City Journal

Paul E. O'Connell and Frank Straub
Why the Jails Didn’t Explode
How inspired management brought New York City’s jails back from the brink of anarchy to order and safety.
Spring 1999

Five years ago, Gotham’s jails looked like they were ready to explode with violence. At Rikers Island—the democratic world’s largest penal complex, with ten facilities sprawling across 490 acres of concrete and razor ribbon—“a full-scale riot [was] . . . only one dis, one argument, one short-tempered outburst away,” as New York magazine then put it. And then, as Mayor Giuliani got tough on crime, even more prisoners crowded into the already-packed jails; the 110,410 inmates who went through the system in 1994 increased 20 percent, to 133,000 today. But even with combustible prisoners jammed in ever more tightly, the Attica-like conflagration never ignited. On the contrary, the threat dissipated, violence plummeted to negligible levels, the jails became clean, quiet, and orderly. How that happened is an unsung triumph of institutional leadership and organizational reform, well worth studying and emulating.

Once you’ve seen the orderliness of today’s facilities, it’s hard to imagine the mayhem that prevailed only a few years ago. A particularly bloody two-month period in the summer of 1994 captures the flavor: Rikers Island, with its seething population of 16,000 prisoners, chalked up 176 slashings or stabbings—one for every 90 inmates—usually carried out with smuggled razors or makeshift shivs. In those days, the system as a whole averaged more than 1,000 violent acts yearly.

The assailants typically were gang members, whom authorities allowed to advertise their affiliation with color-coded beads—black and white for the Nietas; black and yellow for the Latin Kings—or such other gang paraphernalia as red “do-rags” for the Bloods. Gang members proudly marked out their turf with signature graffiti “tags” on the jail walls, and they flaunted their criminal conduct, from extortion to drug running, within the jail itself. Rikers had become a hoodlum counter-city within the city, where gang rivalry raged anarchically, to the ceaseless din of transistor radios.

Even jail employees were in danger. Some years ago, Jorge Ocasio, then a young captain and now deputy warden in command at Rikers, had transferred a dangerous inmate from one section of the jail to another, to the inmate’s displeasure. “Back then,” Ocasio says, “inmates had no regard for staff and would challenge us to fight and threaten us, as this prisoner did to me.” In due course, the disgruntled inmate staged a fight between two jail mates as a distraction while Ocasio did his rounds. As Ocasio struggled to separate them, the inmate jumped him, stabbed him in the back twice with a nail, and brained him with a telephone. Ocasio missed six weeks of work.

The sequel, though, was worse. Consistent with jail policy of punishing inmate wrongdoing—if at all—with loss of privileges rather than with criminal prosecution, the assailant wasn’t charged. “Had he attacked a cop on the street, he would have been prosecuted for attempted murder and probably served 25 years,” Ocasio ruminates. “So who was running the jail?” he asks. Here was a powerful message for inmates and staff: once you set foot in New York’s jails, civilized laws no longer applied.

No wonder that Department of Correction employees hated their jobs. Recalls Emmanuel Bailey, a 14-year DOC veteran and now assistant deputy warden: “It was rare you would have a quiet day. Seeing that kind of gore every day was depressing. These guys always cut each other on the face, to leave a ‘telephone’ on someone—a life mark.” Another veteran, Anthony Serra, commanding officer of both the department’s Emergency Services Unit and its special gang unit, agrees. “Imagine coming to work every day and knowing that you’re going to have to deal with some kind of violence,” he says grimly. “Morally and physically, that starts to grind you down.”

The menacing atmosphere took its toll on job performance. Correction officers routinely worked overtime, whether they wanted to or not, to fill posts left vacant by fellow officers who used sick time to avoid coming to work they feared and disliked. DOC staff averaged 21 sick days a year, the highest absentee rate of any city agency. “Sometimes,” Serra recalls, “you’d have to do four straight 16-hour days—it was an unhealthy, unsafe environment with a lot of stress.” Budget cuts reduced correction officers from 10,700 in 1992 to 9,800 in 1994, worsening the problem. In a sad but predictable irony, overtime costs spun out of control—$2.2 million a week during the first three months of 1994 alone—rendering the cuts futile.

