Rikers Island Cannot Figure Out How to Stop Rising Inmate Violence

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Jail cells are seen in the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit at the Rikers Island Correctional facility in New York
Inmate violence way up.Photo: BRENDAN MCDERMID/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Rikers Island has always been a brutal place, and despite a major push to reduce the violence within its ten jails, it’s been a terrible year there: The Daily News reports that the number of slashings and stabbings at Rikers Island and other city jails rose 49 percent last year. There were 131 knife-related acts of violence in 2015, up from 88 in 2014. This despite the $125 million the Department of Correction receives from the city toward enacting its 14-point anti-violence plan.

The News has previously blamed the increase in violence on jailhouse gang activity, but a part of the problem, unnamed “longtime jail bosses” are now telling the paper, may be a well-intentioned attempt to cut back on solitary confinement. Partly in the wake of the story of Kalief Browder, who spent three years without a trial (a significant portion of that time in solitary) at Rikers and took his own life after being released, the city has chosen to phase out “the box” for anyone under 21. The number of people in solitary at Rikers has dropped from 423 to 188 in the past year.

Correction commissioner Joseph Ponte says the answer can’t be a return to frequent use of solitary. In July, when it became evident that violence at Rikers was rising, he commented on the notion that phasing out the so-called “bing” was to blame: “If that’s the only tool to manage behavior, then we have probably lost the battle.”