CNN aired Diane Sawyer’s documentary about Rikers Island on May 21 at 12:30 A.M.This important show about the infamous Rikers Island and its use of solitary confinement should have appeared on prime time.
Rikers Island is the largest jail complex in the United States. The facility has 413 acres, 8,000 inmates, and 7300 correctional officers and staff. The biggest difference between Rikers island and prison—the incarcerated at Rikers jail are waiting for their day in court. They have not been found or pled guilty to any offense.
Rikers Island has had a notorious history for violence. The violence has existed among inmates,and between inmates and officers. For years, the outcry for reform have increased for Rikers Island. In 2015, the Justice Department and Rikers Island agreed to reforms including the discontinuation of solitary confinement for teenagers.
Although Sawyer’s show did not discuss the tragic life of Kalief Browder, a former inmate at Rikers, he was part of the impetus for the long awaited reforms. Kalief Browder, when he was 16, was charged with theft of a backpack. He was incarcerated at Rikers Island for three years waiting for trial. He was locked up almost two years in solitary confinement. After three long years waiting for trial, the backpack theft charge was dismissed in 2013 by the prosecution. On June 6, 2015, two years after his release, Kalief committed suicide at the age of 22.
During his three years at Rikers waiting for trial, young Kalief endured the daily hell at Rikers. He contended with the gangs and guards who brutalized the young inmates. His beatings were seen on camera and were publicized in 2014. One video revealed a prison guard brutally attacking the young man. In a second video, Kalief was beaten by gang members. During the course of three long years of imprisonment, without ever going to trial, he was denied meals, medical care,and he attempted several suicides.
Sawyer’s documentary focused on the daily difficult life of the inmates and the officers. The show focused on inmates in solitary confinement.
The current warden, Joseph Ponte, has set in motion a series of reform measures to change Rikers Island. He is in the process of completely eliminating the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for teenagers. Scientific studies have shown that the mind of a teenager has not completely formed by 21 and that solitary confinement, especially long terms as used in the Browder case, have harmed young inmates.
Warden Ponte has instituted high school programs and college studies in order to help prepare the young offenders for release. By keeping the young inmates productively busy will reduce the violence.
The mentally ill inmates have been placed in special units better suited for their needs. Mentally ill inmates are approximate 40% of the inmate population at Rikers Island. In the past, officers have treated the behavior of the mentally ill inmates with abuse and/or indifference. The Sawyer show did not mention that the previous warden was demoted after Jerome Murdough, a mentally ill inmate, died in an overheated cell (over 100 degrees).
Warden Ponte reminded all of us that almost 60% of the inmates at Rikers were charged with nonviolent offenses and that 80% of the inmates will return to home and society.
By: Bradley Schwartz
Founder of prisonpath.com