Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"The Absolute Rulers of Society's Garbage Can"

Justice Dept. Plans to Sue New York Over Rikers Violence/ Dec. 2014
The Horrors Keep Coming at Rikers/ February 2015

(2/20/12) Warden Theodore West, in his crisp beige summer suit, strides through the noisy clusters of black and brown bodies like a British gentleman appraising his safari staff. He knows well that the natives are dangerous, perpetually angry, but it would only inflame them to show concern. So he glides through them, pointedly defenseless, eyes straight ahead—aloof, casual, immaculate—amid their defiant and rumpled chaos. He and his fellow wardens, he tells me, are "the absolute rulers of society's garbage can." That was 40 years ago. It's not a garbage can any more. It is utter hell.

 (They weren't exactly "absolute" rulers, even in 1975, when I worked for New York City's Board of Correction, a watchdog agency created to monitor the treatment of the city's thousands of inmates. Just a year earlier, the famous "Tombs" prison had been closed by court order, basically because it was unfit for human habitation. But West was right to imply that wardens constituted a sort of royalty in these nightmarish, medieval facilities. 
Scandals and abuse have always been an aspect of  prisons, throughout history, and around the world. But on Rikers, even after decades of purported "enlightened reform," conditions have reached a new low in Sept. 2014. See links to New York Times coverage of ongoing, horrific brutality, and coverups at the highest levels, at the end of this story.)

The inmates line the endless concrete corridors of one of several Rikers Island jails, their hoots and howls echoing maddeningly. The young guards, like timid lion tamers, try simultaneously to prod them into orderly rows and salute the passing warden. 
As each metal gate clangs shut behind him, the noise diminishes until Warden West reaches his office, a sterile, soundless, air-conditioned retreat from the 1,300 sweating savages who are now being locked in their cells for the night.
"Yesterday some of my inmates asked me why I should have an air conditioner while they swelter back in the blocks," he says. "I told them why I have an air conditioner. I earned it. I worked. I moved up the ladder. And now I'm going to keep the damn thing running till I have to put a coat on. Because I sweltered all my life. I came up in the slums, too—these guys don't have a copyright on that. And I worked in the blocks for years, sweating right along with the cons. But I made it. I'm a warden now. It's my turn."


At that time, New York City's 6,500 prisoners (there are twice as many now) were incarcerated in eight jails: one each in the boroughs of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, and five on Riker's Island, the city’s 409-acre penal compound (today, there are six additional facilities). To man these institutions and their supportive services, the city employs more than 10,000 people, including 16 wardens, who rule with much of the pomp usually reserved for warlords and kings, and who are protected by the gilded armor of civil service. The budget is over a billion dollars annually.
When I was here, screaming men and screeching doors were deafening.
The wardens in the 1970s were the Horatio Algers of the correctional system. From humble origins—all of them—they started out as guards back in the thirties, forties, and fifties. The correctional system provided a ladder of success, with well-defined, accessible rungs. 
So they endured and participated in the brutality of jails. They worked midnights, and they worked overtime. They took orders and learned to give them. They were loyal, they held their tongues, they observed and waited. When things were quiet, they studied for civil service examinations. 

And slowly, like embodiments of the American Dream—soaring proof of the ultimate justice of things—they ascended. Finally, they achieved lordship in a realm that is often likened to a feudal kingdom—a kingdom in which inmate-serfs clean wardens’ private bathrooms, shine their shoes, launder their shirts, wax and tune up their cars (for a couple of packs of cigarettes), and prepare and serve their meals in the  "Blueroom" (as contrasted to the inmates' "mess hall" and the officers' "cafeteria").
But the victory of wardenhood is ambivalent; the crown is becoming a thorny intersection for some of society’s most compelling dilemmas and failures. Although they have "reached the mountaintop," as one of them puts it, the wardens find little respite in the clouds.
"Just look at the bind the public has put us in," Warden West says. "We get the ones that everyone else—including the family, the church, and the schools—has failed. They say, 'Here, you do it. But don't hurt them, and don't let them escape. Don't expect any credit for what you do, or anyone to speak on your behalf. And especially don't ask for any money.'"

"Then we become the whipping boys when 'corrections' fails—great fodder for all the liberals who need a cause. We have do-gooders and evaluators and investigators in here all the time, and they all do the same things after their thirty-minute tours: they gasp at this injustice and that injustice; they cry, 'How repressive!' and 'How inhumane!' 
Inmates are desperate to tell visitors about their many grievances..
The inmates tell them, 'We want this or that,' and the visitors say, 'Well, that's reasonable!' or 'That's within your rights!' Then they dash out, clucking their tongues—these women, especially, with their  bosoms full of compassion—and leave me with hundreds of men who would feel sanctioned by the cream of society if they blew the shit out of this place."
The warden leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes. He is a handsome man, in a vigorous, wholesome, military way—a former professional athlete who now runs a karate school after hours. But there is something that is too polished, too mechanical about his presentation, and he will later admit that he gives this same "spiel" to virtually every "liberal newcomer.'

"Let me give you an example of the  complexity of the thing," West continues, after clearing his throat. "We had a public-address system in here so we could pipe music into the housing areas. The inmates totally destroyed it—ripped out the speakers, jammed broomsticks into the pipes. Then they said, 'We demand music!' So we bought radios—three for every floor. They break dozens of them every month and then say, 'Look, you gave us broken-down radios; we demand decent radios!' They jump on the toilets and then say, 'We demand that the toilets be repaired!' They break the glass panels in their cell windows and then demand that this safety hazard—the broken glass—be cleaned up.
Why do inmates act in destructive ways, or make "unreasonable demands"? Many of them are angry; they know enough about the legal-political system that put them in jail to have little respect for it. They know that had they been white or middle class, they probably would not be there. They know that the bail system penalizes the poor and that a man out on bail awaiting trial has a far better chance of acquittal.

