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.
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.