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Rikers Is Still Hell on Earth. Whatever Happened to Criminal-Justice Reform?

Esquire (UK) logo Esquire (UK) 12/10/2021 Charles P. Pierce
An appalling number of the people enjoying the hospitality of the dungeon on New York's East River haven’t been convicted of a damn thing. © John Moore - Getty Images An appalling number of the people enjoying the hospitality of the dungeon on New York's East River haven’t been convicted of a damn thing.

Brian got busted on a narco rap/He beat the rap by rattin' on some bikers/He said, hey, I know it's dangerous/But it sure beats Rikers.

—Jim Carroll, "People Who Died"

If there’s a hell on earth, it’s in the middle of the East River. From the New York Times:

Detainees in some buildings have seized near total control over entire units, deciding who can enter and leave them, records and interviews show. In other buildings, they have wandered in and out of staff break rooms and similarly restricted areas, with some flouting rules against smoking tobacco and marijuana. Sometimes they have answered phones that were supposed to be manned by guards. Several have stolen keys and used them to free others in custody, who went on to commit slashings and other acts of violence.
The chaos was not limited to incarcerated people. Correction officers have participated in beatings or failed to intervene in hangings and other urgent situations. Last week, a guard was charged with providing a razor blade to a detainee who planned to use it as a weapon…
…One man awaiting trial in August grabbed keys from a correction officer, freed another detainee and then used a knife to slash the guard’s face and neck. Bleeding from his wounds, the jailer escaped by locking himself in his attacker’s cell.
…Less than three weeks later, another man discovered that a metal grate in the wall of his cell was so rickety he could kick it down. He climbed through the opening and stabbed his neighbor...Accounts of such incidents have proliferated despite a jail population that has fallen to some of the lowest levels in decades, the result of changes to state bail laws and the city’s push last year to release hundreds of detainees amid concerns over the pandemic.

But that’s not the most distressing characteristic of the population housed in these superannuated dungeons. An appalling number of the people enjoying the hospitality at Rikers haven’t been convicted of a damn thing.

Spread across eight jail buildings on an island in the East River, between the Bronx and Queens, Rikers houses more than 4,800 detainees on a given day, a majority of whom are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Most do not commit violent acts, and a significant number struggle with mental illness.

Whatever happened to criminal-justice reform? Remember? That was going to be an issue that repaired our politics and brought back bipartisan cooperation. It won some isolated victories, no doubt, mainly in defusing some of the worst aspects of the “war” on drugs. I even attended a panel on criminal-justice reform at CPAC one year, and it was the only event of the weekend that didn’t turn my brain into a puddle of existential dread. Where did it go? How is Rikers still such a hellhole, even with fewer inmates than it has had in decades? I’m not an expert, but I think four years of a president* who promoted police violence and revved up the federal death-penalty machinery to a high whine might have put a damper on the efforts. And there’s not much reforming of criminal-justice systems going on when a cop can paralyse a citizen with seven shots to the back and skate away untouched.

This snapback was always predictable. The country has been fed so much fear-mongering about crime by both parties for so long, and it has rewarded the politicians who mongered that fear so lavishly, that it might take a century to wring that fear out of the electorate—even if we find enough people willing to do it, which is a very long shot anyway. Alabama’s taking COVID relief money to build more prisons. We all know a dead letter when I see one.

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