They seem "unreasonable" sometimes, because they are herded into cages in crowded, noisy dungeons—dungeons in which they have no privacy for even their most personal activities, in which they have little protection from explosively tense or mentally unbalanced inmates, in which they exist in terrifying isolation from their families and lawyers—their ties to sanity.
 They continually complain, some of them, because they are bored, and there is little for them to do here, and they are bursting with nervous energy. Some draft resounding protests to the warden. Scores attempt suicide, and in the last two years, over twenty were successful. Others break radios.
"Then the joyous finale—you so-called reformers, you 'watch-dogs,' yelling, 'This is disgraceful! The men have no music! Their toilets leak! Broken glass is everywhere!’ Now why don't you just tell me what you think I should do. What would you do?"
Prison officials despise 'bleeding hearts' and other outside meddlers.
Warden West rests his case with the cultivated blend of elegance and earthiness that is typical of many wardens. They are products of a system in which, like the military, manhood is tightly defined and continually challenged. "Pinkos" and “bleeding hearts" are loudly despised in the realm of the jail, which thunders with blue-collar physicality and an undercurrent of self-hatred that, as many of the officers express it, comes from having less status than garbage men.

To the upwardly mobile in the jail system, wardenhood offers a ticket out of the pits and into the exalted ranks of the professional. But polished and perfumed as they are now, the wardens have never entirely escaped, or rejected, the aura of the locker-room—a Lava Soap brand of ambiance that even manicured nails and diamond rings don't obliterate. 
As wardens, they seek to embody the refinement, the graceful superiority, the detached mastery of the positions they waited so long to achieve, without sacrificing the swaggering street toughness, the bar-room bravado that is essential to their concept of manhood and cannot be replaced, even with power.
Ironically an officer's first step toward becoming a "professional" is being promoted to a post where there are no inmates. Deputy Warden Gerard Brown, an impressive, powerfully built man of West Indian heritage, is conscious of the ways in which his role and style have changed as he has ascended the jail system’s hierarchy. 
He remembers well his tenure in the cellblocks, where inmates are housed: the grating, screeching echoes of gates and locks reverberating through three tiers crisscrossed with bars—an insane corral crammed with stallions who will not be broken, snorting and whinnying, prancing and charging defiantly at unarmed guards, who took the job for "security."

"When I was an officer, my superiors had to hold me back—I was ready to explode," "Dep" Brown recalls. "The inmates, the noise, the tension—it makes you crazy. Now I do the holding back. My job is to keep a rein on my men... to make it unprofitable for them to do what I know they’re chomping at the bit to do."
Top jail officials are far removed from the hellish chaos of the cellblocks.
He stretches back languidly in his leather chair, immaculate in his white uniform shirt. Muted music fills his paneled office, and coffee and inmate-made pastry are on a tray with the Times. Dep Brown has the smug serenity of the general who has done his bit on the battlefield and is now ensconced in a quiet suite, where he can lead with dignity and distance.
There is a war going on out there, and Brown will gladly drag out the institution’s display of confiscated inmate-contrived weapons to prove it.
"Those innocent, oppressed inmates who stole the apple off the applecart dreamed these things up," he trills sarcastically, delicately holding up makeshift machetes, strangulation nooses, spiked broomsticks, razor-blade daggers, and crude but deadly imitation brass knuckles. In an adjoining closet is the institution’s own arsenal, and a locked safe containing a "secret" riot plan.

Correctional personnel admit that inmate weapons are rarely used; they exist because inmates feel they need to have the capability to protect themselves from other inmates, whom they know are armed. Nevertheless, the fact that such graphically violent artifacts are present in the institution produces tremendous tension among unarmed correction officers, who already feel that, simply on the basis of numbers, "the inmates could take you at any time."
"I don't feel obliged to play fair with inmates,” Brown states flatly. "These creeps didn’t play fair with society; they've earned whatever misery they get in here. I don’t care if they've been convicted of a crime or not—they're all guilty of something."
When Dep Brown was a shy and uncertain adolescent in Harlem, the neighborhood toughs were always knocking him down and stealing his sneakers. “I took it then, but I knew I'd get back at the creeps," Dep Brown says.
To the officer in the block, manhood may mean busting the head of the inmate who insulted him. The Dep asserts his virility from a different caste, where he can exhibit leadership, diplomacy, and ethics. The stakes are now higher, but the risks are less. This is the manhood of the gentry.
Thus it is ultimately  machismo, not morality, that compels a superior officer to harness the latent violence of his subordinates. Upon each promotion, he is farther removed from the debasement and  aggravation of the battlefield that is the institution's raison d'etre. He is gradually purified, and his spotless white shirt becomes a testament to his new virtue.
The desire for prestige motivates those in the hierarchy to ascend.
And the warden, who wears a suit and tie, has attained the ultimate refinement of power and manhood—one which needs no uniform for its expression. He can afford to call the inmates "gentlemen."

"I have considered your request for an extended evening lock-out period, gentlemen,” Warden James A. Thomas tells the group of elected inmate representatives, “and I have decided to issue an order within six weeks permitting you to remain out of your cells until 10 p.m."
Warden Thomas reigns over the House of Detention for Men, the oldest and most notorious facility in the system, now that the Tombs is out of commission. 
It is this Rikers Island facility at which I am the designated "watchdog." It is the biggest, the loudest, the dirtiest, oldest and most dangerous jail in the system. But the most exhausting aspect of the job is getting to the Island and back home. It takes almost two hours each way: several subway changeovers and two buses.
Warden Thomas is the only black warden in New York City's correctional system, although 63 percent of the inmates are black. James Harrison, who retired in 1971, after thirty-four years in the department, was the only other black warden in the department’s history. Known by inmates and officers alike as "Captain Blood," in the days when he maintained an unequivocal order in the blocks, he still insists on being called "Warden," even on the golf course.

