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Addressing Rikers Violence: Working with Correctional Officers and Isolating Dangerous Offenders


For many years there was a steady increase in violent behavior by inmates at Rikers Correctional Center. But it has dramatically increase in the last three years. Annual stabbings and stabbings, as well as serious injuries from inmate fights, have increased six-fold.

progressives note that these increases cannot be explained by lack of funds or lack of personnel. Instead, we are told that it is mismanagement over decades. As the federal monitor’s reports describe in excruciating detail, mismanagement is now evident in proportions that speak of the total collapse of the Department of Correction, what the monitor has termed a “broken system.The lack of this basic control infects everything and fuels the pervasive culture of brutality and impunity.

The only example they point to is apparent sick leave abuse: “the dizzying fact that Department of Correction personnel responsible for regulating sick leave abuses were being investigated for, yes, taking multiple sick days that they noticeably dropped on Mondays, Fridays, or around holidays.” In fact, New York City filed a lawsuit against the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) “blaming them for deplorable conditions at the jail, which has experienced increased violence amid staffing shortages.” The lawsuit was promptly withdrawn by NYC two days later.

It’s all too easy to blame corrections officers, but it’s unclear how the inappropriate timing of their sick leave has anything to do with the rise in violent behavior by inmates. However, there is one piece of evidence that is surely related to these rising rates: the changing composition of the inmates. Before 2018, almost half of the inmates awaiting trial were accused of misdemeanors and only 15% of violent crimes. In early 2019, inmates charged with misdemeanors dropped to 9%, while those charged with violent crimes rose to 57%.

The implementation of bail reform hastened this transition, particularly the 60% decline in nonviolent felony defendants. By contrast, those charged with violent crimes were up 15%. As a result, today more than 80% of those awaiting trial are accused of violent crimes.

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These data strongly suggest that the dramatic increase in inmate violence is substantially due to the increased concentration of violence-prone individuals. This is exactly the argument given for the high incidence of black urban gun violence: concentrated intergenerational poverty. This is the environment that is used for explain why 15.5% of black high school students, but only 6.4% of whites, got into school fights.

This is a source of black behaviors. documented By Mark Berg: “(Many) decent young people took a violent public stance, even though it violated their own personal beliefs in conventional norms, to deter aggressive overtures from other young people in their neighborhood.” This is how Ta-Nehisi Coates described in “The Beautiful Struggle” what happened to him at his Baltimore high school when he refused to fight: “From then on, I was the weakest of brands, and my weakness was despised. For gifted children, above all. Some of my spanking was just a macho show, but mostly it was pure logic.”

Rikers’ inmate population is 60% black and less than 10% white. As a result, progressives are reluctant to even discuss the growing concentration of violence-prone inmates for fear it will lead to a blaming-the-victim narrative. It is better to focus on the inadequacies of corrections officers. Progressives are also reluctant to support the harsh disciplinary policies recommended by COBA President Benny Boscio:

The department must disband gangs harbored by their gang affiliation and we must retain the ability to separate violent offenders from the general population when they attack our nonviolent officers and inmates, also known as punitive segregation. Mayor Adams is right to be serious about this idea even as advocates howl that it is no different from solitary confinement.

Assaults against staff and non-violent inmates must be prosecuted promptly and offending inmates must serve consecutive sentences. Sexual predators must also be held accountable. Touching correctional officers should be a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

As with the demonization of police officers, the constant vilification of corrections officers, who suffer two to four serious injuries a month, has had a detrimental effect. According to Boscio, during 2019-2021, 1,698 correctional officers resigned, 1,008 retired, and only 75 were hired. Therefore, staff shortages may also be contributing to the problem. Without supporting COBA’s proposals and becoming more sympathetic to the issues officers face, it’s hard to see how significant improvements are possible at Rikers.

Cherry is an Affiliate of the American Enterprise Institute and author of the recently published “The State of the Black Family” (Emancipation Books).

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