the bloomberg way

Mike Bloomberg’s NYC Jails Record: Drop in Inmates, Rise in Force

Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg defends stop and frisk while speaking to NYPD officials, April 20, 2013.
Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg defends stop and frisk while speaking to NYPD officials, April 20, 2013. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/DNAinfo

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As presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg vowed this week to “end the era of mass incarceration,” he touted a major drop in the population of New York City’s jails during his 12-year run as mayor.

“Our criminal justice system is broken and unjust,” Bloomberg declared Tuesday, vowing to “ensure fairness and equality in our criminal justice system, and shift its focus from punishment to rehabilitation.”

An examination of the billionaire’s record overseeing a city jails system anchored by Rikers Island shows a tenure punctuated by probation reforms credited by some with helping reduce the number of inmates.

But as the detainee population dropped, the Bloomberg years also saw increases in the use of solitary confinement and force against inmates. His Rikers legacy is additionally marked by inmate deaths tied by the state’s Commission of Correction to poor medical care provided by a for-profit contractor.

Mike Bloomberg campaigns for president in California in December.
Mike Bloomberg campaigns for president in California in December. Photo: @TeamMike2020/Facebook

Much has changed since 2002 when then-former Democrat Bloomberg took office as a Republican.

On the local front, crime and the city jail population are down, solitary confinement is expected to soon be limited and Rikers is set close in favor of smaller jails slated for every borough except Staten Island.

Meanwhile, there’s been a growing focus on what critics call a national overincaceration crisis — spurring once-again-Democrat Bloomberg to come out with his prison plan, weeks after apologizing for the rampant use of stop-and-frisk during his years as mayor.

Against this backdrop, THE CITY looked at Bloomberg’s mayoral record on jails.

A Population Decrease

The average daily population in the city’s lockups dropped from 14,490 in 2001 to 11,827 in 2013, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. The figure currently stands at 5,396.

The reduction during Bloomberg’s tenure stemmed from an overall decrease in crime, changes in probation policy and lobbying by advocates for alternative sentences, according to Vincent Schiraldi, who served as city probation commissioner from 2010 to 2014.

“Even though there was a lot of stop-and-frisk going on in New York, at the same time, the mayor’s office was supporting reducing the number of people incarcerated,” added Schiraldi, who co-authored a report on the issue.

The Riker Island jail complex
The Riker Island jail complex Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Bloomberg backed cutting probation revocations for technical offenses like missing appointments or curfew, and moving without telling a probation officer.

When he left office, the city had a 3% probation violation rate. By contrast, the average for all other counties in the state was 11%.

The reduction in jail population also was tied to advocates and nonprofit organizations “providing a network of alternatives,” and urging judges and prosecutors to reduce sentences, Schiraldi said.

“I think Bloomberg was interested in jail reform,” said retired state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. “Trying to cast blame is wrong.”

One criminal justice expert, though, said Bloomberg and his staff did little to reduce the inmate population.

“It was not what the administration was focused on,” said Insha Rahman, director of strategy and new initiatives at the Vera Institute, a nonprofit that does research on criminal justice reform. “If you look at trends in big cities that were experiencing economic revitalization, crime went down.”

“There wasn’t a concerted effort to decrease arrests or diversion. They weren’t criminal justice priorities under the Bloomberg administration,” she added.

‘This is Crazy’

Bloomberg’s campaign has touted his support of the “Close to Home” initiative, which moved city juvenile detainees from upstate facilities to secure homes in the five boroughs, nearer to their families.

In December 2010, Bloomberg, along with several members of his team, toured a state-run facility in the Finger Lakes and saw city kids imprisoned hundreds of miles from home.

“He said, ‘This is crazy!’ ” Schiraldi recalled, noting state legislation was passed in 2011 transferring the youngsters to city custody.

Bloomberg, though, proved a limited physical presence at Rikers. Presidential campaign spokesperson Julie Wood says he made “at least” four trips to Rikers during his time as mayor.

Lippman defended Bloomberg’s Rikers record.

Bill de Blasio, fresh off his 2013 mayoral victory, meets with then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Bill de Blasio, fresh off his 2013 mayoral victory, meets with then-Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Photo: New York City Mayor’s Office

“It’s a horrible place and it has to be closed,” said Lippman, who led the blue-ribbon panel that issued a report in 2017 recommending the city shutter the island jail complex.

“But to identify it as Bloomberg’s or [Mayor Bill] de Blasio’s fault? That’s unfair,” he added. “There’s enough horrible events to go around.”

No Rikers Movement

Bloomberg’s first Correction commissioner, William Fraser, was appointed in part due to lobbying from then-correction union president Norman Seabrook, one of only two labor leaders who endorsed his first run for mayor, according to multiple sources.

Fraser resigned after a little less than a year and later admitted subordinates replaced a pool liner at his home.

He was replaced by Martin Horn, who was already serving as Bloomberg’s probation commissioner and held both titles until 2009.

In 2003, Horn closed the Brooklyn House of Detention in Boerum Hill due to a drop in inmate population.

