Getting It Right at Rikers Island

Posted by Jon Steinmetz

Sep 28, 2014 3:00:00 PM

Recently, New York City newspapers published articles raising awareness regarding violent incidents at Rikers Island.   

For those not familiar with New York, Rikers Island is the city’s main jail complex, a 413.17-acre island located in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. If you fly into LaGuardia Airport, you will see the razor wire-surrounded island located only a short swim from the runway. Adult and youth offenders reside on this island dedicated exclusively to incarceration. rikers-525x300

While the news articles bring up significant concerns, the incidents of violence are not new. As one might expect, the occupants are not there because they are model citizens. A wide range of law infractions and violations can earn a trip to Rikers. The constitutionality of sending youth offenders there has been questioned, especially considering that "most


 of whom have not yet been convicted of crime, and about half of whom have been diagnosed with a mental illness," according to Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.  

Once there, safety is not assured. There are rival gangs looking to start a fight. Forty percent of the population has been diagnosed with mental problems. The staff response to violent inmates has resulted in frequent injuries and sometimes death.

The Response

It was announced on Sept. 8, 2014, that an independent consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, will evaluate procedures at Rikers Island “from top to bottom.” Initiated by Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, this assessment will cost New York City $1.7 million. Ponte comes from a corrections background and is known for reducing violence in prisons. He was appointed in March to fulfill a mandate from Mayor Bill de Blasio to improve conditions at Rikers. It is unclear whether McKinsey & Company having “little if any experience working with jails or prisons” is beneficial or a drawback in getting a clear picture of the problem.

Good Intentions don’t solve problems

The problems have spurred efforts to improve conditions at Rikers, including a new social impact bond that funds cognitive behavioral therapy aimed at reducing recidivism among 16- to 18-year-olds. The Adolescent Behavioral Learning Experience (ABLE) is intended to incorporate “personal responsibility education, training, and counseling.” While this appears to have been created with good intent and a desire to help young offenders avoid long-term legal involvement, it is not likely to make an impact on the most significant causes of delinquent behavior that got the youth to Rikers in the first place. This approach does not address the systemic factors in the environment where the violations occurred.  

Similar to findings in so many services for youth, instead of research identifying what is effective for treating youth with these needs, an adult service has been applied to a youth population. As Ponte stated, “What exists currently is an adult model in an adolescent facility.” It will be interesting to see what long-term social and financial outcomes are achieved on the investments made through this initial social-impact bond.

Doing Things That Work and Make Sense

On the encouraging side, New York City has been using Multisystemic Therapy (MST) as an evidence-based practice (among other EBPs) to serve youth involved with the juvenile-justice system since February 2007 through the Juvenile Justice Initiative (JJI). In 2011, the city expanded services under the Family Assessment Program (FAP) to provide diversion services to families who file petitions as Persons In Need of Services (PINS) for status offenders who are engaging in high-risk behaviors. This was intended to intervene with adolescents before they enter the legal system and has been largely successful in doing so. 

The results experienced in New York are not an anomaly nor a product of wishful thinking. A recently published study identified the long-term “cumulative benefits of MST estimated at $35,582 per juvenile offender and $7,798 per sibling. Overall, every dollar spent on MST recovered $5.04 in savings to taxpayers and crime victims in the 25 years following treatment.” In this regard, New York is choosing things that are proven to work and make sense for the taxpayer.

Seeing the gains achieved with evidence-based practices, in 2013, the New York Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) added 16 additional MST teams to serve youth at risk of placement under Specialized Teen Preventive Services. ACS recognized that such youths are more likely to be put into placements and exposed to other risks.

Given the lessons learned with families served in these other contexts in New York, it is hoped that this may be part of the reform to address the needs of those at Rikers Island.

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Topics: MST Success Stories