The disorder at Rikers Island and throughout the city’s jails—one warden called it “a system of organized chaos”—went against everything Mayor Giuliani was trying to do to slash Gotham’s crime rate and restore the city’s quality of life. If the mayor had an overriding message, it was that tolerating even minor transgressions, such as public drunkenness or aggressive panhandling, rapidly leads to more serious crimes, as potential lawbreakers realize that the authorities are no longer in charge. Yet here, at the very heart of the city’s criminal justice system—teeming with precisely the bad guys who most urgently need to learn that the authorities won’t tolerate disorder and crime—even major crimes went unpunished, and illegality and chaos reigned, sending exactly the wrong message and emboldening criminals. City jails—jails, incidentally, are short-term county or municipal detention facilities in which the average stay is less than a year—fanned the crime problem in another way, too, since incarcerated gang leaders freely enlisted new recruits, who would return to crime on the streets strengthened by now belonging to a gang organization.

Seeing that the DOC was a mess, in January 1995 Mayor Giuliani appointed the cerebral Michael Jacobson, a former commissioner of probation with a Ph.D. in sociology, as acting DOC commissioner, promoting him to commissioner in March 1996. He also named the vivid, take-charge Bernard Kerik, formerly a Passaic county jail warden and New York City narcotics detective, as well as a military security specialist and martial arts expert, as first deputy commissioner, elevating him to commissioner in late 1997, when Jacobson returned to academe. Giuliani gave them a clear mandate: stop the violence and take back the jails.

They did exactly that. Under their regime, inmate violence fell 90 percent in four years. Only 229 violent incidents occurred during the last fiscal year, and just 54 during the first six months of fiscal 1999, even though the number of inmates passing through the DOC continues to rise. Morale has shot up. Overtime costs have shrunk by half, and sick leave is down 25 percent as employee enthusiasm strengthens.

How did Jacobson and Kerik bring about this seemingly miraculous transformation? They began by tightening up DOC’s absurdly lax management culture, a change that Kerik orchestrated. On his first day on the job, he gathered all the wardens and chiefs on Rikers Island and asked each one: “What’s your inmate count?” Some didn’t know, and Kerik blew up. At the end of the day, he called them back and asked them again. A few still didn’t know. Incensed, Kerik docked them a day’s pay, sending a crystal-clear message: get with the program or suffer the consequences.

“Early on,” Kerik notes, “I established a very simple rule: produce and work, and I’ll support you, you’ll have your job, you’ll have your career; do not produce, do not work, and you’ll have to go.” Using attrition and demotion—upper-level DOC positions are commissioner appointments, unprotected by civil-service safeguards—Kerik determinedly seized control of his own organization.

He had his work cut out for him. In the old days, sartorially resplendent wardens left the real work to their staff. As deputy warden Ocasio sarcastically put it, “The warden was like a king: he just sat in his office while everybody else worked.” Kerik is more scathing: “Five years ago, the wardens had no idea who were in their jails; they weren’t managing at all.”

Nor did they take responsibility for anything that occurred in the jails. “ ‘Shit happens’—that was their attitude,” Kerik contemptuously recalls. “I said: ‘You make $120,000 for what? What do you do?’ ” Things changed in a hurry. “Today, I’d put my managers up against any managers in New York City, and I’ll bet you my people know more about their jobs,” Kerik confidently asserts. Now wardens are accountable for all phases of their facilities’ operations, and Kerik encourages them to talk regularly with subordinates, collect information, and identify and correct problems before they get out of hand. Ocasio captures the new spirit: “If there’s an incident at 3 AM in my jail, and you call me at 8 PM, I’ll explain to you what happened.”

Kerik himself exemplifies the attitude he demands from his staff. Veteran correction officer Serra notes that “Kerik is the kind of person who’ll pull up on Rikers and notice a light bulb burnt out on a lamp, or a patch on a department vehicle with the old logo on it—he’s in tune.” Thomas Antenen, the agency’s deputy commissioner of public relations, praises his boss in the same terms: “He’ll show up at Rikers unannounced at 11 pm, and if he sees a dirty floor, someone’s going to have a problem. Accountability with a capital A,” says Antenen —“that’s what he’s all about.”

Kerik found the key to establishing accountability in the New York Police Department’s now famous Compstat meetings, which use crime and arrest statistics to plan and evaluate crime-reduction efforts, to figure out what might be going wrong, to deploy resources effectively, and to make everyone in the organization answerable for how he does his job (see “What We’ve Learned About Policing” on page 14). In late 1995, Kerik persuaded Jacobson to set up a version of Compstat on Rikers Island. The DOC uses its version—called Teams, for Total Efficiency Accountability Management System—to survey every aspect of the department’s work. In former commissioner Jacobson’s words, “the Teams meetings keep everyone focused on the data and on performance.”