But three years later, he proposed reopening the lockup, moving 1,500 inmates there and sending another 1,500 into a jail to be built in Hunts Point, The Bronx.

Horn argued the plan would reduce travel time from Rikers to city courts and make it easier for family and friends to visit detainees. Advocates later successfully used similar arguments to make their case for the Rikers shutdown.

The plan was largely nixed after a community group sued, arguing the proposal must first go through the city’s complicated land use change approval process.

Both opponents and supporters of a plan to build four new jails and close Rikers Island voiced their concerns at a contentious Manhattan Community Board 1 committee meeting on the plan on April 8, 2019.
Both opponents and supporters of a plan to build four new jails and close Rikers Island voiced their concerns at a contentious Manhattan Community Board 1 committee meeting on the plan on April 8, 2019. Photo: Rachel Holliday Smith/THE CITY

“It wasn’t ripe at the time,” Lippman said. “The conventional wisdom was you couldn’t close Rikers.”

Horn and others contend Bloomberg did little to push the borough jail plan ahead.

“There was very little interest in expending political capital and financial capital on the jails,” Horn told The New York Times in 2014.

Force and Solitary Spike

During Bloomberg’s mayoral stint, the number of so-called uses of force by officers against inmates went from 1,772 in 2001 to 3,285 in 2013, city records show.

The use of solitary also spiked from 322 on Jan. 1, 2002, to 918 inmates by the end of Dora Schriro’s tenure as Correction commissioner in 2013. Some inmates, including people with mental illness and adolescents, were isolated for hundreds of days, according to a city Board of Correction report.

A punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
A punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Photo: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

There are currently about 100 inmates in the “bing,” and activists are looking to further reduce that figure.

Activists and members of the city’s jail oversight board pressed the Bloomberg administration to limit the use of solitary.

“When the board began to question this approach, there was strong pushback from City Hall,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the Board of Correction. “Many mayoral appointees agreed that we should reduce the use of solitary confinement, but they were held back by Bloomberg.  They told me that the ‘optics’ would be bad for the mayor.”

Teens Under Attack

The city’s treatment of teenage detainees also came under fire during Bloomberg’s tenure.

In October 2008, Christopher Robinson, 18, was beaten to death by a group of other inmates after he declined to join what was dubbed “The Program” inside the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers.

Robinson was in jail because he had violated a probation curfew by working a late shift at a Staples in Brooklyn.

Correction officers in that facility deputized inmates to act as enforcers and called it The Program. All told, seven inmates were convicted for their role in the killing, and two correction officers pleaded guilty to assault charges tied to the case.

Robinson’s mother, Charnel, sued, and the city settled for $2 million.

The case, and similar legal actions, were a precursor to a class-action suit brought on behalf of a group of teen inmates who alleged they were routinely beaten by officers for minor transgressions.

Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara joined the Nunez case, named after the lead defendant, citing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates at Rikers.

Some “correction officers attempt to justify use of force by yelling ‘stop resisting’ even when the adolescent has been completely subdued or was never resisting in the first place,” a report Bharara’s office issued in August 2014 said, following a multi-year investigation that began under Bloomberg’s watch.

In June 2015, a federal monitor, Steve Martin, was appointed to oversee comprehensive changes in the city jail system.

During Horn’s six-year tenure, the number of stabbings and slashings dropped, to 19 a year in 2008. Horn also angered inmate advocacy-groups when he proposed increasing the maximum number of inmates per dorm and allowing officers to listen to inmate calls without a warrant.

The violence and the number of inmates in solitary spiked when Schriro took over in September 2009, records show.

Kalief Browder, who was arrested in May 2010 at age 16, was one of those cases. He spent three years on Rikers, including more than two years in solitary, on a stolen backpack charge that was later dropped. He died by suicide in June 2015 after he was released.

In Schriro’s last year, the annual number of stabbings and slashing spiked to 73 by 2013, records show.

Health Service Woes

Medical treatment of inmates also came under scrutiny during Bloomberg’s mayoral run, with two inmate deaths gaining attention near the end of his third and final term.

Jason Echeverria, 25, swallowed a toxic soap ball used to clean his cell in an attempt to get out of solitary on Aug. 12, 2012. He died after his pleas for medical help were ignored for hours, according to court testimony.

About 13 months later, an inmate with mental illness died in his cell after he was left alone without treatment for six days. Bradley Ballard, 39, was found naked and covered in urine on Sept. 11, 2013.

Clinicians or other mental health personnel only checked on Ballard once during his time in solitary, surveillance video showed.

A state review found that the handling of the Ballard case by Corizon Health, the private firm then dealing with medical care for city inmates, was “so incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience.”

Despite complaints from advocates, Bloomberg never dropped Corizon, the nation’s largest private jail medical provider at the time. In 2016, under de Blasio, the city transferred inmate care to the agency that runs its public hospitals.

(Bloomberg Philanthropies is a funder of THE CITY)

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