Rafael Mangual and Seth Barron discuss plans to close the jail complex on Rikers Island, home to the vast majority of New York City’s inmate population, including some of the city’s worst offenders.

Violence on Rikers has spiked in recent years, despite a marked decline in the city’s inmate population. Last year, approximately 9,000 people were held on the island on an average day. According to the city’s own reporting, a larger share of inmates in Rikers are now “more violent and difficult to manage.”

The city is committed to closing Rikers and moving all inmates to county-based jails. Both critics and supporters of the plan agree that facilities on the island are outdated and dangerous—for prisoners and guards alike.

Rafael Mangual is the deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute.

Audio Transcript

Seth Barron: Welcome back to 10 Blocks.  This is Seth Barron, associate editor of City Journal and your host today.  For decades New York City has located most of its jails on Rikers Island.  Approximately 9,000 people are incarcerated on Rikers on an average day.  The city is now committed to closing Rikers and moving all the inmates to county-based jails, close to borough courthouses.  This move will be more humane, advocates say, because Rikers is a hellish dungeon, outdated, and festering with brutality.  A gladiator’s school, where the bad are made worse.  I am joined by Rafael Mangual, deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute.  He writes frequently about criminal justice policy for City Journal and other venues, such as The Post and the Daily News.  Ralf, welcome to 10 Blocks.

Rafael Mangual: Thanks so much for having me, Seth.  It’s a pleasure.

Seth Barron: So, tell us about Rikers Island.  What’s the situation there and who’s there?

Rafael Mangual: Well, this is one of the most important things that I try to focus some of my analysis on, is the who’s there at Rikers.  You know, ending up in jail is kind of, as the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald puts it, a lifetime achievement award in persistence in criminal offending.  There are – most of the people in there are felons.  91% of people in Rikers Island are being held for felonies.  49% are being held for violent felonies.  And if you look at some of the data as to the violence behind bars, I mean, it is pretty clear that the people behind bars in Rikers are the worst of New York City’s worst.

Seth Barron: But, I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but Rikers is a jail.  It’s not a prison.

Rafael Mangual: Correct.

Seth Barron: So, most of the people there are innocent, technically.  This is what, you know, I have heard from the advocates.  These are not – you called them felons, but really they haven’t been convicted of anything.

Rafael Mangual: Correct.  Most of the people in Rikers Island are awaiting trial on one charge or another.  But the other thing to keep in mind in terms of their criminal offending habits is their records and their history.  75% of the Rikers Island population on any given day historically has been there before.  And we know that most of the people who are charged with felonies in New York City end up getting convicted.

Seth Barron: Oh, okay.  Now there has been a question of violence at Rikers.  Who is committing the violence?  I mean, because we hear a lot about the brutality.  Now is it coming from other prisoners or from the guards?  What’s the problem with brutality?

Rafael Mangual: I mean the real problem with brutality is driven by the prison population at Rikers.  You know, most of the violence that happens behind bars there is inmate-on-inmate violence.  So, we see a lot of stories, you know, they get kind of popularized in the media where you have, you know, one guard that kind of goes off on a particular inmate, or vice versa where you have a guard attacked by one or, you know, a group of inmates, and those stories tend to get a lot of media attention.  But the reality is that most of the violence that’s going on behind bars at Rikers is perpetrated by inmates against inmates.

Seth Barron: Okay.  Now, crime in New York City has been going down.  Has the population -- what’s the population at Rikers and how is that like, you know, in line historically?

Rafael Mangual: So, over the last twenty years the population at Rikers has essentially been cut in half.  In 1998 the population was a little over 17,000.  It’s now averaging about 9,500.  So that’s a pretty big decline in the population, but it is also accompanied by one of the steepest and unparalleled crime declines in any major city in the country.  New York used to average well over 2,000 murders.  I think we had under 300 last year.  So, while there has been a precipitous drop in the size of the population at Rikers Island, that’s also accompanied by a huge crime decline, which, again, it really makes you ask some tough questions about why the violence at Rikers Island is so high.  Back when the population was over 17,000, the number of violent incidents behind bars was almost half of what it is now.  So that’s a troubling figure, in my view.

Seth Barron: So, you’re saying that even though there is half as many people on Rikers, there is twice as much violence?

Rafael Mangual: Close to it.  Close to it.

Seth Barron: What’s causing that?

