For years, there have been horror stories about Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, which sits on a piece land in the East River. But according to news reports and anecdotal stories, it appears the situation has deteriorated.  

A New York Times expose released on Monday describes dozens of instances in which detainees have wandered freely, pepper sprayed guards and one incident in which a detainee attacked a nurse. 

Zachary Katznelson, executive director of the Independent Commission on New York Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, speaks out frequently on decarceration. He has toured Rikers with lawmakers, judges and others, and testified before the state Assembly’s Corrections Committee.  

One answer to the chaotic situation, according to Katznelson, is fewer people being sent to Riker's in the first place.

“There are about 5,600 people locked up in the city jails, 5,000 of those are at Rikers itself,” Katznelson explained. “It’s too many people for the Department of Corrections to handle, not with the staff that they have and not with the staffing shortages that they have right now.”

Katznelson told Capital Tonight that there are multiple ways to reduce the inmate population. 

“One thousand-six hundred people have been waiting for over a year for a trial. Over 700 people have been waiting for two years or more for a trial. That can’t be the case. We have constitutionally speedy trials in our state and country. That’s not happening in New York,” he said.

Katznelson wants the state Legislature to provide more funding to the courts and hire more judges to push through the backlog of cases.  

Additionally, he said courtrooms in New York City are still requiring six feet of distance between all court attendees. He believes more cases could be heard if social distancing were reduced to three feet. 

But there are fundamental disagreements on how to address violence in prisons between those, like Katznelson, who are advocates for the incarcerated, and those who advocate for correctional officers like Mike Powers, head of the New York State Correctional Officers Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA).

Powers told Capital Tonight that the chaos at Rikers is an outgrowth of a lack of staffing and a rise in violence due to a softening of the disciplinary system in prisons and jails, like the phasing out of solitary confinement for misconduct inside the prisons and jails. 

Katznelson disagrees. 

“I think that’s actually a good thing. Solitary is really a vicious thing that inflicts on people psychologically, even after a few days,” he said. “The thing is, we need to replace it with something different, and what’s not quite yet happened is the replacement with something different.”

Powers represents corrections officers who work in state prison facilities, not Riker’s Island. However, he believes that the problems at both prisons and jails stem from the same set of circumstances. 

“A lot of it has to do with the laws that have come into play in my opinion,” Powers said. “We’ve got significant issues with violence on the rise, contraband on the rise. They are continually letting people out and yet the violence continues to exceed year to year since they started decreasing the inmate populations.”

But Katznelson is urging just the opposite remedy. He supports the immediate implementation of the Less is More Act which prevents recently paroled prisoners from being incarcerated on a technical violation, like missing a curfew. Hochul signed the measure into law a few weeks ago. 

Capital Tonight asked Katznelson what his message is to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

“You’ve tried to meet the challenge of Riker's head-on. But there’s more you can do. First, please implement Less is More as quickly as possible. [The law goes into effect in] March 2022, but as governor, you can order the state parole authorities to start acting differently today,” Katznelson said. 

Powers’ perspective is different, especially after a recent tragedy.

“We had a violent, violent attack at Attica Correctional Facility last week where, with an ice pick type weapon, an inmate went to attack an officer in his chest. Aiming for his heart. He’s okay, thank God. He’s out on leave right now. But the fact is there’s such violence in these facilities with little repercussions,” Powers said.