Here’s how Teams works. Every month, Deputy Commissioner Deborah Kurtz, Captain Frank Ciaccio, and their staff put together a report of 90 or so significant “performance indicators”—the number is expanding all the time. Of course, jail security is pivotal. Each month, Kurtz and company look at the number of inmate acts of violence, the number of times the staff used force or sprayed mace, the number of searches and arrests of inmates. But they also track inmate library use, attendance at religious services, and use of health care services to make sure these services are running efficiently. They watch overtime spending and sick leave, jail cleanliness, and an array of other indicators, always seeking to expand the DOC’s institutional knowledge.

The statistical report forms the basis for the monthly Teams meetings on Rikers Island. About 100 people attend these highly charged sessions, which the commissioner runs from a dais, flanked by his deputy commissioners and uniformed chiefs on either side of the room. Four jails make presentations each month from a central podium, as large video screens display each facility’s statistics overhead. Commissioner Kerik will ask a warden: “Who is your top Latin King, and where is he?” The warden had better know the answer, since the commissioner will check on the spot. Kerik might quiz the warden about the number of Bloods under his jurisdiction, or why his cells have graffiti on them, or what he’s doing to minimize overtime costs. Nobody is confused about what the commissioner wants and expects.

Prior to Teams, each of New York City’s 16 jails, 4 hospital prison wards, and 15 court holding facilities operated largely as a separate entity, and intra-agency communication was minimal. Today, Teams quickly disseminates whatever one jail learns throughout the system. As Serra nicely puts it: “Teams opens everyone’s eyes—from all the facilities—to see if they’re having similar problems; if something works, everybody gets enlightened.” A Teams meeting we visited focused on several scalpels seized from inmates on Rikers Island. The Teams session figured out where and how inmates had acquired the scalpels and devised new department-wide inventory control measures to prevent it from happening again.

Teams also has helped Kerik spot talent and reward it. The recently appointed chief of operations, William Fraser, a 21-year veteran whose career had stalled out, is a perfect example: in 18 months after Kerik’s arrival, he scaled the ranks from warden to the highest uniformed position in the department. As warden, he found a way of combating extortion. Plunderers chronically bullied weaker inmates into surrendering their commissary purchases (usually cigarettes), which the extortionist could then use to buy favors, like extra phone calls, from other inmates. Fraser launched early-morning cell searches; if he found that an inmate had more cigarette packs than commissary records said he should, he seized the extras. After a while, the bullies got the message and stopped extorting. Kerik, deeply impressed at a Teams meeting with Fraser’s initiative, instituted the pre-dawn searches throughout the system—and promoted Fraser. Says Fraser: “This man has made all the difference. He certainly revitalized my career.”

Jacobson and Kerik’s first and biggest job was to carry out their original mandate from Mayor Giuliani: to control inmate violence and criminality. “Violence had to be reduced and a safe and secure work and living environment created,” says Kerik, “before any other operational issues could be addressed.”

With that aim in mind, Kerik quickly made sure that Gotham’s jails were clean and brightly lit, since he intuited that dark, grungy jails proclaimed that nobody cared, encouraging inmates to act up. “In the old days, graffiti was all over everything, and the floor looked like you were growing penicillin on it,” recalls assistant deputy warden Bailey. Today, says Bailey, it’s another world: “No more ‘Nietas Rule!’ everywhere: this place is immaculate.” Chief of operations Fraser is equally enthusiastic: “I challenge you to find a hospital as clean as our oldest building here, the North Infirmary, which was built in 1933.” New lighting and new fans keep halls bright and air circulating. Floors are high-buffed. The tidy look bespeaks professionalism and order, proclaiming that someone is in charge.

As part of his effort to cut violence, Kerik early on established a red I.D. card system to brand, as with a scarlet letter, inmates caught in the jail with weapons. As one correction officer described it: “The I.D.s tell everybody—the inmates, the officers, the civilians—that you’re a potential threat.” Since correction officers search red I.D. bearers far more frequently than they search other inmates, the system serves as a strong deterrent to smuggled and makeshift weapons.

