Juxtaposed against the grand urban expanse of America’s largest metropolis sprawls a fortified jailing complex, staffed with an army of over 9,000 correctional officers and spanning over 400 acres.
The drab exterior and sheer grandeur of the facility, while imposing and desolate, does little to indicate the extent of the atrocities committed within the walls of this isolated symbol of the highly bureaucratic and mechanized justice system.
Rikers Island has served New York City’s local arrestees and short-term convicts since 1932. Within those eight decades, numerous instances of discrimination, excessive and unwarranted violence, abuse by correctional officers and unnecessary and highly invasive strip searches have been reported, with some judicial action being taken to remedy the ghastly state of the complex.
However, the facility’s reputation as a hotbed for the city’s mentally ill has been one of the most pertinent and disturbing issues to arise in the past few years. More significantly, the staff’s reactions, treatment and accommodations (or lack thereof) in regards to the island’s mentally ill population underscore not only a gross lack of understanding of mental illness in the context of the country’s justice system, but also the injustice and discriminatory attitudes that often lead to the mentally ill being sentenced to an endless cycle of hospitalization and imprisonment.
Rikers Island is in desperate need of radical reform to not only address the needs and accommodations of its mentally ill population, but also to defend their individual rights and uphold their dignity. A notable example of Rikers Island’s consistent failure in regards to treatment of its mentally ill population was reported by The New York Times in the summer of 2014. Jose Bautista was arrested for a 2013 misdemeanor charge regarding a family dispute. He was incapable of posting $250 bail and was placed in Rikers as a result, highlighting the classicism that also permeates the American justice system. A few days later after his imprisonment, Bautista attempted to commit suicide by hanging himself with his underwear from the highest bar of his cell. Four correctional officers managed to “rescue” him by cutting him down from the bar. However, instead of referring him to emergency medical or therapeutic treatment, they responded by forcing him to the ground and beating him to such a degree that he suffered a perforated bowel that necessitated surgery. This was not just an isolated incident. The New York Times, through their four-month investigation of Rikers, reported innumerable episodes of “brutal attacks by correction officers-particularly those with mental health issues” (The New York Times, “Rikers: Where Mental Illness Meets Brutality in Jail,” 07.14.14.). This is a startling discovery that has its roots in the disastrous trend of New York deinstitutionalization beginning in the mid-20th century.
Beginning in the 1960s, a trend of disgust and outrage over the crowded and draconian mental institutions developed across the country that led to the discharge of thousands of patients who were still in need of long-term care. Instead of being properly integrated into local communities, many found themselves in homeless shelters, jail or out on the streets. This trend led to the inescapable cycle of imprisonment and short-term hospitalization that many mentally ill individuals found themselves trapped in. Despite a backdrop of relative economic growth and prosperity, New York City was one of the urban areas hardest hit by deinstitutionalization, as indicated by the rapid influx of homeless individuals in the 1980s. This coincided with the frightening levels of racial profiling and police brutality towards the black community.
The issues of institutional racism and oppression of the mentally ill are inextricably linked when analyzing New York’s justice system, especially during that time period. Perhaps most dangerously, deinstitutionalization and lack of community care have increased the level of stigmatization in society as a whole, as manifested in the callous and horrific treatment of Mr. Bautista.
The general stigmatization of the mentally ill can be a major factor and contributor to the lack of wide and sweeping reform in regards to mental health, in both the prison complex and government sector. Rikers Island has become a symbol of the aftershocks of deinstitutionalization and the profound issues that have arisen as a result of increased ignorance towards the realities of mental illness and the systematic oppression that the mentally ill suffer at the hands of correctional bureaucracy.
Rikers Island stands as a correctional institution, yet its approach to the treatment of the mentally ill population is not only inherently dehumanizing, abusive and oppressive, but also often worsens the conditions that forced these individuals into jail in the first place. An Occupy protester (interviewed by The New York Post) who was sentenced to 90 days in jail reported that the mentally ill were denied schizophrenia, anxiety and depression medications by Rikers personnel who were completely untrained and unauthorized to do so. (New York Post, “Time to fix the mental-health horrors that plague Rikers Island,” 08.10.15.) The environment of Rikers Island is not conducive to the growth, treatment, and care that many mentally ill individuals are in dire need of. Instead, they are maligned, beaten, intimidated and killed as a result of conditions that they have absolutely no control over.
In a complex holding a population that is classified as 40% mentally ill, long-reaching reform regarding community care, heightened training for law enforcement and correctional officers and facilities that are well-funded and capable for treating those in need of long-term care is vital to both the integration of the mentally ill into society and the upholding of their dignity and basic human needs and rights.