A Rikers view of criminal justice reform

Race, economics, and politics played key roles in incarceration policies

I LEFT MY HOMETOWN of Boston three years ago to find myself inside Rikers Island. What I witnessed inside that most infamous jail complex would become my education on the system of incarceration and the staining effects it has on people caught between crime and justice.

In 2014, I was appointed a deputy commissioner at the New York City Department of Corrections, the second largest city correctional system in the country, which includes Rikers Island. From the day I began, I was thrown into a daily regimen of news reporters inquiring about inmate fights and complaints of abuse at the hands of correction officers. The images of bruised and bloodied inmates presented in the incident reports at our commissioner meetings filled the cases of pretrial detainees who were unable to put up bail and avoid jail time. They were forced, instead, to put up a front of toughness and aggression to survive their time behind bars. These detainees were locked up for charges likely related to a drug sale or stolen property, or maybe a combination of the two.

On too many occasions I was crafting an official statement on behalf of the city government in response to the outcries of family members and community advocates in the aftermath of an inmate found dead in jail. The usual answer included an explanation for neglect in the system: an overheated cellblock, extreme solitary confinement, mishandling of medical care, or an officer’s use of force.  In most cases, these inmates had some form of mental illness or drug addiction.

The ultimate turning point was during a routine visit at Rikers when I came upon a mysteriously barricaded section on the grounds of the complex. I was curious and requested an official tour of this closed-off portion of the island. A crew of uniformed officers and captains walked me through a parcel of wasteland that had been concealed from the public for decades. Cracked and partially boarded windows on the rusted-out buildings exposed the decades-old cellblocks. Overgrown weeds and brush surrounded the entire area. I was standing in the middle of a war-torn village.

I was told that this very spot once held the souls of thousands incarcerated during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Walking down the long and dark hallways, I could hear the faint echoes of hollering, and imagined the strained faces peering through the narrow window slits of each cell. I was transported back in time to when it was the codified policy to warehouse thousands who were strung out with drug addictions and a supplement of felonies; a vast majority of these detainees were young and black. By 1989, the jail system in New York City was over 100 percent capacity with nearly 18,000 inmates, as district attorneys wielded mandatory sentences and forced pleas out of browbeaten offenders. Crowded jails led to riots among the inmates. These facilities would become the city’s primary dumping ground for the drug addicts and the mentally ill.

As a Latino holding a position of leadership as a commissioner who was responsible for overseeing that institution’s image and reputation, I was ashamed. For many blacks and an increasing number of Hispanics, including young women, the reality of prison life appeared unavoidable, as the conditions of the past would continue to haunt the present conditions inside the jails. I learned that race and economics and politics had everything to do with pushing national policy toward a system of penal codes that locked up whole populations of mostly black and Hispanic men.

The cycle of drug addiction, poverty, and crime of the ’80s had not been upended with the urgency of a public health crisis, but, instead, diagnosed as a public safety threat and treated with mass incarceration. The diagnosis and treatment had done nothing to reduce the swelling of crime, but helped to spread instead a culture of violence so malignant it had turned entire communities into colonies of despair. As the jails became crime schools, and less facilities of correction, the culture of prison life for even the most benign and non-violent offenders would eventually breed frustration and a resignation to a further life of crime.

As I witnessed it, time spent in jail for the young and the amateur detainees especially is a guaranteed encounter with hopelessness and defeat. Being beaten by other inmates, abused by officers, and sent to solitary confinement was the norm of prison life.

During my time in the New York City Department of Corrections, the violence and tragedies finally came to a head, and set in motion a reform effort. Programs for youthful offenders, substance abuse treatment, and other transitional and readiness-for-release services for this large population of pretrial detainees were enhanced. And alternatives for incarceration were beginning to be introduced.  There was even a plan to shut down Rikers for good.

Last year, after my jailhouse experience and attempts to explain away the crises, I returned to my hometown only to learn of our state’s own troubling history and current status on mass incarceration.

I found that black residents in Massachusetts are incarcerated far more than white residents. And the distinction that our Commonwealth holds above all other states in the nation is that it has the highest disparity of imprisonment among Hispanics compared to whites – more so than New York or even law-and-order Texas.

Meet the Author

Eldin Lynn Villafañe

Writer and former deputy commissioner of public information, New York City Department of Corrections
I also discovered that the city of Boston is hit with the highest concentration of incarceration in places like Franklin Field, Grove Hall, Fields Corner, Roxbury, and my childhood neighborhood of the South End. These areas  have a high population of young blacks and Latinos between the ages of 18 to 24, too many of whom, on any given day, you will find sitting in the Suffolk County House of Correction or Nassau Street Jail awaiting their judgment. There are only seven countries in the world with higher rates of incarceration than Massachusetts, including Russia, Cuba, and Rwanda.

As our state lawmakers set the new rules for the sale and use of marijuana and confront today’s scourge of opioid addiction, may their current debate over criminal justice reform remain focused on the goal of changing the present laws in Massachusetts that have sentenced individuals to lengthy prison terms for drug offenses and petty crimes and conclude with the final resolve to atone for our Commonwealth’s own stained history.

Eldin Lynn Villafañe, a former deputy commissioner for public information at the New York City Department of Corrections, is a writer and resident of Boston.