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  • Ten thousand inmates on any given day.

  • Ten thousand people in a place they certainly do not want to be.

  • Inmate on inmate violence is common.

  • Assaults on officers are frequent.

  • Officers, we should say, with a terrible history of brutality.

  • Close it down!”

  • people have screamed for years about this prison, “It's an offense to humanity!”

  • But it somehow manages to stay open, and now violence is at an all-time high.

  • Welcome to Rikers Island.

  • It's true that for a few years now activists and lawyers have been calling for the place

  • to be closed.

  • Rikers Island has a reputation as being one of the worst places to be locked up in the

  • USA.

  • It has been called a “broken system”, a penitentiary befitting one of Dante's

  • circles of hell.

  • It's also the second-largest jail system in the US, after the Los Angeles County jail

  • system.

  • Let's now look at some practical facts, and then we'll come back to the mayhem.

  • Around 85% of the inmates that are locked up from day to day haven't been sentenced.

  • The rest of the folks are serving short sentences.

  • This doesn't, however, mean it's any less dangerous than a prison where people are serving

  • long sentences for extremely violent crimes.

  • Ask people who've been through the jail system in the US, and many will tell you that

  • prison was better than what came before it.

  • Sure, in prisons, you have dangerous alliances in gangs.

  • You have riots and murder, and you have organized crime, but the sheer disarray of jail and

  • the mental bedlam of prisoners not knowing what's going to happen to them can create

  • a very negative environment.

  • As one former inmate of the California jail system put it, “People are going to court

  • and fighting their cases, they are angry, not knowing their futures.

  • People are very on edge due to everything that's happening so fast, and they are prone

  • to being more violent for lesser offenses of perceived disrespect.”

  • Rikers island stands as testimony to that.

  • It routinely makes the top ten of the very worst places to be locked up in America, jail

  • or prison.

  • So, in 2015, New York City agreed to a settlement in which it promised to make things right.

  • Thousands of surveillance cameras were installed.

  • The city said it would clamp down on guard-inmate abuse.

  • But did things get better?

  • The answer is a resounding NO.

  • You have to ask, why is Rikers island so resistant to change?

  • Why is it perennially the human equivalent of a wasp's nest whose inhabitants have

  • just been upset by a clumsy gardener?

  • As the office of the United States attorney said in 2015, Rikers Island has been home

  • to a “decades-long culture of violence.”

  • Surely something could have been done to fix things.

  • The island itself was once owned by Mr. Abraham Rycken, a Dutch settler who stated a claim

  • to it in 1664.

  • The Ryckens became the Ricker family, and those dudes sold the island to the city of

  • New York in 1884.

  • It wasn't until 1925 that the island became home to a jail.

  • Around that time, the place was home to tons of garbage put there by the city.

  • That attracted rats, so many that no amount ofpoison gas, poison bait, ferocious dogs

  • and pigscould get rid of them.

  • So, there you go.

  • A rat-infested hellhole was what greeted those first prisoners.

  • The place soon got a reputation, a distinction of depressing deplorability it would never

  • really shake off.

  • Today we're not going to focus too much on those bygone days, but what has happened

  • there in the last decade or so.

  • It's only quite recently that people have been calling Rikers Island such things as

  • “a symbol of brutality and inhumanity.”

  • Those are some stern words, but former inmates wouldn't disagree.

  • Many of them that have had cause to complain were just teenage inmates, too.

  • Take for instance a guy named Vidal Guzman.

  • He went there when he was just 16 years old.

  • As he sat on the bus going across the bridge to the island, a guard looked at him and said,

  • Welcome to gladiator school.”

  • For those not too familiar with prison talk, the term gladiator school is often used to

  • describe young offenders' institutions in the US and in the UK.

  • Guzman offered these haunting words when he talked to the BBC about his time there.

  • He said, “Rikers doesn't leave you.”

  • In the same article, a guy named Johnny Perez was interviewed.

  • He also went to Rikers at the age of 16, but as a repeat offender, in the years that followed,

  • he spent time in nine different prisons in the state of New York.

  • He said Rikers was the worst place of all.

  • He explained why, saying things that sound almost unbelievable.

  • In Rikers, the officers give you a knife,” he said.

  • They'll sell you a razor.

  • I've bought drugs from correction officers who've turned around and told me they're going

  • to put me in solitary if my mother doesn't meet them in a parking lot to pay them.”

  • He also said he spent time in solitary confinement, which has been shown to have a much more profound

  • effect on a young person's psyche.

  • One of the reasons is that a young person's brain is still developing.

