Reform Rikers or shut it down
September 28, 2015
A welcome sign of accountability in a prison notorious for violence and abuse, a retired Rikers Island Correctional Officer was indicted last Friday on charges related to the 2014 death of 53-year-old inmate Victor Woods. Prior to his death, Woods was in dire need of medical attention due to NYPD-inflicted wounds from his arrest one week earlier. Corrections officer Wickenson DeMaitre responded to calls for help but did not seek out medical professionals. This particular instance of officer neglect is only noteworthy because it resulted in an indictment; other instances have ended with deferrals or with prosecutors flat-out declining to prosecute. Rikers has been a stain on the city’s image for too long, and Mayor Bill de Blasio must step up and end these abuses once and for all.
In an eerily similar incident in 2013, 45-year-old Carlos Mercado had his insulin confiscated by Rikers guards. He died after a diabetic seizure while corrections officers stepped over his writhing body.This was the first such incident to have been caught on camera, and video footage was widely circulated. But the blase guard culture has been in place for much longer than this, allowing both guard-on-inmate and inmate-on-inmate violence to flourish. In 2015 alone, there have already been 108 reported stabbings and slashings in jails across the city, up from 88 last year, and the number of fights and assaults increased by 600. A New York Times investigation earlier this year found that assaults by correctional officers disproportionately targeted mentally ill inmates, proving that these guards cannot care for the mentally ill in our society.
Rikers Island is, simply put, a bad prison. The level of violence and mistreatment of prisoners is far too high to continue unchecked, Rikers represents the justice system’s continual failure to rehabilitate their prisoners, as two-thirds of all prisoners are likely to reoffend. Rikers fails to do its job as a prison, but the American justice system has been conspicuously lacking justice in recent years. And if the death of yet another inmate manages to slip past, this lack of justice will only grow worse and worse.
We are approaching a year since de Blasio called pervasive reform of Rikers “a top priority” of his administration, and yet little seems to have changed. As violence has persisted in the facility, de Blasio chose to spend his time criticizing topless women in Times Square. Developed nations are not judged by their treatment of the privileged, but rather of those who most need support. The city’s prison system must rehabilitating its inmates instead of leaving them to rot. A prison sentence should never run the risk of being a death sentence, and shutting down Rikers, one of the most neglectful prisons in the nation, would be a step in the right direction.
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