It’s Not Just Rikers Island

After some recent data suggested that violence at Rikers Island was down, it seemed like a breath of fresh air for an impossibly depressing place. Some skepticism began to crop up when it was revealed that the number of inmate fights was down by two-thirds immediately after a new warden and deputy warden had taken over. But that just could’ve been the result of a couple of guys doing their job really well, right?

In this case, no. Definitely not. The New York Times has learned that the jail cooked its numbers by doing something only an evil genius could think of: they just straight up didn’t record hundreds of fights that happened on their watch. Their defense? “Hey, we’re not evil, just criminally irresponsible!”

“In all instances the report repeatedly indicated that there wasn’t an indication of wrongdoing, but a lack of attentiveness,” Dora B. Schriro, who was the commissioner at the time, said. Saying the officials at Rikers Island have a “lack of attentiveness” is accurate if “lack of attentiveness” is another way of saying “completely ignoring human misery.”

I mean, this was the same place that released a kid last year who spent 3 years on Rikers Island without ever being convicted of a crime. Seriously. Kalief Browder was a 16-year-old sophomore walking home from a party when police stopped him and arrested him because he matched the description of a mugger and took him to jail.  He was charged with robbery in the second degree and held with a $10,000 bond, which his family couldn’t afford.

Consistently maintaining his innocence, Browder courageously refused plea deals that would’ve required him to plead guilty and was forced to stay locked up on a case his lawyers say the district attorney’s office could have “tried in front of a jury in two days.” He ended up missing his sister’s wedding, his senior prom, high school graduation, and the birth of his nephew.

Though he was eventually freed, Browder says the time he spent locked up still haunts him. He didn’t have a history of mental illness prior to his arrest, but he attempted suicide numerous times while he was unjustly incarcerated. How did the Rikers guards respond to such shocking warning signs of deteriorating mental health? They threw Browder onto the bed and proceeded to beat him, punching his head and body.

So yes, it’s pretty clear Rikers Island has its problems. But don’t think for a second this kind of shocking mistreatment of inmates is limited to one jail in the nation’s biggest city. I know – not everyone is being unjustly held like Browder. But everyone does deserve to be treated with human dignity and basic respect.

It’s very easy to not think about those who are behind bars. By the nature of incarceration, they are kept separated from the general public. And if you do think about them, it’s easy enough to dismiss any guilty feelings you might have about the conditions of jails since they’re the ones who got themselves in trouble in the first place.

But the kind of regular beatings Browder took and the violence the New York Times revealed is not something any criminal deserves. Somehow it’s gotten into our popular culture that those kinds of things – along with sexual assault, which bizarrely, is even more of a common joke – are just part of what happens if you go to jail.

When nearly seven million people are under some kind of correctional supervision, you’d think enough Americans would be personally affected to think that something probably should be done about the state of the prison system in this country. But unfortunately, every politician is eternally eager to appear to be “tough on crime,” and advocating a more rehabilitative, rather than punitive, approach to jails doesn’t play as the kind of “tough on crime” look those politicians are going for. You give up certain rights when you get arrested. That shouldn’t mean you have to give up your humanity as well.

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About The Author

Daniel Faris is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and a current resident of Harrisburg, PA. When he’s not blogging about politics at Only Slightly Biased, you can find his alter ego discussing progressive music over at New Music Friday.

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