Early on, too, Kerik spied a significant weakness in controlling jail crime and violence. The department’s emergency services division—which tackles unusual and dangerous situations, from mass transfers of prisoners to riots—employed only 18 people, none of whom worked nights or weekends. “What happens if a housing area acts up at 9 pm or on a Sunday and needs physical support?” the commissioner asked. Kerik went to the mayor for additional resources, and now the Emergency Services Unit has 150 permanent members and a team available 24 hours a day, every day. It doesn’t just react to emergencies but also does random searches in the jails. At Jacobson’s prompting, the mayor restored all agency staffing to pre-budget-cut levels: 10,700 correction officers and 2,300 civilian employees. The agency’s 1998 budget totaled $792 million.

Arrests are a powerful new weapon in the DOC’s campaign against crime and violence in the jails. Though this may seem an obvious technique, remember that before Jacobson and Kerik arrived in 1995, inmates who committed crimes in jail, even violent assaults, at most might have privileges suspended (no more going to the commissary for cigarettes) or might be transferred to a disciplinary unit. Unless they killed someone, real punishment was rare. You expect savage behavior in a jail, former DOC officials rationalized, so why waste dollars going after guys already behind bars? It was bad enough that this laxity let anarchy rage in the jails. But equally important, if lawful order doesn’t exist where the criminal justice system supposedly has most authority, what does that say about order in society at large? As Emmanuel Bailey stresses, “These guys were violating jail rules, but more importantly they were violating society’s rules.” An inmate was likely to leave correction emboldened, not chastened.

Kerik and then-chief of department Eric Taylor put a brusque halt to tolerating inmate crime. “The only reason inmates were expected to act violently in the past is that we let them do it,” the commissioner says. Now, the DOC prosecutes inmate crimes within the jails as vigorously as if they had been committed outside.

Raymond Rojas’s case is typical of hundreds of similar department prosecutions. Rojas entered Rikers in August 1997 on weapons charges. In February 1998, awaiting the outcome of his case, Rojas set his mattress on fire, creating a smoke hazard and causing serious burns to the two officers who snuffed out the blaze. Two weeks later, Rojas received a one-year sentence on his weapons case, most of which he had now served. In times past, Rojas soon would be back on the streets, his arson shrugged off as understandable misbehavior in anarchic Rikers. No more: the DOC arrested, prosecuted, and convicted Rojas for torching his mattress, and he received a multiple-year prison sentence.

Bailey enunciates the new regime’s bottom line: “You touch an officer, we will prosecute you. You cut someone, we’ll prosecute you. You burn something, we’ll prosecute you. It’s that simple.” Arrests have skyrocketed from a half-dozen or so a month to over 100. According to correction personnel, the word is out among the inmates: “They know that they no longer run anything in here,” an officer proudly asserts.

Most arrests within Gotham’s jail system are the responsibility of the Gang Intelligence Unit, perhaps the most successful of all of Jacobson and Kerik’s Teams-forged reforms. Formed three years ago, the 36-member “Gang Intel,” as correction officials call it, has become the troublemaking inmate’s nemesis. “When inmates commit a criminal act,” says Gang Intel’s commanding officer, Anthony Serra, referring to the elite unit’s trademark jackets, “they know that a short time later the guys in the windbreakers will come running.”

Gang Intel’s sole task is to investigate and crack down on gangs in New York’s jails. It’s a big responsibility, because gang members—some 12 percent of the department’s inmates—have been responsible for a disproportionate amount of jail violence. Using a sophisticated computer “super base,” Gang Intel tracks 55 different “serious risk groups” in city jails and maintains a database on some 12,000 gang members who’ve passed through DOC. The four most widely represented gangs are the formerly L.A.-based Bloods (600 in jail today), the Latin Kings (358), the Nietas (288), and the quasi-Muslim Five Percenters (114). But from the Aryan Nation to the Zulu Nation, Gang Intel keeps an eye on a wide assortment of other unsavory groups.

Shortly after Jacobson and Kerik arrived, the DOC obtained a court order allowing it to ban all gang paraphernalia, making it harder for members to identify one another. But it’s not easy for correction officers to pick out gang members, either—especially since the department scatters them throughout the jails, to diminish gang strength. Gang Intel has accordingly established a database for gang tattoos. Assistant deputy warden Bailey, the executive officer of Gang Intel, says the tattoos are crucial: “We look constantly for body markings. We make these guys undress; we take photos. The gang members can’t wear their beads anymore, so tattoos help mark out what group they belong to, and I make sure all my men can recognize them.” NYPD gang intelligence regularly briefs Gang Intel, too, and police officers routinely ask arrestees if they belong to gangs. Most important, Bailey says, Gang Intel encourages gang members to come forward with information: “When the inmate cuts ties with the outside world, he often wants to tell, and I’ll help him tell the DA, the FBI, overseas—anywhere.”

