Former Commissioner of the Department of Correction Says That Everything You’ve Heard About Rikers Is True

School of Social Work’s Vincent Schiraldi recounts his experience working on Rikers Island and his hopes for a more humane jail and prison system.

Caroline Harting
May 04, 2022

Nearly every week, a new crisis at Rikers Island is reported in the media. Encompassing eight buildings on an island (and one additional jail on a barge) in the Bronx and housing nearly 5,700 people, most of whom are awaiting trial, the jails are at a tipping point. Recently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated that they are considering asking the federal court to take over city jails because of the chaos and violence that is rampant in them.

Columbia News caught up with Vincent Schiraldi, former Commissioner of the NYC Department of Correction and current senior research scientist at the Columbia School of Social Work and senior fellow at the Columbia Justice Lab to discuss his first-hand experience at Rikers, what a humane jail system might look like, and how he hopes to change our prison and jail system.

Q: What did you witness at Rikers, not only with the prisoners, but with the prison guards and the entire system?

A: What may seem like hyperbole from the media and advocates about conditions in the jail, is not. The chaotic environment, the violence, the low morale, the despair described is all sadly true and has been for decades. Many mornings would start with less than half of their staff on duty because they called in sick or went AWOL.

I was at the trainings when people came in brand-spanking new. These people were looking to do a good job. What happened to the correctional officers (C.O.s) between when they started as fresh-faced recruits to when they called in sick for hundreds of days? I saw how they changed. I was there as C.O.s were arrested for spousal abuse or child abuse or shooting their guns illegally or driving drunk – all trauma-related offenses, in my view. It was horrible for everyone involved.

Q: You were commissioner for seven months. In that time, what positive impact do you think you had?

A:  I spoke the truth out loud about that awful place. That was one of the best things that I did. Lots of other people outside the system were saying the truth out loud, but saying it as a commissioner, I think, carried some weight.

Another thing that I’m extremely proud of is the work we took on with young adults. Early on, I knew that the young adults were a special challenge. Violence among young adults was three times higher than it was in the rest of Rikers. Violence among young adults peaks around age 19 or 20, and then starts to decline pretty rapidly as we age. There's nothing wrong with putting all the young adults in one place, but you’ve got to create a model that will mitigate the violence and productively occupy young folks, or it could be disastrous. The Vera Institute ran a project where they went to various correctional systems to set up young adult facilities. The woman that ran this program was Alexandria Frank, who also happened to intern with me when I was Commissioner of the NYC Department of Probation where together, we developed young adult programming.

Later, I helped establish a “Task Force on Young Adults” at Rikers Island when I worked in the Office of Criminal Justice under Mayor De Blasio. When I became Commissioner of the Department of Correction, I re-established that task force. We eventually came to consensus around what we should do in the young adult unit. We bought new furniture and painted the place with members of the faith community. The young adults had much more freedom and felt ownership of their unit. There were more programs to  occupy their time, and when there were problems, they learned to sit down and talk them out. Even in a really terrible place with a lot of bad stuff going on, you can change the culture. My hope is that the folks inside today can continue the program.

Q: Were there any other programs that you started, but didn’t have the chance to finish?

A: When I had only a few months left in Mayor de Blasio’s term, I started to empty one 750-bed jail. I was in the process of turning it into facility similar to those young adult units. We wanted this jail to be a place where incarcerated people could take classes, almost like high school or college. They would be able to take anything from Shakespeare to HVAC repair. Like the young adult unit, these incarcerated people would start with a lot more freedoms. If they messed up, they could lose their privileges, but we wanted to start at a place with more humanity, more decency, and with a day full of incentives and productive activities. It was my hope that, as staff and incarcerated people saw that we could have a fully programmed facility that was safe and decent, we could eventually get the entire island to be safe and decent.

Q: Have you seen a model of a prison system that works? If so, what was it like?

A: The model I was trying to achieve at Rikers is somewhat like what they do in some European countries. The United States’ mass incarceration has three elements. One is the amount of people we imprison—several times what our European counterparts lock up. Then there are the unconscionable racial disparities. At Rikers, Black people were locked up at 22 times the rate of white people. Latinx people are locked up 10 times more than white people. Lastly, there are the conditions. I've probably been to prisons and juvenile facilities in a dozen other countries, and I've never seen anything like Rikers, never. In Europe, especially, they have human development standards and not a legalistic standard. Our standard is cruel and unusual punishment, which means that we can be cruel, just not unusually so. That's a pretty low standard.