Warden Thomas, one of Harrison's frequent golf partners, is a fiery, proud, and elegant man of sixty whose long fingers perpetually straddle a cigar and whose resonant voice projects an Uncle Remus sort of wisdom. When he sits back in his office at the end of a long day, everything about him seems to slope downward into dark pool of exhaustion. His words amble forth disjointedly, and virtually everything degenerates into a "whatchamacallit."
But when Warden Thomas is angry or threatened, or when he is putting on a performance—which, he acknowledges, is a major part of a warden's job—he can be vigorous, eloquent, poignant, and truly graceful—a con man and a preacher, a brisk executive and just another country boy, all in one. He's been doing this job since 1965, and he's good at it.
Dealing with the Inmate Council requires some of Warden Thomas's most skillful performances; to him, the commissioner’s order requiring regular council meetings in each institution is just another unworkable, potentially dangerous notion that has been "imposed by outsiders."
"Do you think I need somebody to tell me what's wrong with this institution?" he demands. "Now listen to me carefully: I can point more fingers than anyone else. I know that if anyone gets rehabilitated in here, it's by accident. I know the services are inadequate, but I've got some perspective. Medical services—sure they’re bad, but you see, I remember when we had 2,000 inmates here and one doctor, a paraplegic, who had to be pushed from cell to cell in a wheelchair. I could play Santa Claus and give everybody everything he wanted if I had an inexhaustible bag of cookies. But who the devil's going to pay?"

The exhaustibility of the wardens' resources and their general resentment of the Inmate Council concept, combined with the legal and human legitimacy of many of the inmate delegates' requests, form the background against which the weekly drama of the Inmate Council is grudgingly enacted.
"You get tired of sitting up there listening to their shit every week," Brown complains. “They just like to hear themselves talk."
Meetings with inmates are considered to be "a joke."
"But we do try to find one thing on each agenda that we can give them so they don't have to go back to the block empty-handed," Warden Thomas's program director, Assistant Deputy Warden Roy Caldwood, concedes.
"You don't take the agenda too seriously—it's an inmate's nature to make demands," Warden Thomas adds. "They’re like a labor union; they feel like if they didn’t have a new set of demands each week, they wouldn't be worth their salt."
Thus, the Inmate Council is often characterized privately by jail personnel as a “holding action"—a way of pacifying inmates by appearing to be "working on,” and even amenable to, a variety of reforms. Meanwhile, turnover in the inmate populations is so rapid that the institution's failure to follow through is rarely noticed.
"I've been putting off the Five Percenters (a 'radical' black religious sect) for ten years just by telling them over and over again that I'd discuss their wishes with the commissioner," Warden Thomas admits.

The inmate delegates have scuffled in loosely—their slippers and soft moccasins giving them the gait of hospital patients, or of Asian mystics who, with their sheaves of notes and folders, have been called together from their solitary studies to resolve the commoners' dilemmas.
The meeting-room walls are covered with paintings by inmates: strong, radiant African women, religious scenes, rural Southern landscapes. One inmate has portrayed, in stunning symbolic fashion, the imposition of white European culture on black people. Another has depicted a graceful young black man confronted with two alternative paths in the jungle: one strewn with riches, adventure, and sun drenched freedom—the other menial, riskless, respectable.
Randall Taylor, the inmate editor of the institution’s newspaper (which, he confides, is subject to a "criminal" degree of censorship) lights the warden's cigar and retreats to his seat with his characteristic bowing motion. 
Because he has the audacity to view the warden as a peer—to relate to him simply as a man—Taylor does not appear obsequious. He will tell you with quiet pride that he has been in every prison in the state; he feels that he is a master, and he embraces the jail as a wonderful stage upon which he can be a legal consultant, elected representative, news commentator, and grievance arbitrator—a secure arena in which he has real stature. 

Next to him is Wisegod Supreme, a forceful yet soft-spoken Black Muslim, wearing his usual spotless white shirt and trousers and bow tie. 
The delegate with the verbose political rap is "Carnation" Al Spain who, with his shaved head, gleaming muscles, and single earring, looks like a black Mr. Clean. 
The three Hispanic delegates saunter in late, wild with color and self-ornamentation. Tight, bright-toned tank tops reveal intricate tattoos: a color-studded crucifix draped with an unsubtly suffering Christ, unfurling flags, ominous vipers, stern, sharp-clawed eagles with unfurling feathers. . . as they scribble notes on the warden’s remarks, their bodies ripple into animated cartoons, with images oddly appropriate to the scene at hand.
"The second item on the agenda is your request for a program to improve inmate officer relations," Warden Thomas continues, running his hand over his gray cotton-candy hair. "I have relayed this proposal to the commissioner, and he assures me that there are no funds available for the additional security personnel that such an activity would require. Now, with regard to agenda item number three.. . ."
Black Muslim inmates were clean, respectful and well-informed..
"One minute, please, sir," Wisegod Supreme interjects, standing up, clutching a law book and a Time magazine. "We can’t just let this go. This is a serious problem. We are being treated like dogs, by these so-called correction officers . . . it's becoming harder to behave like a human being in your institution, sir, no disrespect to you. . . ."

"These po-lice are babies, they don’t know the rules, how to treat you, nothing, man!" one of the Hispanic delegates interrupts hotly. He stands like a matador, nostrils flaring, gesturing widely as if waving a red cape defiantly at the warden.
"Man, I been down eighteen months . . .I know how the block is supposed to be run. You tell these dudes you are sick, you want to see a doctor and they walk away!You tell them there is glass in the potato salad and they say. 'Good, have some more.' When they do the search, they rip your family picture off the wall and throw your personal stuff on the floor, man! This is not right! This is not the way to run a jail, man! Since when? Since when?"
The hispanic delegates were ensconced in dynamic tattoos.

