coney Island

It needed a few days, but I decided to make my blog a lot shorter. Thanx to the advice of people around me. Not only to save some time for the followers but als for me: there are so many other things to do over here then writing!

Saturday Fred took us to the Bronx. Built as a neighborhood for the upper middle class. Today it gives an image of poverty, vacancy and neglected maintenance. Like Harlem the state of the neighborhood tends to a third world city. Fred explains how the different policies of the municipality did not work out well for the people in the neighborhood. Scary “housing projects” are been invented by people who obviously do not like people at all. Some tax-messueres in the past made it profitable for house owners to set their houses on fire. We pass police stations which figure in famous television-series and pass a lot of undeveloped land among depressing shacks.

Sunday is a sunny day and we decide to do what a lot of common New Yorkers do: we go to Coney Island. The beach, the and the toilets are free. You can buy cheap fastfood (like the famous hotdogs from Nathan’s and if you want to spent some more there is the huge fair. Big latino families spent the day on the beach with brought food and their own furniture. e see Jewish children playing in the sand with black hats and keppels on. Kids are smoking water pipes and tatood italian and irish looking people drink beer on the boardwalk. What a beautiful day!