  • The frontal lobe isn't done developing until around the age of 25, and that's the so-called

  • executive suite”, responsible for controlling impulses and thinking about the consequences

  • of actions.

  • The experience of isolation is especially frightening, traumatizing, and stressful for

  • juveniles,” a psychologist said about solitary for teens.

  • These traumatic experiences can interfere with and damage these essential developmental

  • processes, and the damage may be irreparable.”

  • In short, a lot of young men were getting thrown into that wasp's nest, and they weren't

  • exactly receiving much care and attention from the authorities.

  • In fact, many of them were getting the exact opposite.

  • At the same time, many of the youngsters in such a place lacked parental guidance, if

  • they had any guidance at all.

  • For many, trauma was piled on trauma.

  • And then they were locked in solitary.

  • That's tantamount to playing catch with a hand grenade or opening a new Walmart right

  • next to a minefield.

  • The authorities must have known that by treating young kids with cruel and unusual punishment,

  • one day, someone would call the prison brutal and inhumane.

  • In 2018, New York mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted, “No one under 18 will go to Rikers Island,”

  • but it still didn't stop the violence.

  • Another former inmate explained just what the atmosphere is like in there.

  • He said once you are in, you have to learn quickly how to survive.

  • He said, “It's a place where you have to choose: predator or prey.”

  • The common refrain, one we imagine some of you are now thinking, isdo the crime,

  • do the time.”

  • That's all well and good, but you have to ask if it's better for society on the whole

  • for prisoners to come out worse, not better.

  • It's too easy to say, if I was in jail or prison, I wouldn't get caught up in any

  • of that nonsense.

  • But what if someone put you to the test?

  • What if you had to choose between predator and prey?

  • Institutions should be there to ensure no one has to make that grim choice, but as you'll

  • now see, it seems the officers at Rikers Island have historically not been noted for their

  • compassion and progressive thinking.

  • Take for instance the man named Lloyd Nicholson.

  • He was an officer back in the 2000s who got a name for himself for introducing something

  • calledThe Programto Rikers Island.

  • It was later described as a kind offight clubfor prisoners.

  • Nicholson and other officers actively encouraged young prisoners to fight each other.

  • The New York Times wrote about this in 2009, saying, “The pattern of cases suggests that

  • city correction officials have been aware of a problem in which Rikers guards have acquiesced

  • or encouraged violence among inmates.”

  • This led to lawsuits filed against the city, and not one of them ever went to trial.

  • According to the Times, fight club resulted in some inmates being severely beaten, with

  • at least one young man being killed.

  • It's reminiscent of a 2005 case in the UK, where guards purposefully put a racist, extremely

  • violent inmate, in the same cell as a meek, 19-year old non-violent offender of Asian

  • ethnicity.

  • The guards then made bets in a game they calledGladiator”, in which they had to guess

  • what would happen.

  • The outcome was the young man being beaten to death in the cell, one day before he was

  • due to be released.

  • In Rikers, the guards picked out tough inmates who they then gave positions of authority.

  • According to reports on the matter, they could bemanagers, foot soldiers, and enforcers”.

  • The guards also trained those inmates how to best assault someone or at least restrain

  • them.

  • They would sometimes tell those inmates where and when an attack would take place.

  • So, it is surprising that Rikers became what it was when guidance from adults was so perverse?

  • On top of the violence, some officers were involved in an extortion ring with the prisoners.

  • After that, the city said it would take steps to ensure nothing like it ever happens again.

  • But when officers have not been hiring inmates to extort and beat on other inmates, they

  • have been known to act violently themselves.

  • This is what a US Attorney commented, “It is a place where brute force is the first

  • impulse rather than the last resort, a place where verbal insults are repaid with physical

  • injuries, where beatings are routine, while accountability is rare.”

  • A report stated that inmates were regularly seeing guards beat up young inmates, but in

  • fear of what would happen to them, they hardly ever spoke up about it.

  • Officers hardly ever lost their jobs or faced criminal action.

  • The New York Times wrote about one officer who had been written up 76 times for excessive

  • use of force, although he faced disciplinary action only once.

  • A report stated, “The most egregious inmate beatings frequently occur in locations without

  • video surveillance.”

  • Just to give you an idea of what can happen, here's what one investigation discovered.

  • In 2012, two officers beat on one young inmate.

  • This was the outcome: “The officers punched the inmate multiple

  • times and kicked him in the head, resulting in serious injuries including a two-centimeter

  • laceration to his chin that required sutures, a lost tooth, and cracking and chipping to

  • the inmate's other teeth.”