For men who are caged and utterly controlled by other men. manhood becomes a fragile treasure. In jail, the only alternative to becoming a fearful and obedient child or a faceless number is to define manhood, to stake out its limits, to verbalize its ethics and to exert it in the few ways—most of them surreptitious—that are available. Prison life then becomes a continuum of skirmishes to preserve dignity, and all sorts of unlikely issues take on exaggerated significance.
"Just treat me with some sensitivity, man," inmates often implore.
 But, according to Captain Vernon Bain, you can't run a jail with sensitivity. 
"It’s not a sensitive business," he says, “You’re holding people who do not want to be held—who, in many cases, don't recognize your authority to hold them. They’ll feel mad and demeaned no matter how you treat them because you can't give them the only thing they really want, and that’s their freedom.
"You can't conduct a 'sensitive' search. You have to rummage into everything. poke at it, feel around," Captain Bain continues."I've found packets of heroin sewn into the seams of underwear at the bottom of a duffle bag. I've found razor blades hidden under feces in the toilet and in the binding of a Bible. I've found a gun in a man's rectum."
(Bain had become a corrections officer in 1963 and rose through the ranks to become a warden in 1981. He was commander of the Correctional Institution for Men on Rikers Island when he was killed at age 46 in a 1985 Bronx traffic accident. The controversial Vernon C. Bain Center is an 18-year-old, 800-bed jail barge moored at Hunts Point, directly across from Rikers.)
The barge has 16 dormitories and 100 cells. A required maritime crew makes it very costly to operate.
The wardens know as well as the inmates that the title "correction officer" has little to do with reality. Like most correctional systems, New York City's department expends virtually no effort at recruitment or screening. Most of the men who find themselves patrolling a cellblock are admittedly there "just for the money" or "as a last resort." These are the guys who didn't make the cut to become a cop or a firefighter. They are guys who want to wear a uniform and retire with a good pension after 20 years. 
To the inmate, who is at the complete mercy of his keepers, a complacent or brutal guard magnifies the horror of incarceration. And to the warden, whose “troops" are a reflection of his leadership and power, the mediocrity of correctional personnel is a source of continual embarrassment.
Things were different, and in some respects better, before "all this reform business started," according to Warden Thomas.
"Those were the days when no one’s commissary was stolen, because whoever did it would get his ass whipped by a guard," he recalls. "Today, the officer would be indicted."

Back in the fifties, when Warden Thomas was a captain in the city's old Raymond Street jail in Brooklyn, he was known as Kingfish. He was tough and wise, even then. They would send all the incorrigibles to his block, and somehow he got them to behave. He was slick. He knew how to deal. And when necessary, he could use a blackjack to excellent advantage.
The medieval fortress known as the Raymond St. Jail closed in 1963.
"You had the big Irish officers back then, and each one of them had certain inmates who were 'his' inmates. He'd fight another officer for not giving his inmate enough food—but at the same time, he's beating his inmate over the head whenever he gets the urge. There was a certain primitive justice at work."
Like many other wardens, "Big Daddy," as Thomas's subordinates call him, came into corrections as a fugitive from the Depression.

"Can you imagine the stench, the grossness of having to search and wash Bowery bums on a summer day?" he asks. "I certainly didn’t want to work in a jail, but I was thankful for a job—any job. If they'd have paid me more to clean sewers, I'd have cleaned sewers. None of us came into this job with any dream except a paycheck and a pension. But we worked for them.
"These guys today—all they want to know is: When is lunch hour? How much vacation do I get? If they break a fingernail, they bang in (call in sick). A man used to do a good day’s work for a day's pay, but now the whole world is changed," Thomas declares.
Warden Thomas remembers those 'Bowery bums' very well.
The changing society is indeed reflected in the performance and attitudes of officers, but it is manifested even more vividly in the changing inmate population .Until fairly recently, a warden could count on an allotment of generally penitent, obedient prisoners—prisoners who marched lockstep in work gangs, who ate in total silence, eyes straight ahead, and who expected beatings as an inherent component of the rehabilitative experience.
Inmates had time to build muscles and intellects.
Today, wardens are confronted with the arrogance of inmates well-schooled in their own oppression—inmates whose manhood, whose raw belligerence, whose resilience, craftiness, and self-righteousness are constant affronts to the warden’s hard-earned authority; inmates whose bodies are stunningly muscled thanks to regular recreation periods in the jail’s gymnasium (in contrast to their often flabby keepers, who have no gym) and whose minds and mouths are quick from years of “playing the dozens" on the street; inmates who now, with hours of leisurely “cell study," can emblazon their rhetoric with quotations from Sartre, Fanon, Thomas Paine, Eldridge Cleaver, the prophet Muhammad, the Supreme Court, and the Bible; inmates who solemnly inquire about the protein content of prison fare, who, in eloquent handwritten writs composed in the jail's own law library, force the wardens to become perpetual defendants, and who, although often charged with the most brutal kinds of crimes, can with straight faces, demand color television and espouse such concepts as trust, liberty, and human dignity; inmates who are members of terrifying, clandestine organizations and whose compatriots will navigate sewer systems, blowtorch jail walls, and even (or so the wardens have fantasized) kidnap a correctional executive to set them free; inmates who are a new kind of folk hero—romanticized by liberal columnists, consulted as "experts" by universities and government agencies, and sought after by a curious, ambivalent public as guest speakers on the failures of the penal system.

Since 1965, James Thomas has been warden of  The House of Detention for Men -- "the Pen" -- undisputedly the worst physical facility in the city's system. Built in 1933 as a maximum-security prison, it is a mammoth, oppressive, decaying structure that is used for pretrial detention and can house 3,000 inmates in eight three-story cellblocks.
"Now let's get something straight: I know this place is a monstrosity—it's no place for rehabilitation," asserts the warden. “I’ll tell you what rehabilitation is: it's a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-year job, a broad, and a car.
"But don't talk to me about revolution,” he continues. "For the black man, it's suicide. When this country goes, it'll go fascist, and I'm not going to help it get there. I've got to work in the system."
But for a warden, working within a system that is besieged with ethical contradictions first engenders acquiescence, then active compromise, and finally—as his own stakes in the status quo enlarge—fierce loyalty. Having dedicated his life to becoming master of the plantation, he can scarcely afford to question the institution of slavery.

"Do you expect me to risk what I have coming to me after twenty-eight years of work?" he demands. "You're asking me to create an activist organization here—to cut my own throat. It's easy for you to say, 'The inmates should be informed of their rights.' But knowledge is the most deadly contraband in a jail. What happens when they see that their rights aren't being observed? This place goes up in smoke and it’s the warden who's on the front line, making life-and-death decisions."
Warden Thomas was coarse and paranoid, eloquent and brilliant. 

