A skeptical Sharpton asks: Shut down Rikers?

A skeptical Sharpton asks: Shut down Rikers?

A skeptical Sharpton asks: Shut down Rikers?
February 23, 2016

Rev. Al Sharpton presided over a heated town hall discussion in Harlem Monday night, asking whether or not the city’s sprawling correction facility on Rikers Island should be shuttered.

Calls to close New York City’s 10-jail complex on the East River island have grown after City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito proposed the move in her State of the City address earlier this month. Gov. Andrew Cuomo endorsed the idea as “intriguing” while Mayor de Blasio deemed it impractical. 

Although the details of such a plan remain nebulous, Sharpton courted the opinion of two major stakeholders: Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who has jurisdiction over the jail, and Norman Seabrook, the president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, whose members staff the jail. The panelists fervently agreed that reform is urgently needed at the jail that a recent Justice Department report said promoted a “culture of violence.”

“When I heard the proposal to close Rikers Island as a solution,” Sharpton told the crowd in his opening remarks, “my fears were immediately: Well, where are we going to put everyone?” His National Action Network, which hosted the event, has not taken a position on the proposal, he said, because he has not heard enough detail on where any new jails would be located.

“What would the conditions be?” Sharpton asked of any new jails, before adding incredulously: “If you can’t correct the conditions in Rikers, how are you going to correct them elsewhere?”

“That’s right!” an audience called out amid a chorus of affirming cheers.

Alluding to past experiences in which jails housed inmates in local communities, including in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Sharpton said he opposed moving inmates into smaller local facilities.

Throughout the night, the vocal crowd applauded, jeered and vented frustration about the grisly abuse and injustice suffered by both inmates and staff on the island. Over 200 attendees, many criminal justice advocates and families of Rikers inmates as well as correction officers, packed the well-worn carpets inside Shapton’s National Action Network headquarters.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” District Attorney Darcel Clark said. “There’s a real crisis at Rikers Island.” Any crimes committed there fall under Clark’s jurisdiction.

“But even if the powers that be were able to close Rikers Island right now, it’s going to take years to build a new facility. So, we have to deal with the issues at Rikers as it exists right now,” Clark continued, calling for immediate reforms to improve the way people are treated at Rikers, “not only the inmates but also the staff – everyone.”

Sharpton challenged Clark on whether she was prosecuting officers who were abusing inmates. Although she has been on the job for only seven weeks, she said she reviews a list of inmates who are currently awaiting trial weekly to avoid detaining inmates who are not convicted of a crime for lengthy periods. In addition, she said that she will open a satellite office, staffed by 10 to 20 assistant district attorneys assigned to the island, in six to eight weeks.

A heckler, interrupting her, shouted to Clark that she was standing next to “the biggest crooked crook in New York City,” referring to Seabrook, the correction officers union president.

The heckler blamed Seabrook for the death of a Kalief Browder, a former inmate who committed suicide after his release from Rikers. Browder suffered abuse and years of solitary confinement at Rikers despite never having been convicted of a crime. The heckler – who was eventually removed by security – is not the only one assigning blame to Seabrook. The New York Times singled him out in an investigation, saying that he “fed a culture of violence and corruption at Rikers.”

Seabrook made a strident defense of his officers. They have been unfairly demonized in the press as the source of all the trouble in the jails, he said. Seabrook said Rikers’ real problem is far bigger than its jailers.

“The system is flawed at the top, not on the level of a correction officer. The system is flawed by a criminal justice system that allows people to be put in jail for crimes they did not commit,” Seabrook said, while also blaming poor management in the corrections department. “But they want to blame correction officers for it.”

“Nobody wants to talk about the real problems at Rikers,” he said, listing structural repairs, job training for inmates, and protections for corrections officers among the most urgent needs.

Clark appeared sympathetic to Seabrook’s perspective, particularly regarding the protection of correction officers. She noted that while the city has 80 investigators looking into prisoner abuse claims, there are just 30 investigators looking into abuse against correction officers.

“That’s a disparity right there,” Clark said. “So you’re never really going to have a safe Rikers Island when you’re concentrating on one side and not the other.”

A backlog in the courts has contributed to the explosive environment, she said.

“Rikers has had so many problems because the solution has been, ‘Just lock ‘em up.’ Set bail, and let them sit there until a trial happens,” Clark, a former New York Supreme Court and criminal court judge, said.

“There’s so much violence. The inmate on inmate. The inmates on staff. The staff on inmates,” Clark added. “It’s got to stop.”

While Sharpton pressed his guests on how they would change Rikers, ultimately the question of the night went unanswered.

“My concern as I said in the beginning was how this is going to be closed and where you are going to put them. That’s our concern,” Sharpton told City & State. “I didn’t hear a lot of people address that tonight.”

Sharpton said he plans to hold similar town hall events with inmates on Rikers Island as well as another with city policymakers – where he’s hoping for more answers.

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.