Opinion: How New York Is Failing Those Left Behind At Rikers Island
by Erin Corbett and Keith Brown
Rikers, as usual, is in the news. From the calls for New York to move towards true decarceration by closing Rikers, to the heated public discourse surrounding the plans to open smaller, borough jails , Rikers has permeated and pierced every conversation as a profoundly inhumane institution, desperately in need of immediate action paired with radical changes to New York’s deeply broken criminal justice system.
The latest horrific chapter at Rikers (detailed in a recent Gothamist story) is the harrowing, Kafka-esque story of Shazaad Husein, a man forced to make the heartbreaking choice between remaining detained on Rikers Island, or stopping the lifesaving treatment he was receiving for addiction. Husein’s story is particularly grievous given the very real actions that Gov. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature could have taken during the 2019 session to prevent this situation from occurring, with not one but two separate pieces of legislation. This lack of action in Albany also has implications for the now multi-year effort to close RikersIsland.
First, why was Husein in Rikers in the first place? Because of a technical violation of parole. Technical violations are not crimes; rather, they are adminstrative violations of the condition of parole, like missing curfew or an appointment with a parole officer, or, in Husein’s case, alleged possession of a small amount of marijuana. These violations, by their very nature, do not present a risk to public safety. Yet people jailed for technical violations make up the only increasing population on Rikers Island. Over 600 people are in the facility right now for simple technical violations of parole, driving up the total number of detainees while irresponsibly wasting taxpayer dollars, and all this for absolutely no benefit to public safety.
Last week, Governor Cuomo published an op-ed railing against, we presume, Mayor de Blasio, for not closing Rikers fast enough, but the only population of people increasing on Rikers happens to be the one population fully under the governor’s control – people on parole. There’s a proposal to fix this crisis, called the Less is More Act . Introduced by Sen. Brian Benjamin and Assemblymember Walter Mosley, the bill would fix the broken technical violations process, help people when they return home from prison, and protect public safety.
The bill enjoys widespread community support among grassroots and civil rights groups, as well as from several New York District Attorneys (including three in New York City), the Sheriff of Albany County, former correctional officials, and more. Yet the governor has not yet indicated his support for this legislation, and legislative leaders failed to move the bill in the last session. Had this bill been law at the time of Husein’s alleged violation, he would not have been sent to Rikers.
Second, the detention at Rikers underscored the profound problems inherent in our correctional system as it relates to healthcare. Husein was taking buprenorphine, a medication prescribed by his doctor, to help treat his opioid addiction. Buprenorphine and methadone are the gold standard of addiction care for people dependent on opioids. Yet, when he entered Rikers on a parole violation, he was faced with an impossible choice: stay at Rikers where there is a program utilizing buprenorphine, or be shipped to Edgecombe, a small prison that has a substance abuse treatment program that does not accept patients on buprenorphine. This is despite decades of research demonstrating its effectiveness. In a particularly uninformed and dangerous statement contained in the legal filings, Assistant Attorney General David T. Cheng boldly and inappropriately states that, “If opioid replacement medications were all that an addict needed to be fully rehabilitated, rehabilitation programs would not exist anymore—all an addict would need is a prescription.” The available research actually shows that these medications alone, without additional interventions, are effective in reducing recidivism, improving outcomes, and reducing overdose risk.
Neither Husein nor anyone else should have to face that choice (let alone be in Rikers at all), and there’s pending legislation that would fix this problem by establishing full scope treatment programs using medications including buprenorphine in all state correctional facilities. The governor and the New York state legislature again failed to act. The legislation passed the Senate but failed in the Assembly; again, this is a curious occurrence given public stances taken by state leadership that, on the surface, acknowledge opioid addiction and overdose as a public health crisis. The bill’s successful passage would mean that people like Mr. Husein would be able to remain on effective treatment regardless of the facility he was transferred to. And, again, in this case would reduce the population of RikersIsland and advance its closure.
As we fight to close Rikers, in the face of an unprecedented overdose crisis, and despite continued rhetoric from law enforcement, elected officials, and others that we “cannot arrest our way out” of substance use-related harm, Cuomo and the legislature should stop with all the bellyaching rhetoric and get down to passing the legislation that would help address these problems. New Yorkers want action, not empty talk and petty political posturing.
Erin Corbett is the Director of Policy, and Keith Brown is the Director of Health and Harm Reduction for the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. Katal works to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs.