2018-03-14 / Front Page

Rikers Island Shutdown Meeting Draws Large Crowd

By Thomas Cogan

At a meeting sponsored by City & State magazine, on a morning after a wet snowstorm, the second in the first week of the month, a panel of politicians and law enforcers met in downtown Manhattan at the New York Academy of Sciences to talk back and forth about closing Rikers Island.  Rikers is a 413-acre island in the East River near La Guardia Airport.  It contains nine jails.  Advocates of closing want first to reduce the prison population from its current 9,000 to 5,000 and, in the space of about nine years, replace the island complex with four jails, one in each borough except Staten Island.  Those in opposition to shutting Rikers down say that for one thing, terminating it and building neighborhood jails in its place would be very costly and couldn’t house any volume of inmates even close to the reduction number, 5,000. 

At the outset, the opposition voice was heard for some time through the person of Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, or COBA, who appeared on a video to remind the others that inmates in Rikers are mainly there because they’re criminal and quite likely violent, something that neighbors of the new jails might discover to their great distress should any inmates escape from them.  As for abandoning a 413-acre property, imagine the sight of developers clamoring for it.  Or perhaps it might become another runway for La Guardia Airport—but if it does it will be built in a less safe city, he said.  He was there live too, interviewed by City & State Editor-in-Chief Jon Lentz. 

In the video, Husamudeen criticized the work of the 2016 panel headed by Jonathan Lippman, former chief judge of the New York State Court of Appeals, which recommended closing Rikers.  He said that the judge and a panel of 25, which included Robert Fiske, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, left COBA and its officers out of their considerations, perhaps fancying the inmates that COBA supervises to be nothing worse than poor souls with petty offenses against them, stuck in a dungeon because they had no money to make bail.  

Near the end of the video and at the start of the live interview, he said that nobody’s thinking about the guards, being too busy sympathizing with the inmates the guards presumably brutalize ceaselessly.  In the video, he brought up the case of Jean Souffrant, a Rikers guard attacked by inmates in early February and left in critical condition with a spinal fracture.  To Jon Lentz, he said he had gone to Pennsylvania the day before to attend the funeral of Mark Baserman, a prison guard beaten to death by an 18-year-old inmate.  Please don’t make such teenagers sympathetic characters who might have had a tough life, he said; their suffering has made them violent.

He predicted that lack of faith in the proposed local jails would be expressed at a community meeting to be held that night in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, where the city wants to build a new jail from the ground up, at East 141st St. and Concord Ave.  (The other three jails would be retrofitted versions of the detention centers in Manhattan, the Tombs; Brooklyn; and Queens, in Kew Gardens.  He said community opposition would be strong, and later news reports said it was, with the strongest complaint being that the new jail would be located near several schools.  He said he lives in Staten Island, where no jail is to be placed, but if one were to be, he’d

be opposed to it.  He is black, and Mott Haven has many persons of color, but safety matters more than any vague sense of solidarity with the incarcerated, even if family members might be or have been “in the system,” as two of Husamudeen’s brothers have.

His hard-line approach to the Rikers situation was unbending when it came to solitary confinement, which in Rikers carried the truly loaded name, punitive segregation.  Its discontinuation has been lauded by many but he observed that inmates are consequently shipped from Rikers to jails outside the city where the practice still exists.  The inmates who attacked Souffrant were sent upstate and probably into stir—or “seg”—as soon as they got there.  Not only guards but other inmates are often endangered and keeping violent inmates away from them for a certain period is only wise, he said.  Inmates, themselves feeling more unsafe than ever, are open to recruitment by inmate gangs.  Husamudeen said he can understand that while condemning it.

He concluded that Rikers is like a building full of tenants whose landlord wants to get them out and will do anything to effect an eviction.  Meanwhile, he said, correction officers—the good ones among them anyway, and he deplored the bad ones—are begging for safety.

Such a strong opening might have been intimidating, but the other panelists made their points, even if in opposition.  Elizabeth Glazer, director of the mayor’s office of criminal justice, saw Rikers as a dilapidated hellhole and said that though there would be difficulties it could be shut down within a decade, and indeed has already had a few reductions.  As for the proposed community jails, she said they could be a community asset.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams praised Husamudeen as the first correction officer to call out fellow officers who do wrong and “disgrace the shield.”  He said also that he has worked with inmates of color to turn them to better activity than gang membership and violence.  But he pointed out an overlooked fact:  that half the inmates in the city’s jails are dyslexic and are not treated with that in mind.  He believes that the city can close Rikers with little harm or inconvenience to the people now working there.

Keith Powers, representing City Council District 4 in Manhattan, said he went on a tour of Rikers recently and now believes “we’re on a path” to closing it.  Clearance could be in as little as six-and-a-half years, with the right procurement, he said, but even with some impediments to the process it could be closed within nine years.  He said he has friends who are ex-inmates of Rikers.  Jumaane D. Williams, councilman from the 45th district in Brooklyn, said that Rikers is indicative of a national malady, that four percent of the world’s population has 25 percent of its incarcerated.  Most of the inmates there, he added, have not been convicted of anything.  In America, we legalize marijuana and arrest its dealers, he said, asking if public safety is defined by locking up black and brown people.  Into the bargain, Rikers was named after a 19th-century hunter of fugitive slaves, he revealed.

Queens Councilman Bob Holden, from the 30th District, took the Rikers tour with Councilman Powers and found it a different place, “the most secure jail I’ve ever seen.”  He said the money projected for community jails would be better spent improving Rikers.  He also found the spaces cramped and in need of enlargement.  For the inmates, he said, make educational courses mandatory and give them better things to occupy their time and thoughts than gangs and violence.  Joe Borelli, of the 51st District in Staten Island, expressed concern for both inmates and guards, but  said also that an increase in violence can be traced to the passing of punitive segregation.  As for closing Rikers, he sees its post-prison uses to be years in the making and inevitably mishandled.

James Quinn, senior executive assistant district attorney in the district attorney’s office in Queens, said that there is large public misunderstanding about Rikers:  for one thing, that it’s full of fare-beaters and prostitutes.  He said that even some fare-beaters are armed when apprehended, and the women’s population at Rikers is low.  As for those who cannot make bail, he said he has found 43 from Queens, which hardly suggests a jail packed with them.  Williams, who wore a button saying “Stay Woke,” wanted no demonization, finding that correction officers and inmates both need safety. 

But then he ripped Queens District Attorney Richard Brown as being a mass arrest fanatic and Quinn, who has served Brown and predecessors in Queens for 40 years, took it personally.  He told Williams that he didn’t know him and his office well enough to criticize.  Williams said he’s been black for more than 40 years and understands a lot.  At that point, most of the others tried to lower the level of acrimony.

Adams said we need a “real civil conversation” and a release from demonization.  Williams admitted that the thought of neighborhood jails makes him nervous, but we must have a better look at fellow humans.  Babies of color are born as innocent as anyone, so we must try to see just why they so often become candidates for incarceration. 

Near the end, there was talk about jails of the future.  Holden said Rikers must be rebuilt—there’s lots of room on the island to do it—and be wider and more feasible for guards and inmates.  Even Williams saw virtue in layout.  But Humamudeen warned that the Pennsylvania jail where Baserman the guard was killed was up-to- date.  The primary need, he said, is to tell inmates in any jail that crime will not be tolerated.  

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