Rikers Island Is the New Hell

Orange may be the new black, but prison shouldn’t be the new torture.
August 6, 2015 • Commentary
By Ilya Shapiro and Randal John Meyer
This article appeared on The Daily Beast on August 6, 2015.

As we work our way through the third season of Orange is the New Black, it’s hard not to notice the renewed attention that the media and popular culture are paying to gross abuses in the criminal justice system. The show raises the specter of prisoner abuse and the powerlessness of those facing it, but its minimum‐​security women’s prison downplays the extent of the problems.

In reality, outside of Piper Chapman’s Litchfield Penitentiary—in real prison—conditions are by and large worse. Many real prisoners live in an extra‐​constitutional hell.

One egregious example is the prison at Rikers Island in New York City. The New York Times, has spent an astounding amount of ink muckraking (PDF) the problems at Rikers, with expose, after expose, after expose, after expose shedding light on prisoner abuse.

Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, last year issued a damning report of Rikers that examined “whether adolescents are subject to excessive and unnecessary use of force” between 2011 and 2013. The results were astounding: “during the period April 2012 through April 2013, adolescents sustained a total of 754 visible injuries.” “Simply put,” he concluded, “Rikers is a dangerous place for adolescents.” The report accused Department of Corrections officials of creating a “systemic and pervasive pattern and practice of utilizing unnecessary and excessive force against adolescent inmates in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.”

Last month, New York City and the U.S. Justice Department reached a settlement for “sweeping reforms,” including federal monitoring, training, and more cameras. But this should be taken with a degree of skepticism: Bill de Blasio appointed a new warden to reform Rikers when he became New York’s mayor and the results have not exactly been transformative. As the New York Times editorial board put it:

Nearly a year has passed since Mayor Bill de Blasio installed Joseph Ponte as his correction commissioner and charged him with reforming the house‐​of‐​horrors city jail system at Rikers Island, where guards have routinely beaten inmates bloody as a matter of course … It is thus deeply disturbing to learn that savage acts of violence against inmates have continued mostly unchecked since the de Blasio administration took office.

One reason for the intractability of top‐​down reform is that hiring problems within the Department of Corrections have persisted for over a decade. There needs to be turnover of rank‐​and‐​file guards to change the culture. A review of hiring applications found that “more than one‐​third had problems that either should have disqualified them or needed further scrutiny. Ten had been arrested more than once, and 12 had previously been rejected by the New York Police Department, six of them for ‘psychological reasons.’” Moreover, “79 had relatives or friends who were current or former inmates” and there is no screen for gang affiliations when hiring guards.

This problem isn’t isolated to Rikers. The Las Vegas Review‐​Journal reported that “guards fired 215 gunshots at High Desert [Prison] from 2007 through 2011,” which is “35.5 percent of all use‐​of‐​force cases at the prison, including other methods of controlling inmates.”

In neighboring California, the prison system was so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court interceded in Brown v. Plata (2011). Inthat case, California appealed the decision of a three‐​judge district court panel that the state had to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity. (Yes, reduce to that overcapacity.)

The Supreme Court affirmed the ruling. What the Court had to say was shocking: Inmates were committing preventable suicide at a rate of a person a week. Medical care consisted of “widespread,” “extreme departures from the standard of care” where “the proportion of ‘possibly preventable or preventable’ deaths was ‘extremely high.’”

Indeed, the Court noted that “[o]vercrowding has overtaken the limited resources of prison staff; imposed demands well beyond the capacity of medical and mental health facilities; and created unsanitary and unsafe conditions … specifically[,] the severe and unlawful mistreatment of prisoners through grossly inadequate provision of medical and mental health care.”

While cozying up with Netflix, take a second to consider that its portrayal of prison conditions is, if anything, sanguine—and that’s even before considering the rape epidemic that spawns repeated congressional hearings. Orange may be the new black, but prison shouldn’t be the new torture.

About the Authors
Ilya Shapiro

Ilya Shapiro is the director of the Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute and publisher of the Cato Supreme Court Review.

Randal John Meyer
Legal Associate, 2015–2016