New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio held a big press conference on Rikers Island today to announce new strategies to curb violence in city jails. Reading his “14 point plan”, two thoughts come immediately to mind, they are 1) “huh?” and 2) “duh.” Today we cover, “huh?” Next week in part 2 we will cover “duh.”
Just four months ago, the Mayor’s own Department of Investigation released a report about correction officers sneaking contraband into Rikers Island. Noting that 30 correction officers in the last 10 years have been convicted of a crime related to such smuggling, they decided to see if Rikers Island officials follow protocol to prevent officers from smuggling contraband. The investigator posing as a correction officer attempted to enter six facilities on the island carrying the following items: 250 glassine envelopes of heroin, one half pound of marijuana, 24 strips of Suboxone, a 16 ounce water bottle filled with vodka, and, for good measure, a razor blade. All of these items are banned from anywhere in Rikers facilities. The investigator batted a thousand, and Rikers Island batted a goose egg, zero for 6. Every time the investigator walked right into the facility, where, if he so chose, he could have begun handing out the contraband as he saw fit.
Sadly, this investigation came just a year after the arrest of numerous correction officers and a medical clinic nurse for smuggling and distributing contraband into Rikers Island. After the arrests, new more stringent security measures were supposed to be implemented to prevent people from carrying a half of a pound of weed and razor blades into inmate housing areas. The Department of Investigation was testing out the implementation. DOC failed miserably, almost laughably if it weren’t so serious.
The report points out that inmates often fight over contraband, deteriorating the security situation inside the jails. Indeed, we have one such client who was victimized by the contraband trade on Rikers Island. An inmate had a business relationship with Correction Officer Davis. Davis would sneak in the marijuana, and the inmate would sell it. The inmate was widely understood to be favored by the house correction officers and was free to ply his illicit trade. A witness told me that the house always smelled of marijuana, it was that prevalent and out in the open.
Our client got into an argument with CO Davis, leading to him being hit by Davis. Our client complained to Rikers officials, and for reasons we still do not completely understand, CO Davis was moved to another house. This enraged the inmate who was doing business with Officer Davis, because, in his words, my client had “messed with his livelihood.” He attacked our client because of it, resulting in a badly broken jaw. He had numerous surgeries on his jaw, has hardware permanently in place and he is disfigured, all because he was seen as to blame for CO Davis moving to another house.
After all the arrests of correction officers, after the report showing that correction officers could easily enter jails with all kinds of contraband, the Mayor punted on officer misconduct. His solution? To crack down on visitors to Rikers Island, and to reduce the amount of hugging and kissing detainees can do with their families and loved ones. When asked by a reporter about correction officials smuggling in contraband, he avoided the question, claiming that contraband brought in by visitors “dwarfs” contraband smuggled by correction employees. Huh?!?! Why does he think this? We have no idea.
We believe that convicted persons who do not pose a serious security threat to others ought to be able to hug their parents when they come to visit. Loving human contact with trusted people ought to be precisely the kind of thing we encourage our convicted population to engage in. We cannot imagine denying that makes them more compassionate and decent when they re-enter. And even if you are not inclined towards compassion and common sense when dealing with our convicted population, remember that most detainees on Rikers Island have been convicted of no crime. Tonight, a few detainees spending their first night on Rikers Island will be taken to the Grand Jury in 6 days and the DA will decline to go forward or the Grand Jury will dismiss the charges. Others will sit for months until a judge pays some attention to the case and will determine to release the defendant for any number of reasons. We have an obligation to non-convicted detainees to grant them as much personal autonomy, and as little discomfort as possible consistent with security.
So when Mayor de Blasio refused to address the very obvious security problem of correction officers smuggling contraband into Rikers, and instead told 18 year old detained men that they can’t hug their mothers more than twice a visit, we said “huh?”