Thus, the institution scrupulously fosters ignorance and division among inmates—isolating "suspected radicals" not because their declarations are inaccurate but because they are "inflammatory." Survival, not justice, is the impulse, Thomas admits.

But inmates are viewed as far less at threat to the survival of the system than the dreaded "outsiders" and "bleeding hearts" who in recent years have invaded the sanctity of the jail scene—"starry-eyed liberals" who have never seen the savagery and sneakiness of an inmate who is desperate or angry, insane or bored; who have never experienced the terror of a riot or acquired the perspective that comes from twenty years of hearing the same con games and rationales.
 The courts are the most brazen meddlers in the wardens' realm and, because of their legal and moral authority, they are also the most serious threat. The prerogative of the courts to dictate the internal administration of correctional facilities continues to expand, and several major decisions in the last two years instruct the wardens in the "Constitutional niceties" they must observe. 
It is ironic that rights which are so often ignored on "the outside" must finally be affirmed in jails, with the wardens, instead of society, being prosecuted—forced in some cases to defend themselves in open court, while inmate plaintiffs look on in grinning martyrdom.
In 1974, New York City's wardens were named as defendants in sixty-three cases, most of which were filed by inmates and several of which resulted in decisions favorable to plaintiffs. Most dramatically, an inmate suit filed in 1970 charging unconstitutional conditions at the Manhattan House of Detention, or "the Tombs," resulted resulted in the forced closing of that institution. Because of one inmate suit, the wardens must now arrange inmate marriage ceremonies. A former inmate is presently seeking $15,000 in damages for "mental anguish" because he was forbidden to wear his religious skull cap in the institution's hallways.

To the wardens—who had expected their jails to be their castles—such interference is preposterous. "These goddamn judges are making it impossible to run a jail," Warden Thomas declares, dumping a heap of writs out of his briefcase. "Did you hear about the California case where the court ordered a prison to let one of its inmates order a book on how to pick a lock? Well, I've got a man—a member of the Black Liberation Army—who ordered a book called 'How to Make a Bomb.' When it came in, I had it put in his personal property file, but he'll probably go down and write up a writ and some stupid-ass judge will order me to give it to him. And the next thing you know, he'll make me give him the materials to make one, and he'll blow his way out of here."
It was our "watchdog" agency, not the department, that established standards.
The courts are not alone in peering over the wardens' shoulders, and Warden Thomas is a man who fumes and curses and sputters at each such incursion. In part, it is professional pride; when the inspector general, district attorney, and Board of Correction all swoop in to investigate a suicide in his institution, the warden is personally affronted by the implication that he cannot himself conduct a rigorous and objective probe. 

But mainly it is anger at being continually criticized and scandalized by those whom the warden feels are not only uninformed but are motivated by personal needs and ambitions.
"Crusading" journalists, hungry for a juicy scoop, interrogate his inmates, who are practiced in the subtleties of downtrodden eloquence, and non-uniformed jail employees, who are often "known inmate-sympathizers," tip off investigative agencies about the institution's shortcomings. 
Politicians seize on jails as a quick issue, leaving correctional personnel battered in the wreckage of their rhetoric. Even inmates reportedly have been discovered to be paid federal agents, slyly scheming to catch one of the warden's men on the take. It is no wonder that the wardens are always braced for someone to leap out from nowhere crying triumphantly,"Ah-ha!"
"You don't satisfy anyone in this job,"Thomas says. "You know that you're sitting on a powder keg and if you push it too far, it's going to blow the hell up. But you have all these nooses around your neck, trying to yank you one way or the other: the inmates, the officers, the commissioner, the politicians . . . but as the warden, I'm the one who's responsible. This balancing act—this dance on the high wire—is what it's all about."

From the frantic stratagems for self preservation springs paranoia, a term incessantly used to characterize correctional personnel in general, and used with particular frequency in describing Warden Thomas. Behind each decision, each reaction, is the specter of a riot, an escape, a scandal. 
Everyone—from inmates up to the highest echelons of the department—is suspect: a potential spy, defector, revolutionary, ambitious subordinate, or simply a racist who would love to see a black warden destroyed.
'They say I'm too cautious. I don't give a rot—I've got reason to be," Thomas confides. "I've always operated as though this place was glass and all the phones were tapped."
One of Thomas's subordinates was stunned last spring when he was ordered essentially to spy on Dep Brown's comings and goings.
And the institution's civilian mental health staff was outraged to discover that the warden had recruited an inmate to "infiltrate” their group-therapy sessions and report to him on their content.
"Don't you preach to me about trust until  you've grown up a Negro in the Twenties," Thomas commands, his cigar trembling and his voice hoarse. "And don't tell me the days of the lynch mob are over; I may be coarse, but I'm not stupid."
Warden Thomas grew up amid horrific poverty and racism in Alabama.

The dangers and pressures—both real and imagined—of correctional authority today have transformed what was once an arena for an unequivocal "the buck stops here" genre of leadership into a diffused and faint-hearted hierarchy in which the ethic is to "keep your ass covered."
"For example, it used to be that if an inmate wouldn't toe the line, you'd knock him in line," Brown recalls. "But now the officer calls the captain, who calls the tour commander, who calls me at home in the middle of the night. 'Should we use force?' he says. And what do I do? I call the warden—why should I put myself out on a limb? And what does the warden do? He calls downtown to Central Office. He wants his ass covered, too—more than anyone."
Thomas's conflicting impulses to be at once powerful and blameless create such an atmosphere of imminent crisis that virtually none of the top officers feels free to speak his mind. 
Last year, however, in giving a deposition to a Legal Aid Society attorney, the jail's highest-ranking captain felt compelled to be honest about some of the institution's shortcomings.
Roaring with anger at the discovery,Warden Thomas ordered the captain stripped of special authority and put back "on the wheel" (rotating shifts) indefinitely. According to subordinates, the warden rants and raves, paces lividly, and flails his arms at the slightest provocation, but ironically, in his desperation to be on top of everything, he has constructed a hierarchy so rigid and made himself so unapproachable that he is often unaware of things that happen in his own institution.

In the spring of 1974, in the insulated peace of his office, Warden Thomas was putting on his splendidly dramatic and regally polished "wise and gentle old warden" performance for a group of reporters. Meanwhile, without informing the warden, who "gets too upset" when things aren't running smoothly, his subordinates had donned gas masks and were dousing a whole cellblock in the back with tear gas. A group of inmates awaiting trial had refused to be transferred 150 miles to Sing-Sing prison—asserting that the move would illegally isolate them from families and lawyers—and the deputy warden ordered that they be incapacitated with gas before being handcuffed and dragged to the van "in order to avoid unnecessary physical danger to my officers."
But Dep Brown had failed to consider the renowned survival skills of inmates. They inserted cigarette filters into their nostrils, and were not bothered much by the gas. Meanwhile the officers, gasping for air in their expensive and elaborate gas masks,  were begging the Dep for a break.
The tear gas was supposed to disable the inmates, not the officers.
They had to use a lot of gas to force the inmates out of their cells and within minutes it had wafted its way down to the institution's skylight-domed rotunda where, in just a few moments, Warden Thomas was to be interviewed on camera for the evening news.
"I buzzed him in his office and told him to keep the reporters in there for a while, that there was gas in the rotunda." Dep Brown recalls. "He came charging out of there so mad at the embarrassment we were causing him that he literally couldn't talk. He just sort of wheezed and held onto his chest. If he ever had a sense of humor, this job has taken it out of him."
Once, coming upon a trio of captains doubled over in laughter, Warden Thomas became so outraged that he got chest pains and had to be escorted back to his office.
"When they told me later what they were laughing about. I couldn't help laughing too," a generally strict assistant deputy warden confides. "But to the warden, the sight of one of his men laughing in jail is an atrocity—it's an insult to his whole view of the job."

It is not surprising that Warden Thomas has a heart condition, and it is ironic that the very thoroughness with which he has done his job has left him in such precarious health that he can no longer walk through his own institution.
"He's afraid he'd get so agitated by the things he'd see back there that he'd have a heart attack," Brown says.
But Warden Thomas is not the only warden who spends virtually all of his time in his office. According to Dr. H.H.A. Cooper, an NYU professor of law and consultant to the department, all of the wardens have grown increasingly remote from the realities of their institutions.
"The volume of paperwork is becoming staggering," Cooper says, "and they can scarcely maintain the system, much less change it."
Mayor John Lindsay, visiting Rikers, was a strong reform advocate.
 "When I came to this place as a deputy warden, I was going to turn it inside out," Warden Thomas recalls. "But to want change is one thing. To make change—well, that's a horse of a different color. Trying to do anything in this place is like hitting a giant pillow: you hit it, there's no effect.
"Corrections doesn't operate in a vacuum, and society has put us at the bottom of the totem pole. Don't you see that a warden has no power?"

The warden who feels he has responsibility but no power carves out for himself a role in which if he cannot truly be a leader, cannot truly control his realm and be accountable for its fundamental nature, he can at least "administer" the status quo, and in so doing can derive satisfaction from its efficiency, while never having to confront its basic premises.
"Just running the place" is a far cry from the way wardens viewed their roles back in the days when today's wardens were mere guards. But those were days in which the issues of crime and punishment seemed more clear-cut—days in which one could feel confident in the ultimate legitimacy of penological assumptions, when one could perform one's tasks with untroubled satisfaction. In those days, the wardens lorded it with the full force of their personalities. They shaped and colored the very substance of jail life and treated their institutions as extensions of themselves, as living things for which they could take both credit and blame.
Frank Buono, who was warden of the entire island, had legendary finesse.
There is little praise for prisons today, and so the wardens, weary of taking the blame, are gradually developing a new, less intimate, less culpable definition of themselves.

"It's time we put our jails in their proper perspective," declares Warden Louis Greco, of the Adolescent Detention Center (which has since been closed).
"We are mandated by law to exist, and we are responsible simply for the custody and safekeeping of the inmates."
Warden Greco, who confides that he would like to be a school-bus driver or medical technician when he retires from corrections, is a slender, olive-skinned man. His professional but personable attitude, and his scholarly half-frame reading glasses, help support his contention that he is "a different kind of warden."
Greco foreshadows an evolving species of New York City wardens who regard their function as one of rather narrowly defined management. For these wardens the men who reside in their housing areas are not prisoners, but "clients," and the warden's job is neither punishment nor correction,but rather "service delivery."
For a man who admits that "if you told me you were going to put me in a cell, I'd get down on my knees and cry," such a perspective may provide the emotional buffer necessary to do his job.

Thus, amid all the complex issues and philosophical dilemmas that today pervade corrections, Warden Greco is enthusiastically  "systems" oriented. When asked to explain the nature of his institution, he strides briskly to his wall-sized organization chart and proceeds to describe the interaction of 1,200 young prisoners and 150 guards in terms of probabilities, ratios, movement flows, optimal usage, and seasonal curves.
See how orderly it can all become, if you just systematize it?
He designs forms for everything, he admits, because "I love this shit, and so do my men; it makes an officer feel important to initial things and forward them through channels." Warden Greco's penchant for forms reached a high point last summer when he developed a "request for a change of religion" form for the institutions' inmates.
"The thing about a jail is that it should be run well," he states. "When I say 'prison reform' I mean 'back to the basics.' I mean let's paint this place, let's scrub it down. Let's be punctual, let's take that count efficiently, let's learn our rules and regulations!
"You know, back in the days when the old Irish ran these places, they were tough, they were crude, they were corrupt—but they did the basics," he beams. "You never saw a dirty floor."

