A doctor’s disillusionment from Rikers Island


But the summer brought a sharp reversal of momentum. Civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd sparked renewed fears of crime and increased tensions between the community and police. Gun violence and killings increased across the country. Prison release efforts slowed and prisons began to fill up again. This influx of inmates across the country has been met with a lower rate of prison attrition: throughout the pandemic, courts have been operating at greatly reduced capacity, meaning people are staying in prison longer. Our patients, many of whom have lost loved ones to the virus, have been traumatised, restless and despondent as their cases dragged on with no resolution.

As New York City’s second COVID Wave came at the end of 2020, there was no accompanying wave of decarceration. District attorneys’ offices seemed tired of being told they couldn’t send people to jail. My colleagues and I continued to submit letters certifying our patients’ risk of contracting the virus, but we were told by both public defenders and prosecutors that no one was taking our pleas seriously anymore.

I was on maternity leave in December. The week after Thanksgiving, I walked through the infirmary one more time to say goodbye to my favorite patients. I told them all that I hoped they wouldn’t be there when I came back in six months. “I’ll be here,” said a man I loved ruefully; We had repeatedly asked for his release without success, even though he was paralyzed and bedridden with three children waiting for him at home. Another patient had recently returned to Rikers after a period in one ICE CREAM Upstate prison. “It was much worse then,” he says. “They wanted to let us die.”

Until the first half of 2021 COVID Rates in New York City prisons have remained at or below rates in the community, likely due to a combination of high levels of natural immunity and strict infection control measures. The effects of the virus were mainly noticeable through secondary effects. Correctional facilities across the country, including ours, had halted in-person visits to facilities. Programming had also been severely curtailed, and in-person court appearances were cancelled. On Rikers Island, all recordings had been diverted through a single prison facility, creating a bottleneck in the system.

I got back from vacation just in time for the delta wave that summer. By this time, vaccines had been available for some time, but uptake among inmates was patchy. I walked around one of the tougher buildings with my favorite nurse and doctor’s assistant while they reassured me, coaxed me and fought with guys who resisted taking the shot. “Have you ever been offered money for medical care by the government?” said one man, suspicious of the financial incentive the city offered to people to get vaccinated. Another said he would consider taking the vaccine in exchange for his release. “You go out there and tell them: Pfizer for Pfreedom,” he told me.

But none of the people who had the power to set our patients free were more interested in doing so. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea repeatedly blamed the decline in pre-trial detention for the rise in crime, despite data proving otherwise, and the mayor did not disagree. Progressive politicians have found themselves in a position to defend past criminal justice reforms against an onslaught of misplaced criticism of bail reform and release policies introduced during the first wave of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Department of Correction hit an all-time low for morale and performance, and officers stopped showing up for work. Prisons have been plagued by violence, increased rates of self-harm and suicide, chaotic operational problems, and increased numbers of drug overdoses. A federal monitor appointed by the Justice Department found a “deterioration in basic security protocols and denial of basic services and protections.” In late summer 2021, COVID Rates on the island rose again, fueled by a crisis in the overcrowded reception area, where hundreds of men were confined for days without receiving medical attention.

One morning I toured the facility with Justin Butler, one of my team’s social workers, and was shocked by what we saw: cages containing hundreds of men, most of them black, standing in urine and feces, arms through the bars, and screamed for help. A nurse showed us a shower stall that had been converted into a makeshift confinement cell where a 25-year-old named Brandon Rodriguez had died by suicide the week before. She then pulled us out of the area just as a fight broke out: officers were about to use pepper spray to disperse the crowd and temporarily regain control of the cramped, unventilated space.

De Blasio had avoided visiting Rikers throughout his second term, and through August and September 2021 he avoided doing so, even as the crisis escalated and deaths piled up. He also declined to use 6-A — the state law that gives a New York City mayor the power to release people jailed for violations of misdemeanors de Blasio used earlier in the pandemic. He seemed intimidated by the aggressive reporting in New York post Office on its use of the Policy in the early months of the pandemic; The newspaper quoted anonymous law enforcement officials as accusing him of trying to “release as many prisoners as possible” despite evidence to the contrary. It was becoming clear that the mayor who once promised to close Rikers had lost his appetite for reform.

In 2021, 15 people died in Riker’s custody. By the end of the year, I went to work and spent most of the day talking to my colleagues and patients about whether or not the previous day’s coverage of the Rikers crisis was accurate. During the pandemic, New York City’s embattled prison system has received the most attention of any correctional facility in the country, but its implosion is part of a national trend: Even as the fundamental problems of over-incarceration have been exposed everywhere, old and flawed ideas about law and order are becoming obsolete repeated with renewed confidence, and not much has changed.

I started working in the prison system in 2016, partly inspired by the Close Rikers campaign. During my first three years on the job, crime in New York City was at an all-time low and the prison count was declining by the day. Our agency has implemented a variety of effective, radical interventions, such as expanding methadone and suboxone therapy for drug users, and these actions have made our patients safer. Curiously, the peak of my job satisfaction coincided with the first wave of the pandemic: the alchemical mix of fear and purpose made these weeks of March 2020 extraordinarily vibrant. I figured things couldn’t get any worse so they just had to get better.

Two years later, however, we’ve made some of the key changes needed to prepare for the next existential threat. We let the penal system crumble under stress without dismantling it: in the week of the two-year anniversary of the first COVID In one case in New York City jails, two inmates died within twenty-four hours, and the Federal Monitor issued another report noting the “ingrained culture of dysfunction” and the extraordinary level of violence in the system. Universal healthcare, a universal basic income, a sustainable child allowance, paid sick leave, publicly funded childcare, greener and cleaner buildings — we hinted at some of these investments in an initial moment of panic, and then we backed out and doubled down on systems that are under Break pressure and make people fall through the floor.

In jails and prisons, any conflict has the potential to escalate into violence. The atmosphere is perpetually tense and enormous efforts are needed to overcome the mutual distrust between staff and inmates. For me, healing a broken place required a supporting belief that my efforts would make the place less broken. After what I saw of Justin taking it that morning, I could no longer hold onto that belief. The tenor of the work had changed; I was too excited to take good care of my patients. I avoided going to the jails altogether, and felt overwhelming relief when I came out and heard the door rattle and lock behind me.

I finally quit the job in January of this year. I had none of that strange alchemy in me anymore; my adrenaline was gone, as was my clarity and sense of purpose. I felt guilty saying goodbye to my patients and even more guilty saying goodbye to my brave and talented colleagues. But I didn’t feel any ambivalence the last time I drove off the island. I was ready.


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