Rafael Mangual: Well, there are a couple of things.  You know, I think it helps to kind of look at the trend line of violence behind bars at Rikers.  So, over the last three years violent incidents have gone up 43%, and so you start asking yourself some questions.  Well, what major things have happened in the last three years?  We know that in that period the number of guards has outpaced the number of inmates.  So, you have fewer inmates, more guards.  So, it’s not as if, you know, we can attribute this to, let’s say a funding problem, where, you know, security measures are being sort of skimped on.  And you know, when I did a kind of dive into it, the only conclusion that I could come to was that a collection of policies backed by the mayor and his allies is really to blame for this.  And just leading up to 2014 there has been a huge push to minimize what is called punitive segregation, more commonly known as solitary confinement, and there have been some policies enacted over those three years to basically take that off the table as a tool in the belt of guards to discipline inmates who are rowdy or violent.  And it started with just minors, 16 and 17-year-olds.  That policy was extended then to 18-year-olds and then again up to 21 and under.  And so, one of the problems is that criminologically speaking the sort of prime age for violent offending, that range usually lies within the 17 to 24 range, and so when you take this policy off the table for guards to use as a way to discipline violent inmates, you are going to get some more violence and it looks like that is what we are seeing.

Seth Barron: But, I mean, I have heard that, you know, it’s essentially a form of cruel and unusual punishment to keep someone who is, say 20 years old, in solitary confinement.  That they – their brain hasn’t developed enough to, you know, handle being alone like that.  Or, you know, I guess it would be like that for anyone, but that really keeping people isolated like that has tremendous negative social consequences and psychological consequences.  So, isn’t it necessary to end that practice?

Rafael Mangual: There is definitely no doubt that solitary confinement is not a pleasant experience.  And there is some research that shows that when, you know, you have a minor, someone whose brain isn’t fully developed who is locked up alone for a very long time that that can have some really negative effects.  But, on the other side of the coin, I think you really have to think about the effects that the violent climate is having on other inmates, again, who, as we discussed before, are presumed innocent.  Most of the people in Rikers Island are awaiting trial.  And until they get convicted it is the city’s job to keep them safe and just as it is unpleasant and, you know, psychologically detrimental to perhaps be alone for a long period of time at that age, it also has a psychological impact to be in an environment where you’re constantly on guard and you are seeing brutal violence being perpetrated against your fellow inmates and against you.  You know, that kind of, that exposure to that sort of violence can also have detrimental effects, including PTSD.

Seth Barron: Well, let’s get on to the question of closing Rikers.  This has been a major goal of advocates for prisoners and the anti-incarceration movement and former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman put out a report, which now Mayor de Blasio is supporting, everyone seems to be behind this plan to close Rikers.  What is the plan?

Rafael Mangual: Well the plan is really characterized by two things.  They want to shut down Rikers Island and replace it with a borough-based system.  So, a lot of the boroughs already have small jails there.  They want to either add onto them or build new ones, and this will be where our jail population will be housed.  They will be housed near the courthouses in the counties in which they are arrested or near where they reside.  And sort of the theory behind this is that it will make visitation a little easier.  It will keep them within the communities in which they live.  I am not sure there is too much science behind that in terms of its effect on the neighborhoods that these jails are going to go in, but one of the most troubling aspects of the plan to close Rikers is that the maximum capacity of the borough-based system that will replace Rikers Island is only 5,000, which is about half the size of the inmate population that we currently have, which, again, is half the inmate population that we had twenty years ago.  Now, it took us twenty years to get to this point and that was accompanied by one of the most incredible crime declines in urban American history.  So, without any evidence to suggest that we are going to see another such sharp decline, I really don’t see how you can get to 5,000 without releasing some of the dangerous people that are currently behind bars.  And how do we know they are dangerous?  I mean, again if you look at the charges that people in Rikers are in for, you look at their criminal histories and then you look at the levels of violence and how they’ve increased over the last few years, I mean, by the city’s own admission, the people behind Rikers Island are – I think their quote was violent and difficult to control.  So, you know, if that is who is left inside, I don’t see how you can get from 9,500 to 5,000 without letting a lot of these people out and the reality is that is going to have some negative consequences for the communities they go into.

Seth Barron: But aren’t a lot of the people in jail at Rikers just there because they couldn’t come up with like $50 for bail or maybe, you know, a couple hundred bucks.  You know, it sounds silly, but I guess poor people, if you are very poor, your family can’t come up with that kind of money and like a lot of the people there are just for, I don’t know, possession of marijuana, or jaywalking, like, you know, minor type stuff, right?

