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Taking Back The Jails

aerial view of Rikers Island, with New York City skyline in the background
photo of Rikers Island by Tim Rodenberg

There were just a handful of bystanders physically present at the encounter that ended in Eric Garner’s death. Yet thanks to a video recording, those following the news nationwide counted as witnesses.

New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo placed Garner, a 43-year-old from Staten Island, in a chokehold during an arrest gone wrong last month, despite the fact that the Department has long banned maneuvers that place pressure on the throat or windpipe. Garner can be heard on the video, captured by Ramsey Orta on his phone, complaining that he couldn’t breathe. A medical examiner determined that Garner’s death was a homicide. Pantaleo has been stripped of badge and gun pending investigation and possible prosecution.

No matter whether Garner’s death results in criminal charges, it will be impossible for the NYPD to ignore it. The video’s release sparked rallies, online outrage and a discussion at City Hall about relations between the Department and the communities its officers protect.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a statement following the release of Garner’s autopsy results, said, “We all have a responsibility to work together to heal the wounds from the decades of mistrust and create a culture where the Police Department and the communities they protect respect each other.” In order for that to happen, there has to be some level of accountability for officers on the street. Recording incidents that occur in public can protect officers who do their jobs well and deter those who would otherwise abuse their position.

There may also have been witnesses the night inmate Darren Rainey was forced into a scalding shower at the Dade Correctional Institution in Florida two years ago, but those witnesses would have been Rainey’s fellow inmates, who lacked cameras or smartphones; they did later tell investigators they heard Rainey’s screams. The other witnesses would have been the guards who put Rainey in that small stall and left him there for two hours, though they claimed to have checked on Rainey “periodically.” By the time they pulled him out, Rainey was dead, scalded so badly that chunks of flesh were reportedly falling off his body.

There are no cellphones at New York City’s Rikers Island, either. In one of the facility’s jails that house male inmates between the ages of 16 and 18, no bystanders could record what they saw or heard when corrections officers beat, stomped and pepper-sprayed a teenager who fell asleep in a classroom. Teachers heard him crying for his mother as his body thumped against the floor of the corridor where guards had dragged him to administer the assault, according to a report released this week by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who described a “deep-seated culture of violence” against youths at Rikers.

The report, which included this incident among many others as a condemnation of the facility’s failure to protect inmates’ civil rights, pointed out a “powerful code of silence” and an ineffective system for investigating guards’ use of force.

The conditions at facilities like Rikers and Dade Correctional may be extreme, but they are far from unique. As far back as Rodney King’s beating by Los Angeles police two decades ago, video cameras in the hands of the public have brought accountability to law enforcement on our streets. Today, the ubiquity of dash cams, cellphones and private video surveillance puts police on notice that their conduct is being watched and that excesses are liable to be found and punished. Photography and silent video footage is almost always explicitly protected in public spaces; in many places, video recordings with sound are also sheltered by law. The result is generally more responsible policing. It is also easier to weed out false charges of excessive force leveled against officers who are doing their jobs.

Our jails and prisons may be the last bastion of the infamous “blue code of silence,” in which abusive officers lie and dissemble to protect one another. Bharara described a lawless milieu on Rikers where officers do not talk and, from all appearances, their superiors wouldn’t want to know what they might say if they did.

This conduct will not change unless it has to. The best way to chase away whatever hides under a rock is to turn over the rock and shine some light on what lies beneath.

Cameras and microphones ought to be ubiquitous in jails and prisons, where inmates are essentially defenseless against abusive guards, as well as against one another. There ought to be no place where a guard could physically haul a prisoner without a microphone or lens to pick up a scream, a punch or a kick.

The data recorded by these devices should be fed in real time to monitoring centers and databases outside the jails, and preferably beyond the control of corrections department officials who might prefer to remain ignorant of what goes on under their watch.

A system like this will not catch all instances of abuse; no system can. Cellphones don’t capture every instance of police misconduct, either. But the fact that such devices exist can put maladjusted officers on notice that their behavior may have consequences, and it can back up the stories of whistleblowers who buck peer pressure to do the right thing.

I’m not unsympathetic to police or corrections officers. On the contrary, they do dangerous work with dangerous people, and they often bear the scars to prove it. Sometimes force is necessary for self-defense or to subdue an individual who poses a threat or an escape risk. But good officers, who risk their own safety and are conscious of their obligations to those who are in their custody, should not be forced to work with sadists and sociopaths who cannot resist the narcotic effects of a little bit of power over a fellow human being.

In New York City, the corrections officers and their union leaders actually believe Rikers belongs to them. They have cowed a series of mayors and corrections officials who simply don’t want to pick a fight in order to defend inmates, who get little public sympathy and almost no public attention.

The sad truth is that the Rikers guards are probably right. The jail really does belong to them. For now, they can do what they want, as long as they can keep it out of sight.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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