Workers Vanguard No. 1048

13 June 2014


Rikers Island: Racist House of Horrors

On a frigid night in February, ex-Marine Jerome Murdough, who was homeless and suffering from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, took shelter in the stairwell of a New York City public housing building. Arrested for trespassing and unable to post the $2,500 bail, he was thrown into a mental observation unit on Rikers Island, the city’s main jail complex. Within a week, Murdough was dead. A city official explained that he “basically baked to death” in a cell heated by faulty equipment, a victim of the indifference of the guards as to whether he lived or died. It was not his jailers but an AP journalist, exposing the many crimes committed by the authorities against inmates at Rikers, who informed Murdough’s family of his death.

There are vast numbers of potential Jerome Murdoughs at Rikers at any given time—around 12,000 men, women and children, at least 90 percent of them black or Latino. The majority are awaiting trial, in some cases for years. Others are due to be transferred to faraway state prisons or are serving sentences of less than a year. The NYPD’s racist stop-and-frisk campaign, the vigorous enforcement of petty misdemeanor offenses and impossible parole conditions all feed a system in which poor black and Latino men cycle through the jail on a regular basis, even if never convicted. As a former warden put it: “Most Rikers inmates are serving a life sentence—one six-month bid at a time.”

And lives are regularly cut short on the inside. Five months before Murdough’s death, another black schizophrenic man, Bradley Ballard, died in solitary, where he had been thrown for allegedly making a lewd gesture to a female guard. Guards denied Ballard some of his medication. Days later, he was found naked and unresponsive in his cell, covered in feces and with his genitals badly infected and swollen from a ligature.

In 2012, 25-year-old Jason Echevarria died in his cell after ingesting soap that inmates had been given to clean up after raw sewage flooded their cells. Vomiting blood, he begged for medical attention for hours. One of the few officers who responded to Echevarria’s cries was told by the duty captain: “Don’t call me if you have live, breathing bodies. Only call me if you need an extraction, or if you have a dead body.” Echevarria’s death is unusual only for the fact that the captain has actually been indicted, albeit only on the grounds of violating the civil rights of an inmate.

Today, over 4,000 inmates at Rikers have a serious mental illness—twice the number of a decade ago. The closure of mental health facilities, the difficulty of obtaining health care and the dire straits for so many caused by the economic crash of 2008 have fueled this dramatic increase. The prognosis is grim: those with mental illness are incarcerated longer and are more likely to be injured than other inmates.

The unspeakable violence and brutality of jail, from Rikers to L.A. County, exacerbates all kinds of mental conditions. And this is not unusual in capitalist America, where such barbarism is the product of a society in decay. Rejecting the possibility of establishing a decent mental health care system as a drain on its coffers, the ruling class instead hires goons to torture and torment the sick in its jailhouses for the poor. Notably, the level of violence by Rikers guards is way up, even by official estimates.

Systematic solitary confinement is central to a ghoulish system that makes, and keeps, inmates insane. The guards have been the driving force behind the rampant solitary lockup at Rikers—there are now nearly 1,000 such cells, up from just 12 in 1990. Norman Seabrook, head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), proudly stated in a February 21 interview with PBS: “We fought vigorously to ensure that those that committed infractions in the city’s jail system are sentenced to punitive segregation time.”

Mentally ill inmates in Rikers are responsible for about two-thirds of those “infractions.” City officials have admitted that solitary confinement and “therapeutic” units at Rikers are rife with abuse and neglect. They describe walls covered with feces and body fluids as well as inmates who scream incessantly and throw themselves into walls and doors of the cells they are locked in 22-24 hours a day.

Young people are not spared this treatment. In New York State, anyone 16 years or over is prosecuted as an adult no matter the charge. As a result, hundreds of teenagers are locked up in Rikers, a testament to the reality that black inner-city youth are all but written off as expendable by a ruling class that has no jobs for them to fill. On any given day, a quarter of the teenagers at Rikers are in solitary. A report by the Board of Correction noted that mentally ill teenagers can be kept in segregation for months, receiving therapy by shouting to a counselor through a cell door. And even the smallest gestures provoke a backlash from the guards, such as when COBA recently protested against teenage inmates receiving pizza from health care staff.

After the death of Murdough, Mayor Bill de Blasio formed a task force charged with reducing the number of mentally ill people packed off to jail. But the pipeline to Rikers has remained wide open under his watch. In de Blasio’s first three months in office, the number of misdemeanor arrests was virtually unchanged from the same period last year.

De Blasio has also appointed a new correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, known as a reformer…for reducing the number of prisoners held in solitary confinement in Maine from 100 to less than 50. Seabrook reacted to the appointment by spewing racist garbage that in Maine the “biggest gang problem was the Aryan Nation” whereas in New York City “I got Bloods, I got Crips, I got the Latin Kings.” Ponte has since assured the guards that no solitary cells will close.

There is a vicious gang in the pay of the city at Rikers: the sadistic thugs of COBA. But it is widely portrayed as a union dealing with the “safety” of its members, like a public employee’s union fighting City Hall for better work conditions. Nothing is further from the truth. The guards are the armed thugs of the racist capitalist class who stalk the halls of jails striking fear into black and Latino inmates. They are a crucial part of the apparatus of the capitalist state that, together with the cops and courts, is used to repress the working and oppressed masses on behalf of the capitalist rulers. Cops and guards are not workers and have no place in the union movement.

The multiracial working class, with its hands on the wheels of production, is the only social force with the power and the interest to shatter the capitalist order and its repressive machinery. Nothing short of socialist revolution will do away with the depravities of America’s dungeons. When the working class is in power internationally, the wealth now appropriated by a tiny class of exploiters can be put to serving the needs of humanity, from providing quality housing to health care, opening the door to a future in which all can thrive.