Taking care of the basics, then, provides some wardens with a fairly satisfying, emotionally tolerable stack of busywork that they can delegate and supervise—a framework within which tangible accomplishment is possible, even in a system that is a failure in virtually every respect.
"It's a great feeling—to know what you're doing," Warden Greco smiles. "The only pleasure I get out of this job is to leave at night knowing that things are running smoothly."
In reality, there are many other pleasures in wardenhood. Among them, Warden Greco admits that he enjoys the expensive clothes, cars, and entertainment that his salary makes possible.
Perhaps more significant is the new self-esteem and confidence that come with such a position of leadership.
"It used to take a major effort to get three words out of me," he recalls. "But now that I've reached the crest, so to speak, I'm taking on the role of wise man—you know, imparting knowledge. As a warden, you're called upon to be the guiding light."
Warden Greco turns to his multi-buttoned phone, summons the young officer who serves as his typist, driver, and errand boy, and orders his lunch of yogurt and toast served in his office.
"Inmates and officers alike . . . they shake when they come in here, they're tongue-tied, they sweat," Warden Greco confides modestly. "Because I am the warden, and he is quite an awesome figure to them."

Within their realms, the wardens are indeed awesome figures, not only to inmates and officers, but even—and perhaps particularly—to those who are assistant and deputy wardens. Among superior officers there is a strong and often verbalized acceptance of the authority—if not the wisdom—of their warden, as though they derived a kind of vicarious pleasure from the power that has been conferred upon him, in the anticipation that some day they will be the recipients of the "sirs," the ceremonies, and the solemn salutes. Even those who harbor no such extravagant ambitions embrace their subservience to the warden with a relish that seems directly proportionate to their pleasure in demanding subservience from their subordinates.
There are good and bad effects from the paramilitary hierarchy of prisons.
Pleasurable as it may be for many of the participants, the military organization of New York City's correctional personnel has many disadvantages. As the National Advisory Council on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals has noted, this authoritarian, regimented style of operation discourages recruitment of "the very types  of persons most needed" in corrections. Moreover, by isolating the wardens from the very real fears and problems of their subordinates, it diminishes institutional morale and thus the potential for effective leadership.

Correction officers—many of whom have important questions, suggestions, and complaints about their institutions—are almost unanimous in their hesitation to discuss these matters with their wardens, despite the fact that the wardens all claim to have "open-door" policies.
"If they think you're a troublemaker, they have all kinds of ways to make life miserable for you. So you keep a low profile," one officer explains.
Thus, officers commonly say that they feel totally isolated from power and virtually ignored by channels of communication. Everyone seems unsympathetic to their problems—the inmates, the department's executive staff, the community, and their superior officers as well.
Predictably morale, self-esteem, and thus job performance reach a low level in such an atmosphere, and this can have devastating consequences in the already highly charged jail environment.
In 1970, in the aftermath of three prison riots, the Department of Correction embarked upon a million-dollar endeavor to design and implement a new officer-training program.
"Our goal was to overwhelm the system with fresh young blood—to reform corrections with a new breed of professionalized, humane troops," a staff member at the department's Academy for Correctional Training explains.
Malcolm and D'elia were honorable men who tried to improve the system.

But, as with most "liberal reforms," the wardens "thought [the training program]was something from Hanoi," according to former Academy Commander John Ackerson, who is now himself a warden.
"They saw these guys in dashikis coming in—telling new officers that 'inmates are people,' trying to engender 'sensitivity'—and they predicted the downfall of their whole empire."
Deputy Commissioner Jack Birnbaum agrees. "Getting the wardens to accept the training program involved the most grueling, infighting series of encounters I've ever experienced," he says. "I had to use all my skills to keep the place from blowing up."
Gradually the wardens grew accustomed to the existence of the training program, but their priorities and styles of running their institutions remained radically different from the ideals fostered at the Academy.
"We soon realized that 80 percent of what we were doing was obliterated once the new officer started work in an institution,"an Academy trainer said. "The wardens would tell the guys flat out, 'Forget what you learned in there.'"
"The whole orientation of the institutions is security, custody; everything we want to do is too 'risky,' " one program administrator declared typically. "And any measure designed to help an inmate, or encourage him, or understand him is seen as 'babying' someone who ought to be strung up by his balls."

A former jail psychologist adds, "I've worked in all kinds of institutions—the military, education, the church, big business—and I've never seen anyone so frantic and threatened by change as the wardens."
Thus, within two years after reform Commissioner Benjamin Malcolm had assumed office, it was clear that, in a paramilitary hierarchy, reform from the bottom up was impossible.
The wardens set the tones of their respective institutions; and their attitudes filtered down and colored—in both blatant and subtle ways—the treatment of inmates, the flexibility of programs, and the morale of officers.
With this realization came the development by Commissioner Malcolm and his staff of a federally funded program of continuing, "off-site" workshops in which the wardens are encouraged, in the words of a central office aide, "to loosen up as people,to be not threatened by change, and to see themselves as leaders, but not demigods."

The workshops are two-day affairs and cost $2,000 each, plus tens of thousands of dollars in compensatory time. They are conducted in a countryside lodge with a golf course and bar "to ensure that the supportive props of authority are absent and to produce an intensive, almost religious experience in an atmosphere of retreat," according to Dr. Cooper, the New York University consultant.
The workshop format, which is known as the "structured group interview" is a "collaborative venture" which combines an encounter group therapy approach (to"strip away their armor," Dr. Cooper says) with leadership and management training.
"To say that we have changed attitudes is a bit of an exaggeration—Rome wasn't built in a day," Cooper admits. "We're just plowing the soil, rendering it fit for planting. Sowing the seed is yet to come."
Even if the finest seed were to be expertly sown, and even if a new generation of compassionate, creative, skillful executives were to spring forth luxuriantly in the correctional jungle, would any real changes be forthcoming?
How good can this get?

A jail is merely a small, dependent component of the criminal justice system—a system that is itself a reflection of an economic and political apparatus which has exhibited little interest in justice. 
All of the best evidence indicates that the bail system is discriminatory; that pretrial detention is a morally questionable and largely unnecessary form of preventive detention; that incarceration, rather than promoting the rehabilitation of criminals, only erodes their potential for living humane, productive lives; and that the penal system does not begin to confront the ultimate causes of criminal behavior. 
Back to House of Detention cells after their court hearings.
In such a context, a warden, like a general in the midst of a nuclear holocaust, is severely limited in his capacity for effective action. And if it is agreed that prisons are bad, then what constitutes a good warden?
No one has less satisfactory answers to this question than the wardens themselves, and their ambivalence virtually forecloses the possibility of vigorous leadership from them.
"I'm groping, frankly," Warden John Ackerson admits. "What direction are we going. . . . What good is it? We operate our jails with a minimum of friction. But are we really doing anything more? Well, no."