One of the facilities I visited three different times is in eastern Germany, south of Berlin. The prison superintendent gave us a PowerPoint presentation, and he started with human rights. He said their goal was to take away as few liberties as they can in order to run a safe facility. He said that they want to make their prison as reflective of normal existence on the outside as they can, primarily because that's the right thing to do. But secondarily, they believed that since the people they are incarcerating are going to be their neighbors, they want them to be their good neighbors. He felt that, if they teach them violence and dehumanization in prison, they're going to exhibit that when they get outside. I think we can create jails here that focus on treating people like human beings, like we’d want our own son or daughter treated if they were incarcerated.

Q: At a time when crime is rising and New Yorkers are getting more concerned about safety on the streets, why should we continue to care about what is going on in our jails and prisons?

A: Before we get to that question, we need to remind ourselves that the number of people we lock up and the amount of crime we have are only very thinly related. New York used to have 22,000 people locked up in the early 90s. When I got to Rikers last year, about 5,400 people were locked up–a remarkable 75 percent decline. Importantly, during that same time, violence substantially declined in New York, so less incarceration went along with less, not more, crime. Part of the reason for that is that we didn’t just throw open the gates and throw people out there. We funded programs like the Fortune Society, Center for Court Innovation, the Osborne Association, and others that divert people from jail or help them when they come out. That has allowed our city to lock fewer people up and still be safe. In the current hyperbolic public discourse on crime, we equate incarceration with safety at our peril. Communities of color that are heavily impacted by incarceration and policing often feel like the system is illegitimate, because focuses too much on them. We know–and they know–that there are very bad outcomes for people who've been incarcerated, as well as for their families and their communities.

Why should we care what goes on in these places? It's a sea of Black and brown people, both who work at Rikers and who are incarcerated there, wallowing in horrible conditions that are both violent and disgusting. We should care because it's wrong. But we also shouldn't do what we’re doing in prison because we pay a price when people come out after they've been treated like garbage. Research shows that being sent to Rikers Island increases your recidivism every day you’re there. It poisons everybody that touches it, and we need to close it. But we also need to improve the culture because the last thing we want to do is close it and open borough-based jails and have that same culture of violence and chaos migrate to those new jails.

Q: How did your stint as Commissioner of the Department of Correction inform the work that you're doing now at the School of Social Work and the Justice Lab? What do you want to accomplish there?

A: When I came back from Rikers, Bruce Western, the current director of the Justice Lab, and I sat down at a bar near Columbia, where Bruce and I do some of our best work. He suggested that I not come back as co-director. He said with my experience, I should spend my time speaking the truth and not doing the administrative tasks of running a lab. So that's what I'm going to do as a senior fellow with the lab and senior research scientist at CSSW.

I recently got a draft of my book, Not Quite Free, on probation and parole accepted by the New Press. As I’m finishing the book, I’ve begun speaking around the country about probation, parole, and my experiences at Rikers. I’ll be teaching about those subjects here at Columbia.

Q: With the possibility of receivership looming, what do you think will happen to Rikers over these next five years? What are your hopes?

A: I’ve said publicly that I think it is time for the Federal Court to seriously consider placing Rikers into receivership–essentially taking it over. A receivership would cut through much of the bureaucratic red tape that is stalling reform and allow the receiver, who is essentially like a Commissioner, but with “bureaucratic super-powers” to get the job of reform done soon enough to save lives. That’s what successful receiverships have done in California’s prisons and Chicago’s juvenile detention facility. I think that now, but I also thought that when I was commissioner and recommended it to City Hall.

Furthermore, as I said earlier, the culture in that place must be changed before it is closed and before that culture of violence moves to four, new, borough-based jails. It should be a more humanistic and rehabilitative place, so that people have a chance of coming out better off than they went in.

We need to continue to safely reduce the number of people we incarcerate, as New York City leaders have done successfully for the past three decades. No matter how much we improve our jails, there is no substitute for helping people make it successfully in their own communities, rather than putting them under lock and key.