On Monday, The New York Times published a damning investigative report about the treatment of inmates at the hands of corrections officers at Rikers Island in New York. Over the course of 11 months last year, 129 inmates suffered injuries beyond the capacity of the jail’s doctors to treat in-house incidents with corrections staff members. Seventy-seven percent of the severely injured inmates had a mental illness diagnosis.
In one case, a man unable to post $250 for bail was held in a cell on Rikers. He tore his underwear, tied it around his neck and tried to hang himself from the highest bar in the cell, according to The Times. Four corrections officers managed to cut him down. But instead of having him treated medically, they handcuffed him, forced him to lie face down and beat him so hard he suffered a perforated bowel and required emergency surgery.
The Times’ four-month investigation, backed by a secret internal study by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, showed cases like this one happening regularly. The assaults resulted in fractures, head injuries and gashes that required stitches; in 80 percent of the cases, inmates were reportedly handcuffed.
The problem of violence at jails is a longstanding one. The power imbalance between guards and inmates, the secrecy with which many jails are run, the fact that unions have long fought reforms and the lack of political will to provide or pay for real mental health services, provide an environment ripe for abuse. These factors, however, never excuse violence and intimidation against inmates.
It will be up to Maine’s former corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who holds the same job in New York, to address the inhumane treatment at Rikers, the country’s second largest jail. The problems may be more severe and widespread there than in Maine, but they exist in some form everywhere.
As commissioner under Gov. Paul LePage, Ponte reduced the amount of time inmates could be held in solitary confinement in Maine. He reduced the number of “cell extractions,” where inmates were forcefully dragged out of their cells, often with the aid of a chemical agent, and put in a restraint chair, often completely naked. He speaks about incentives, rather than punishments.
He still has much to do — under enormous pressure and facing a wall of union opposition. He already has called for New York jails to be opened to reporters and, therefore, the public eye. Guards need training. And clearly they must be prosecuted for their abuses. These are the obvious fixes.
More, though, the system must change. Jails everywhere must be able to handle people with mental illnesses or not handle them at all — and protect their corrections officers. States’ legal systems must change, to stop sending low-level offenders into dangerous environments that only increase their odds of re-offending. Communities must focus on prevention and reintegration. It’s not just a matter of social responsibility but of fiscal conservatism. Jails are far too expensive for their level of return on public safety.
The challenges facing Ponte — and reformers in Maine and across the country — are vast and complicated. May Ponte’s actions inform a broader, revised approach to criminal justice. The difficulties of running a safe, effective jail system are not isolated to an island in New York.