Gang Intel’s information-sharing relationship with New York City cops—and with the FBI, the DEA, with police and fire departments across the country, even with an agency associated with Interpol—is another new departure. It was Kerik’s brainchild. “There’s no reason, I thought, that the DOC shouldn’t be the premier gang-tracking database for the East Coast of the United States,” he says. “We know who they are, just as we know their associates, their customs, their secret identities, their hand signals. We have more access to gangs than anybody.”

The inter-agency cooperation has developed into an extremely effective gang-fighting tool. In an as yet unconcluded case, the Latin Kings had reorganized on Rikers Island, creating the “Inner-Island Council.” The council appointed a leader for each of the ten jails on Rikers. Gang Intel began to monitor the leaders closely and came across information that helped identify the entire gang leadership in New York City. Operation Crown—a joint effort with the FBI—led to the arrest of more than 100 members of the Latin Kings hierarchy in the city’s five boroughs. “We dismantled the Latin King Nation, and they’re still having a hard time restructuring,” declares deputy commissioner Antenen. Gang Intel, by deciphering secret gang street codes, also played a focal role in a joint New York–North Carolina case that busted the ruthless North Carolina gang Sex, Money, and Murder, Inc. In Gotham, the unit led to RICO indictments against the Bloods. Three years ago, Gang Intel didn’t exist; now it is, in the words of one cop, “the Harvard University of hoodlum information.”

Gang Intel’s participation in these joint efforts has hugely boosted DOC pride. By conducting criminal investigations and making arrests, correction officers make clear that correction is no longer the dead end of the criminal justice system. “Commissioner Kerik has put a new twist on being a correction officer,” asserts Bailey. “We’re peace officers, and we’re not second class to anyone now. I had an officer go to Florida recently to follow up on a lead—our people never thought they would be working on this level.” Serra calls Gang Intel “the diamond of the department.” Says he: “I’ve had great assignments, but I’ve never been so excited as I am as commanding officer of Gang Intel. It’s a resource with unlimited potential.”

Kerik has introduced an array of state-of-the-art technology into the DOC, beyond the sophisticated computer that Teams uses. Members of the Emergency Services Unit, for example, brandish the “stun shield,” which looks like gear Robocop might carry. It makes restraining out-of-control inmates much safer, for correction officers and inmates alike. Previously, it took five baton-wielding ESU officers to restrain a combative inmate. Lacerations, broken teeth, and broken bones commonly ensued. Now, when an officer pulls a trigger in back of the stun shield, a six-second burst of electricity—50,000 volts of it—gets released. If the energized shield touches a rowdy inmate, his muscles contract from the charge; when the electricity shuts off, his muscles relax, turning his limbs to jelly and immobilizing him. Serra calls it “a perfect tool—an alternative to physical force.” Though it sounds painful, it’s relatively harmless, and every time officers use it, a supervisor watches and videotapes roll to ensure compliance with all departmental procedures.

Another new device Kerik introduced is the “Boss Chair”—the body-orifice scanning system. Inmates often hide a razor blade in their rectum, their foreskin, or their mouth. Before, body-orifice searches were one of the more unpleasant—and sometimes violent—features of daily life in correction. With the Boss Chair, however, the prisoner sits, while a metal-detecting magnetic scanner built into the chair silently searches. If the chair’s red light blinks on, the inmate remains isolated until he relinquishes the weapon. Like the stun shield, the Boss Chair makes physical force less necessary.

Other technological advances include portable fluoroscope machines to check packages and inmate cells for contraband, “tube mitts” that restrain dangerous inmates’ hands, improved body armor for correction officers, and chemical agents, like mace, that make quelling disturbances less risky. Kerik carefully monitors and evaluates the effectiveness of all of the new devices during Teams sessions. Teams ensures, too, that personnel know how to use the new technology correctly.

Kerik’s changes have boosted DOC employees’ morale dramatically. “Most of the staff is excited by the changes,” says Emmanuel Bailey, “and I’m grinning from ear to ear.” Gotham’s jails are changed places for inmates, too. As Bailey puts it: “It’s no longer a place where you come to learn to be a better criminal. These days, you might come back a better citizen.”

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