Rafael Mangual: No, that’s definitely not the case.  So, again, 91% of the Rikers population is being held on felony charges, 49% on violent felony charges.  So, these are not sort of your small-time crooks.  The other part of it is, so only about 3,000, 3,300 people of the current jail population are even bailable.  That means that they are eligible for release on bail.  And most of the people who are eligible for the release on bail do get bailed out, you know, within a relatively short amount of time.  So, the number of people who are being held for long periods of time simply because they cannot afford bail is a really small slice of that population.  So, again, a lot of these people are being held either on remand without bail or are serving jail sentences for crimes they were convicted of.

Seth Barron: So, how do they release, how do they reduce the population by half then?  I mean, who is going to get let out?

Rafael Mangual: The people who are going to get let out are the people who are in there now.  And we are talking people who have committed some of the most, you know, major index crimes that we track.  So, robbery, homicide, manslaughter, rape, aggravated sexual assault, aggravated assault, arson, stuff like that.  I mean most of the people in Rikers are not there for your sort of small-time drug possession offense or, you know, jaywalking, I think you said, or littering and that sort of stuff.  Most of the people behind bars at Rikers Island and other correctional facilities across the country are there for violent crimes.

Seth Barron: Because, you know, to read in the papers they have sort of made it sound as though a lot of people are in there for fare jumping, you know, jumping the turnstiles.  If they stop prosecuting people for fare beating, will that reduce the number of people in Rikers?

Rafael Mangual: Probably not.  You know.  The only way – well, not the only way, but if you get stopped for fare jumping, your path to Rikers is likely going to be because when you were stopped it was discovered that you had a warrant, or a weapon, or were committing some other more serious crime.  Again, most of the people – I mean the NYPD arrests over 300,000 people a year.  I think only 10% ever end up being admitted to Rikers at all on, you know, because they are held on bail or on remand.  So, it’s a very small number of police encounters actually result in a jail admission.  And, again, you know, this is the city’s own data.  I mean, the Office of Criminal Justice, the Mayor’s Office for Criminal Justice has done these analyses and shown exactly that.

Seth Barron: Well, let’s think about the difference between having people in Rikers and having people in these smaller jails.  Now, one thing I’ve heard is that Rikers is, the facility, the physical structure and the organization of the jails there, because it is a number of jails…

Rafael Mangual: Right.

Seth Barron: …is outdated and that modern penology has a different theory of how you organize a jail and that, for instance, lines of sight on Rikers make it a dangerous environment.  Do you see value just from that perspective in going ahead with this plan or could it be fixed?  I mean, is the problem really Rikers?

Rafael Mangual: You know, it’s kind of hard to say because, you know, there is some truth to that in terms of the sort of consensus on how a jail should be designed for security reasons, but as I laid out before, in 1998 when we had a jail population of over 17,000, there were only just over 6,000 violent incidents behind bars.  Now, if the setup was even more outdated back then, I’m not sure you can attribute the sort of violent climate that we’re seeing at Rikers now to the setup.  And the other question is you know, I mean from what I understand of the mayor’s plan to replace Rikers with a borough-based system, is that is only going to include one brand-new facility.  Other facilities will either be built on top of or just used as is.

Seth Barron: But, nevertheless, taking people to court from Rikers, apparently it is really quite an ordeal, it can take all day.  You know, you have to get up at 4:00 in the morning for a 9:00 a.m. court appearance – like this sort of thing.  So, I mean it does sound more convenient to be jailed right next to the court.

Rafael Mangual: It may sound like that, but if you are going to live in one of these neighborhoods be ready for some major traffic jams is my guess.  I mean, it is a big logistical project, and so one of the things that you know, a lot of the sort of community advocates who are opposed to the borough-based system are complaining about is the traffic and congestion and crime element that it is going to bring to their neighborhoods, which, you know, is one of the reasons I thank God that they chose the island-based system in the first place.

Seth Barron: Well, this has been a very enlightening and stimulating discussion, and certainly seems to run contrary to a lot of the things we have heard about the jails on Rikers.  Don’t forget to check out Rafael Mangual’s work on our website, www.city-journal.org.  You can follow Ralf on Twitter, @Rafa_Jdoc.  That is Rafa_Jdoc.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thanks, Ralf, for joining us.

Rafael Mangual: Thanks again for having me.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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