Problems With Rikers Island Prison Tough to Fix

December 28, 2014 Updated: December 29, 2014

NEW YORK—Victor Woods shook uncontrollably, his body wracked by convulsions, as fellow inmates held him in their arms and shouted for help.

Amid the chaos inside a Rikers Island dormitory, surveillance video showed a lone figure of relative calm: a guard watching it all unfold as he sipped a cup of coffee.

“I’m not touching him,” the guard was quoted by inmates as saying.

Within hours, Woods, a 53-year-old unemployed tunnel worker who had been arrested a week before on heroin possession charges, was dead.

Woods was the seventh inmate to die in 2014 at Rikers.

What exactly killed him remains under investigation, as are inmate claims that guards and medical workers took up to 20 minutes to start helping him.

Woods was the seventh inmate to die in 2014 at Rikers, a sprawling complex of lockups built on an old waste dump near LaGuardia Airport where this year startling disclosures of guard misconduct, inmate beatings, and the gruesome deaths of inmate after inmate have slipped from behind the barbed wire.

In March, The Associated Press began detailing dozens of deaths—from a homeless ex-Marine who essentially baked to death in a hot cell to a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself.

In other cases, procedures meant to prevent suicides weren’t followed. More deaths left doubts about the quality and timeliness of prisoner health care.

City, state, and federal authorities responded to those and other news reports with oversight hearings, investigations, and a pledge of millions toward a massive overhaul.

Yet, Woods died at the height of all this scrutiny.

The circumstances and scene on the video were recounted to the AP by three city officials speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t permitted to discuss the investigation.

The case is one more sign that the problems on Rikers Island—decades in the making—may take just as long to correct.

“There’s no silver bullet for fixing Rikers,” said Martin Horn, the commissioner of city jails from 2003 to 2009. “I always say running a jail is like growing a garden. If you turn your back on it, the weeds take over.”

Inside Rikers

Mere miles from New York City’s skyscrapers, Rikers Island sits by itself in the East River, a 10-jail facility where an average of 11,000 inmates a night—men, women, and youth—are held on charges ranging from trespassing to murder.

Inside the “houses,” as the jail dorms are called, inmates sleep side-by-side out in the open or in other, more restrictive individual cinderblock cells. The halls are filled with a pungent mix of odors from sewage backups and cigarette smoke.

Gruesome deaths of inmate after inmate have slipped from behind the barbed wire.

“It’s a world on its own there,” said Marcell Neal, who was released in October after spending 35 days on a parole violation for failing to report an address change. He’d previously been convicted on gun possession and assault charges.

It is also a world where violence reigns and both guards and gangs rule—and change of any sort comes at a glacial pace, if at all.

Just this month, federal authorities probing guards’ use of force against teenage inmates sued the city to institute reforms at Rikers, saying jail officials had been “deliberately indifferent” to the situation for years.

Indeed, since the early 1980s, six class-action lawsuits have been filed claiming brutality by guards, resulting in court orders to install surveillance cameras and rewrite use-of-force policies.

Jail statistics show use-of-force incidents are up. Inmate stabbings and slashings have more than doubled in the last four years alone, to 88 in fiscal 2014. The system, said jails commissioner Joseph Ponte, “just doesn’t work to keep our staff and inmates safe.”

A surging mentally ill population has further strained the system.

Mental Illness

The crisis of the mentally ill on Rikers came into focus this year after the AP reported the death of Jerome Murdough, a former Marine on psychotropic medication who died of hyperthermia while locked inside a 101-degree cell in February on a trespassing charge.

A guard accused of skipping her rounds was charged with falsifying a logbook to make it look as though she’d checked on the 56-year-old homeless man.

Five months before Murdough’s death, in another case revealed by the AP, a mentally ill and diabetic inmate died after spending seven straight days in an observation unit. Bradley Ballard, who was locked up alone without his medication after making a lewd gesture at a guard. His cell flooded with feces from an overflowing toilet and he tied a rubber band around his genitals.

More deaths left doubts about the quality and timeliness of prisoner health care.

A series of reports about other inmate deaths followed, spotlighting questionable medical care and suicides that might have been prevented but for missteps including the improper distribution of medication.

At the root of some of these cases is a tension between the two agencies charged with overseeing the inmate population. Health officials call Rikers residents “patients,” while correction officers largely don’t buy that so many inmates really are mentally ill, believing many fake it to avoid being sent to solitary confinement.

“You get inmates that can get one over on Sigmund Freud. They’re that good,” said Jim Garvey, who in a 30-year career rose from a correction officer at Rikers to a department chief.

Others point to recent management turnovers that left less-qualified staff in charge and long-entrenched attitudes among the 9,000 officers who patrol the complex.

“For years the staff there was told the people in Rikers don’t matter and that what they do doesn’t matter,” said Horn. “How do you get that workforce to do its job?”

Norman Seabrook, head of the city’s correction officers’ union, said he wants to be proactive in changing the culture at Rikers. “I expect nothing less from my members,” he said.

But he’s quick to remind critics that his officers are also “doing time” when they report for duty. Every day a union official sends out an email that notes how many guards were attacked with feces, urine, or blood—and how many wound up in the emergency room.


Mayor Bill de Blasio insists that progress is being made in the effort to reform Rikers. Some $32.5 million has been approved for mental health services and more housing, and he’s pledged $130 million more over four years to divert nonviolent people with behavioral disorders to treatment instead of jail.

Correctional staff has been replaced, and more security cameras installed.

“It’s a very troubling history,” he said this month during a visit to the jail, adding that the problems are the result of failed policies and leadership that are now “our moral responsibilities as humans” to resolve.

There’s no silver bullet for fixing Rikers.
— Martin Horn, former commissioner of city jails

One day later came the lawsuit by federal prosecutors calling for a court order to bring about “real and lasting change to Rikers Island.”

Ongoing is the investigation into the Oct. 1 death of Victor Woods. Seabrook said he wasn’t familiar with the circumstances of Woods’s death and couldn’t comment.

“He was in there … just a week when he died,” said Terri Scroggins, Woods’s longtime girlfriend, who was told by a jail chaplain that Woods apparently suffered a seizure. “He was just a man that had some struggles in life, but he was a good person. He was human.”

Days after his death, Scroggins, along with Woods’s mother, took a city bus to Rikers, traveling over the bridge that connects it to Queens to collect his wallet and clothes.

Scroggins remembers thinking the place “looked old and abandoned,” and worried a plane might miss the runway and hit the island instead.

“The jail itself, it’s just sad,” she said. “It’s nasty, it’s old, it looks like you would get sick from being there, just being there.”

From The Associated Press