Remanded To Fantasy Island

As Radley Balko frequently points out when a cop shoots someone, the story includes a vague, passive phrase, like “officer-involved shooting,” or my favorite, “the gun discharged,” as if it went off by itself, magically causing a bullet to emit from a barrel at great velocity into the body of a human being. Because that way, it conveys the impression that a person did nothing wrong, but, well, things just happen.

And the New York Times has embraced the idea that when it comes to reforming the travesty of pre-trial detention, the problem is an Island.  The name of the island now is Rikers. The Times proposes that it be renamed Browder Island, but what it really wants is to call it Fantasy Island.

Any serious effort to repair criminal justice in New York City must do something about Rikers Island, the jail complex in the East River where justice goes to die, or at least be severely beaten.

The Times has reported for years on the savagery there. The Justice Department has investigated its corrupted, poisoned culture. The department’s report on the abuse of teenage inmates is horrific reading. In a long history of often-fatal violence, incompetence and neglect, one tragic case stands out: that of Kalief Browder, who was 16 when he was taken to Rikers, accused of stealing a backpack.

What was done to, and became of, Kalief Browder was, indeed, a tragedy, a condemnation of the system. But it had nothing to do with an island.  Browder’s needless suffering over three years, only to have his case dismissed after his teenaged years were lost and his soul sucked out of him in the hole, wasn’t about an island, but about a failed system.

The system didn’t fail because of an island, but because the people who ran the system, who participated in it, were more concerned that the wheels kept grinding than with the lives that were being ground by the wheels.  But it’s hard to blame people, and it’s easy to blame inanimate objects, even when the thing is an island.

Even if its inmates were not brutalized, its guards not thuggish, its corridors not afflicted by gangs, weapons and drugs, Rikers would still be a bad idea. It harks back to a time when prisoners were shipped out of sight. The costs and inconvenience to the city, which spends $25 million a year just to transport inmates, and to family members, who lose a day’s work to get there and back, argue powerfully for neighborhood-based alternatives.

Rikers Island was the perfect location for a city jail. Isolated, it was easily secure, hard to escape, in the ass end of nowhere and just the right size for a bunch of jail buildings to house those detained pending trial or serving out a misdemeanor sentence.  Nobody wants a jail next door to their home. This isn’t NIMBYism, but reasonableness.

But fixing anything, the imposition of bail on presumptively innocent defendants for no good reason, the brutality of life within a jail housing bad dudes and run by even badder dudes, the delay, the ridiculous delay, of awaiting disposition of a criminal prosecution, the coercion of guilty pleas to get off Rikers Island and back home, would require someone to take on a hard, if not impossible job, of recreating the entire machine of the system.

So what does the Times urge?

[T]he state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, would lead a commission to comprehensively examine the city’s criminal justice system. Its mission will be to reduce the jail population, now at about 10,000, enough to make it possible to consider shutting Rikers down for good.

Fixing Rikers has been talked about, fruitlessly, for years. Studies have been commissioned, consultants paid, lawsuits filed. Mr. Lippman, now with Latham & Watkins, says he will lead an open-minded investigation, but it’s hard to imagine a conclusion more foregone: The sensible thing to do with Rikers is to close it.

Cool, another commission.  In fairness, Judge Lippman’s vision of his commission’s purpose is far more thoughtful, more realistic, more broad, than the silly and myopic “just close Rikers” pitch.

Mr. Lippman promises that the commission will be driven by data, not politics, and have broad-based representation, including prosecutors, the defense bar, the Police Department, correction officers, prison-reform advocates and former inmates. “We will look comprehensively at the Rikers situation,” he said, “and we’ll connect it to things: reducing pretrial detention, alternatives to incarceration, reforming the summons process, trying to immediately reduce certain populations: women, the mentally disturbed, juveniles. And we’ll look at the community-based justice options.”

Whether the commission will have the insight, the ability, the will and the guts to call out the myriad failings has yet to be seen, but Judge Lippman, at least, realizes that this is a Rube Goldberg machine of failure, and tweaking one piece isn’t going to make it work.

And even if the commission comes anywhere near achieving a meaningful scheme to fix the machine, it will then fall to the politicians to make it happen. That means overarching change, from the laws to the practice, the judges to the lawyers, and even the screws and their masters, both in management and the union.

Judge Lippman properly puts everything on the table, all the wheels and cogs that grind so that the machine makes sure the jails and prisons are full.  The New York Times, on the other hands, tries to take one piece off the table by calling Rikers’ closing “a foregone conclusion.”

As for the island, it should be given back to the sea gulls, or used for affordable housing, or an extension of La Guardia Airport, or any number of other conceivable, nontoxic purposes. And once the poison is removed, the city could rename it Browder’s Island, for young Kalief, whose suffering there has come to symbolize all that went so horribly wrong there for so many years.

Rikers Island isn’t “toxic.” The system is replete with symbols of failure, but failure happens at the hands of those whose job it is to make the system work. Renaming Rikers for Browder wouldn’t save Kalief. Giving it back to the sea gulls won’t prevent kids held in jail for years for lack of the ability to make bail.

And this symbolic suggestion that closing Rikers will change anything is why nothing that matters ever changes. There are real problems, lots of real problems, and they won’t get fixed by pushing a fantasy.

4 comments on “Remanded To Fantasy Island

  1. David M.

    trying to immediately reduce certain populations: women, the mentally disturbed, juveniles.

    So imprisoning women is bad because women are less culpable?

    1. David M.

      Actually, that was a little glib. Does CJ Lippman think jailing women is bad because women, like the mentally ill or juveniles, are less of a flight risk? Or, if CJ Lippman subscribes to the keep-the-community-safe model of bail, is it that women, the mentally ill and juveniles are less likely to offend while out?

      But wait, neither option makes any sense. It seems like what he’s saying is more appropriately suited to discussing prison populations, since those are the groups activists claim are most vulnerable to abuse.

      That’s a pretty minor oopsie, though. After all, everyone in jail is there because he or she’s been sentenced.

  2. Marc R

    Once bad COs get to a peninsula their behavior becomes significantly better. It’s not as polite as the jails built upon the fjords of Scandinavia, but about time politicians recognized any criminal justice system surrounded by water is intrinsically bad.

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