The speeches flowed. The reports damned. Ah, yes, it would all change. Rikers Island would no longer be the cesspool of violence it had been since, forever. Important people said so. That was August, 2014.
On Sept. 2, four correction officers pulled Jose Guadalupe, an inmate classified in medical records as seriously mentally ill, into his solitary-confinement cell at Rikers Island and beat him unconscious.
How could this be? Didn’t United States Attorney Preet Bharara issue his scathing report about violence at Rikers in August? Didn’t Mayor de Blasio give speeches about how he was going to end the violence on the Rock? Didn’t the New York Times editorial demand change? Everyone knew how awful it was, and they promised, they promised, it would end.
The New York Times has an article detailing beating after beating, as life at Rikers Island goes on as if nothing has changed.
But The Times’s examination makes clear that the violence has continued largely unabated, despite extraordinary levels of outside scrutiny, a substantial commitment of resources by Mr. de Blasio and a new team of high-ranking managers installed by the correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who took over the job in April.
According to Correction Department data, guards used physical force against inmates 4,074 times in 2014, the highest total in more than a decade. The increase came even as the jail’s average daily population continued to decline, falling to 10,000 this year from 14,000 a decade ago.
Seventy percent of the 62 beatings examined by The Times resulted in head injuries, even though department policies direct guards to avoid blows to the head unless absolutely necessary. And more than half the inmates sustained broken bones.
The guys at the top give heartwarming speeches about reform. The guys at the bottom continue to stomp the heads of inmates who annoy them.
Mr. Guadalupe’s altercation with correction officers started innocuously, with a disagreement over personal photos he had hung on the wall of his cell.
During a search in September, the guards tore down photos of his family, along with pictures of women he had cut out of magazines, he said in a telephone interview from Fishkill Correctional Facility. When he asked to see a supervisor, Mr. Guadalupe said, the officers pulled him into his cell, where there were no surveillance cameras, kicked and repeatedly punched him in the face and slammed his head against the wall.
The naïve might wring their hands over such pointless and needless brutality, but the guards will tell you that either they run the joint or the prisoners run the joint, and they have no plans for the latter. They will tell you that these are criminals, and all they understand is force, brute force. And it’s a very hard job.
Rikers is made up of 10 jails, many in dire need of physical repairs. Compulsory overtime for the officers who staff them is now routine. They complain that repeated 16-hour shifts leave them exhausted, on edge and with little patience for disruptive inmates.
Given how the City hired corrections officers, these are not the sort of guys one wants on edge.
But in trying to turn around Rikers, the de Blasio administration is contending with an agency that for years, according to the city’s Investigation Department, recruited officers who belonged to gangs, had criminal records or both. Training has long been criticized as inadequate and, once on the job, guards have learned to look the other way and cover up for fellow officers, investigators say.
And even if they do get “caught,” say because they killed someone and were forced to explain why another dead body was lying in a cell?
With a disciplinary system that is so feeble, there are officers who have been allowed to abuse inmates again and again, another issue highlighted in the United States attorney’s report.
One guard, Bob Villette, who joined the department in 2006, has been involved in at least 88 uses of force, according to department records. He has also been named in seven lawsuits, costing the city $450,000 in settlements for, among other things, cracking the teeth of one inmate and rupturing the eardrum of another.
Mr. Villette, who declined to comment when reached by phone, is a member of the elite emergency services unit, which specializes in subduing disruptive inmates. Including overtime, he has made over $100,000 annually in recent years, city personnel records show.
A cool “elite” assignment and a big money. Not so bad for at least 88 beatings and seven lawsuits Another three lawsuits and Villette will make the list for Corrections Commissioner.
For those who, mistakenly but understandably, assume that these are all hardened criminals in need of “firm measures” to keep in line, Rikers Island is a jail, not a prison. It’s where people awaiting trial, presumed innocent, are held because their families couldn’t make $1000 bail. Yes, there are some sentenced prisoners there, but only those sentenced to a year or less, as the rest go to prisons.
And there are people held in custody pending trial who are tough dudes, but given the extraordinary drop in violent crime, not too many. There just aren’t that many violent crimes occurring and being prosecuted.
In December, he got into a struggle with Leon Barnes, an inmate whose arm was in a sling at the time. According to a department report, Mr. Villette wrestled the inmate to the floor, where five other officers “applied control holds” and handcuffed him.
During the encounter Mr. Barnes suffered a contusion to the scalp, a swollen jaw and a broken nose, the report said.
The six officers reported no injuries.
That will teach him. That will teach all of us. Giving speeches, writing reports and editorials, and yes, writing blog posts, won’t change the violence on the Rock. Judge, when you set bail for some street kid for no particular reason, knowing there was no way he could make $500, no less $1000, did you mean to sentence him to broken bones, concussions and beatings? That’s what you did. Did you realize it?
The guards on Rikers won’t change. And they will outlive the de Blasio administration, the Bharara report and any other bureaucratic nonsense you throw their way. They are on the ground, cracking skulls. Talk all you want. They will still be there when it’s all over. Unless you rid the system of all of them and start clean. Rikers is full of animals, and most of them wear uniforms.