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Change Comes to Rikers Island, but Is It Too Late?

When I asked the correction officers at the training session what kinds of deprivations are most likely to provoke detainees, they immediately mentioned haircuts. Fear about Covid has kept barbers from coming to Rikers. When someone showed up at a court date with unkempt long hair, Mr. Schiraldi told me, the judge canceled his proceeding.

In an experiment that began on the first of November, 14 offenders, most facing violent charges, ranging in age from 18 to 22 were put in a unit where they were given liberties and advantages not typically available. They were allowed, for example, to paint their cells bright colors, to get a Ping-Pong table in a common room, to get more time with their families and more programming, job training and education. Among this cohort at Rikers, the rate of fighting among people in custody is close to three times higher than it is in the older population. Since the program began there has not been a single instance of assault among detainees in the unit, and this even though members of rival gangs have been placed together, typically a major instigator of violence.

On Tuesday afternoon, I sat down with two men in the unit, both of whom were at Rikers on charges of second-degree murder, one of them a member of the Bloods and another a Crip. R.J., as he chose to identify himself, grew up in Canarsie in Brooklyn; R.E., who came to Rikers three years ago at the age of 17, was from the South Bronx. Both spoke about how they had tried to avoid gang life but how the pressures — and frequent muggings at the hands of older gang members — ultimately made that impossible. “I’d walk to school and get beat up, so I thought I’d join for safety,” R.E. told me.

In previous housing units, R.E. had punched correction officers. “A C.O. had told me that I was never going home and that really got to me,” he said of one occasion. “So I said ‘I’m going to show you what someone who is never going home can do.’” R.J. set fire to his cell just to be let outside; no one was coming around to check on him and he hadn’t seen sunlight in ages and lost it. This is, shockingly, a common occurrence at Rikers: guards refusing to come around and detainees lighting fires in response.

A lot of job training and many classes were put on hiatus during Covid, increasing stress and despondency. But now R.J. and R.E. are both scheduled for most of the day. “All of these other housing units are about gang banging,” R.E. said. “But now instead of a higher rank in gang life, I’m thinking about a higher rank in life.”

The city has committed to closing Rikers in five years as it moves to a system of smaller, more humane jails built near courthouses in the various boroughs. But five years is a long time to leave things as they are, given that the status quo is a constant state of emergency. Mr. Schiraldi’s program is small but promising and suggests the way that big bureaucracies often lose sight of the obvious. But it seems unlikely to remain in an Adams administration. On Thursday the mayor-elect said that the reprieve from “punitive segregation,’’ or solitary confinement, would end on Jan. 1st. The outgoing commissioner, Mr. Adams said, was someone with “a good heart.” But his own approach would be different.

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