  • We are sure you know that in a corrections officer's handbook, nowhere does it state,

  • Once an inmate is restrained, proceed to kick his teeth out.”

  • How are inmates supposed to react when this happens.

  • Violence begets violence, and that's why Rikers is violent.

  • It was stated that within the prison, both officers and inmates use a term called, “Hold

  • it down.”

  • It means take the beating you are given and keep your mouth shut.

  • This is from that same report: “An inmate reported that he was punched

  • and stomped on by several officers in a school corridor after verbally insulting one of them

  • during an argument.

  • He asked to go to the medical clinic, but the officers refused to take him there, giving

  • him tissues to clean himself up and telling him to 'hold it down.'”

  • The list of beatings handed out by officers is a long one.

  • We read about how inmates that had already been handcuffed and were laying on the ground

  • were pounded by batons and kicks to the head.

  • Beatings of handcuffed inmates were common.

  • We're not saying these things happen in a vacuum.

  • Being a prison officer among young offenders with violent tendencies has to be one of the

  • most stressful jobs in the world.

  • But when a news article states that after a beatingin handcuffs – “Two of the

  • inmates reported that they had lost consciousness or blacked out during the incident,” you

  • have to ask if something hasn't gone wrong in the orb of what we call rehabilitation.

  • Then you have the more well-known cases on top of the daily chaos in this jail.

  • You all know what happened to the 16-year old named Kalief Browder.

  • He went into Rikers and spent much of his three years in solitary confinement without

  • his case going to trial.

  • It's believed that what happened to him at Rikers paved the way for the tragic story

  • that was the rest of his life.

  • Then there was the case of Jose Bautista, reported in 2014.

  • He was only in for a misdemeanor after a family argument got out of control, but after not

  • being able to pay the $250 bail, he found himself on that hellish island.

  • This is how quickly a poor person's life can spin out of control.

  • One day officers went to his cell after hearing he'd been threatening to hurt himself.

  • Four officers arrived, handcuffed him, and then started pummeling him.

  • He had to have emergency surgery for a perforated bowel.

  • The story of Robert Hinton also made the press.

  • He was handcuffed and hogtied, and dragged down a landing in 2012 by five guards.

  • They took him to a solitary confinement cell and beat him senseless.

  • He ended up with a broken nose and a fractured vertebra.

  • Hinton was said to be suffering from mental ill-health.

  • The media later reported that of the 11,000 inmates at Rikers back then, 4,000 of them

  • were mentally unwell.

  • Over 11 months in 2013, 129 inmates sufferedserious injuriesafter being beaten

  • by officers.

  • 77 percent of them were diagnosed with a mental illness.

  • 80 percent of them said they were beaten while in handcuffs.

  • Sometimes inmates have been treated horrendously when they were physically unwell.

  • Take the case of Ronald Spear.

  • The 52-year old was sick and walked with a cane.

  • In 2012, he asked to see a doctor.

  • When a doctor informed him that he'd have to wait to be examined, Spear got into an

  • argument with an officer.

  • That officer and another officer pinned Spear down, and then punched and kicked him.

  • One officer shouted at him, “Remember that I'm the one who did this to you.”

  • Spear died soon after, and officers tried to cover up what had happened.

  • The officers, in this case, were eventually convicted of various crimes.

  • Still, Spear's sister said the convictions wouldn't likely changethe way that officers

  • behave, the way the city allows them to behave.”

  • You have to ask how some officers have been getting away with beatings.

  • An article in the New York Times gave us some insight into that.

  • It stated this in 2021, “From January 2019 to August 2020, 56 percent of the more than

  • 270 correction officers who were disciplinedincluding a dozen supervisorslied,

  • misled investigators or filed incomplete or inaccurate reports.”

  • 17 officers also gave false statements when they were interviewed.

  • It would be unfair to tar all the officers with the same brush.

  • One Rikers Island guard who spoke not long ago said every day before he goes to work,

  • he prays to God to protect him.

  • “I worry about my safety all the time,” he said.

  • Inmate assaults against officers at Rikers went up from 9.2 assaults for every 1,000

  • prisoners in 2018 to 12.6 assaults for every 1,000 prisoners in 2019.

  • Inmate on inmate assaults also went up, from 55.8 assaults for every 1,000 prisoners in

  • 2018 to 69.5 in 2019.

  • Whatever actions the prison and the city has taken don't seem to have worked.

  • Just a few days before we wrote this show, some people were protesting the possible closing