New York Daily News
In early November, following reports of increasingly dangerous and inhumane conditions at the city jails on Rikers Island, I joined a group of business leaders for a tour of the facilities led by Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez. The purpose was to better understand the hard choices that policymakers face around criminal justice reform and public safety.
Our first observation was that the buildings on Rikers are falling apart. The 2017 decision to replace Rikers with new “community jails” served as a rationale for cutting off funds for renovation of existing facilities, even though opening new jails was at least a decade away. Cells are so decrepit that their doors are literally falling off the hinges, jeopardizing the safety and damaging the morale of both incarcerated people and correction officers.
The Department of Correction is doing its best to patch and repair the physical plant. They have been able to close the worst buildings, thanks to a shrinking jail population (down to about 5,300 from a high of nearly 22,000 in 1991). At the same time, a combination of safety and health concerns and a criminal court system that slowed to a crawl during the pandemic contributed to a severe shortage of personnel and grueling triple shifts for those who were able to work them. Today there are food trucks parked on the island so that staff do not have to miss meals, and cab rides home are provided to staff who are too tired to drive.
Addressing the needs of incarcerated people is more complicated. After only six months on the job, Schiraldi and his team have reduced overcrowding, spruced up special areas to accommodate young incarcerated people who are struggling to improve themselves, and introduced new programming and services designed to give them a sense of hope and direction. But staff shortages have meant those locked up, many with mental health and severe behavioral problems, have too often been cooped up with no time outdoors, no recreation and a small television set in a community room as their only diversion.
I was gratified to learn about the success of one pilot project that was brought to Rikers by a public benefit corporation called APDS with financial support from the Partnership Fund for New York City and other private investors. APDS develops computer tablets that are programmed with educational, vocational training and inspirational materials suited to the rehabilitation needs and personal aspirations of the detainee population. Incarcerated people can earn their GEDs, gain credentials for living wage jobs, take blended learning courses for high school or college credit — all at no cost to themselves or their families.
In recent weeks, this public-private partnership between the Department of Correction and APDS was expanded from a pilot to a jail-wide program, with the distribution of more than 3,000 secure tablets to detainees. As a result, nearly every detained individual at Rikers can now pursue individualized education, rehabilitation and workforce training using this platform.
As a tool to support re-entry, individuals’ transcripts help them substantiate their case for employment and demonstrates preparedness for reentry. The tablet also includes an online substance-abuse recovery program designed to support a journey to sobriety and connections to onsite and post-release sources of assistance like Fortune Society and Osborne Association. The department is also exploring how to use the platform for communication with attorneys as well as with loved ones and friends.
The need for this program could not be more urgent. Between 60 and 75% of formerly incarcerated individuals remain unemployed one year after their release. Yet the research is clear: When justice-involved individuals have access to education, they are 43% less likely to reoffend, and post-release employment rates increase between 13% and 28%.
While deeper studies on the impact of APDS tablets on behavior are yet to be conducted, anecdotally Department of Correction staff are seeing that units with tablets are calmer, incarcerated people are engaged and not idle or bored; and entertainment features demonstrably relieve stress.
My takeaway from our Rikers visit was that too much of the public debate over how to reform the criminal justice system has been focused on legislation and policy solutions: bail reform, discovery rules, terms of parole, second-chance legislation to wipe records clean, and so forth. We are not paying enough attention to the practical actions and investments needed to improve the quality of jail facilities and to prepare people for re-entry into society.
Whether purposeful or not, locating the city’s major jail on an island has allowed New Yorkers to remain unaware of conditions that most would find indefensible. It’s time to turn our attention away from philosophical debate and take the commonsense actions that these leaders, staff and the incarcerated population are clamoring for.