The City Council will soon vote on a plan to shut down Rikers Island and replace it with smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island. The rationale for this, aside from being part of a rebellion against what are viewed as the past sins of mass incarceration that focused heavily on black and Latino residents, is that there is something inherently flawed about Rikers Island as a correctional institution that doesn’t correct inmates’ behavior and can make them harder characters than when they entered.
What doesn’t get discussed often enough is the degree to which the hardest inmates, most part of a gang culture that’s prevalent in the jails, are responsible for conditions being so bad, rather than the people who work there or the physical makeup of Rikers. Nor do those clamoring for the closing of Rikers—and we’re talking about those who have enough sense to realize that there will always be people who are sufficiently ruthless and dangerous that they have to be incarcerated, not the Utopians who want to do away with jails altogether—consider the degree to which the problems start at the top.
We mean not only Mayor de Blasio’s two Correction Commissioners during his first 70 months in office, but Hizzoner as well. The first, Joe Ponte, left late in the Mayor’s first term after questions arose about his using a city vehicle for frequent travel outside the state, generally to his home in Maine, and his spending 90 days away from the city during a one-year period not long before his exit.
His successor, Cynthia Brann, was recently cited for missing 151 days during her first two years in the job. Just like Mr. Ponte’s frequent absences, this apparently didn’t bother their boss. A spokesman for the Mayor made it seem like reporters were nitpicking about all her absences and added, “To suggest that she is not the ultimate decision-maker for her agency at all times is to willfully mislead the public.”
That response sounded very much like Mr. de Blasio’s defense of spending so much time away from the city during his little-mourned candidacy for President. Like Michael Bloomberg before him, he argued that he was fully able to stay abreast of what was going on in the city and could direct his aides to take what steps were necessary to keep things running smoothly.
The problem is, these rationales don’t convince many of those whom Mayors depend on to take up the slack. It was not uncommon to hear high-level aides to Mr. Bloomberg use phrases like “he’s checked out” to describe his state of mind during his third term, and a similar disillusionment seems to have infected people in the current administration, judging by anonymous comments that have hardly been confined to Mr. de Blasio’s favorite journalistic target, the New York Post.
Woody Allen had something besides a good laugh line when he said, “Showing up is 80 percent of life.” This is particularly true when the institution involved is going through hard times that make being there day in and day out a grind rather than a stroll in the park. As the head of the union representing wardens, Joseph Russo, recently told this newspaper’s Richard Khavkine regarding Ms. Brann’s frequent absences, “It’s disheartening to see she was out 151 days in two years, when in the case of the uniformed staff, for my members, it can be difficult for us to get a day off, and we’re mid-level managers. You’re expected to be at work and engaged.”
Commissioners who don’t feel that sense of responsibility to those working for them can contribute to slumping morale, because they give their subordinates the sense that they’re not fighting the good fight with them. This is particularly true when those from mid-level managers down to line officers believe the department is more intent on citing them for questionable infractions than it is on ensuring that the jails are safe and functioning efficiently. And if those lower down the ranks start thinking, like Mr. Ponte and Ms. Brann, that they need a mental-health day or six when the job gets rough, the result is that those who work through it all wind up with too many double shifts.
If those at the very top of the department acted like they cared more about it, maybe the miasma that’s infected Rikers would dissipate.
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