Another warden, Adam McQuillan, who just two years ago declared, "We're the only monarchs left in the U.S.A.," now demurs: "We're just guys who passed a bunch of tests. We can't really do anything."
So each warden must develop his own mechanism for ignoring the failures of a system  by which he is handsomely paid to be a leader. Some wardens choose to be dynamic efficiency experts, while never questioning the justice or value of that which they manage. Others immerse themselves in the pageantry and socializing that still come with the rank: the press interviews and speaking engagements, tours, ceremonies, conventions, jail dedications, and association dinner dances. Still others embrace the penal system as a marvelous game board upon which they are free to learn and exercise skills, amass and direct empires, and play starring roles in a perpetually compelling drama.
"It's not a bowl of cherries—it's tension, obstacles, all the time—but it can become your life, don't you see?" Warden James Thomas, who faces mandatory retirement this year, says sadly, jamming his cigar into the ashtray. "After all these years, after all I gave to the thing, they could hold a farewell party for me in a phone booth. And now that it's over, what the devil am I going to do with myself?"

(Warden Thomas invited me to lunch several months after he retired. I was taken aback -- I thought he despised me for my "rabble rousing" in his institution. He was bored and despondent, very vulnerable emotionally. He died a couple of years later. In 1989, the 77-year-old House of Detention for Men was renamed the James A. Thomas Center. I think he would be furious. He felt it was a barbaric facility.) 

UPDATE March 19, 2014, New York Times: "Not since the gang riots of the 1980s and early 1990s has violence at Rikers Island so alarmed oversight officials, union leaders and inmate advocates. Over the past decade, the use of force by correction officers (who now wear body armor) has jumped nearly 240 percent, even as the daily population has declined by almost 15 percent over the same period, according to data from the city’s Correction Department obtained under the Freedom of Information Law.
"The situation at Rikers Island mirrors an 'epidemic of violence' in big-city jails across the country, said Dr. James Gilligan, a clinical professor of psychiatry and co-author of a 2013 report that found the treatment of mentally ill inmates at Rikers Island violated the city’s mental health standards. He said an overreliance on solitary confinement and force at Rikers Island and elsewhere perpetuated violence among inmates, particularly the mentally ill, who have crowded the nation’s correctional facilities as mental hospitals and other institutions have closed.
'A jail like Rikers Island has a subculture of violence,' Dr. Gilligan said."

UPDATE July 15, 2014: The New York Times uncovered details on scores of assaults on mentally ill inmates through interviews with current and former inmates, correction officers and mental health clinicians at the jail, and by reviewing hundreds of pages of legal, investigative and jail records. Among the documents obtained by The Times was a secret internal study completed this year by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which handles medical care at Rikers, on violence by officers. The report helps lay bare the culture of brutality on the island and makes clear that it is inmates with mental illnesses who absorb the overwhelming brunt of the violence. (

I spend a colorful "Afternoon with the Ladies" in the prison's "homo quad:

A more recent look at Rikers, and its special treatment of a rich white guy:

A woman describes the brutality and humiliation that are inflicted on female Rikers inmates. It's much worse now than it was 40 years ago:

    UPDATE July 17, 2014: New York City’s Department of Investigation has begun a review of scores of cases involving inmates at Rikers Island who were assaulted by correction officers and suffered serious injuries.
The department, which combats corruption in city agencies, is looking into the 129 cases from an 11-month period in 2013 that were detailed in an article in The New York Times last week, said Diane Struzzi, the department’s spokeswoman.
The injuries were the focus of a secret report, completed this year by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and obtained by The Times, highlighting a culture of violence that, in particular, victimizes inmates with mental illnesses.

UPDATE August 5, 2014: "In an extraordinary rebuke of the New York City Department of Correction, the federal government said on Monday that the department had systematically violated the civil rights of male teenagers held at Rikers Island by failing to protect them from the rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force by correction officers.
The office of Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, released its findings in a graphic 79-page report that described a “deep-seated culture of violence” against youthful inmates at the jail complex, perpetrated by guards who operated with little fear of punishment." (

UPDATE August 13, 2014: Violence on Rikers is described as the worst it's been in decades, except that now it's the guards -- rather than the inmates -- who are the chief instigators. Pressure from outsiders, including the news media, the city’s Department of Investigation and now federal officials, to enact changes is the strongest it has been in years. After releasing the report last week, prosecutors gave Mayor Bill de Blasio 49 days to submit a plan to reduce brutality or face federal intervention. (

UPDATE Sept 22, 2014:  "A dozen investigators eventually produced a confidential report, obtained by The New York Times, which concluded that hundreds of inmate fights had been omitted from departmental statistics; that the warden, and the deputy warden,  had “abdicated all responsibility” in reporting the censored, distorted statistics and that both should be demoted. The series of events that followed, which extended into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration and was pieced together by The Times through interviews and a review of internal agency documents, underscores the pervasive dysfunction of the city’s Correction Department."(
In an editorial the following day, "Prosecutor Warns That Rikers Island Problems May Prompt U.S. Lawsuit," the Times questioned the determination of the department, and the mayor, in spurring aggressive reform of the "horrific place" known as Rikers Island. (

UPDATE Nov. 4, 2014: "Violence and corruption became entrenched at New York City’s Rikers Island jail because officers who ignored or even condoned that culture were moved steadily up the ladder into management." (

UPDATE Nov. 12, 2014: Mayor Bill de Blasio declared  that Rikers Island “deeply needs a culture change” and called ending the pervasive violence at the jail complex a top priority of his administration,  His administration has allocated $15.1 million to triple the number of surveillance cameras at city jails, to 10,000. Many of the most brutal attacks at Rikers go unpunished because they take place in areas, like stairwells and hallways, that are out of camera range.The administration has also allocated $32 million to expand programs for inmates with mental illnesses, and to better train correction officers to care for them. These inmates now make up nearly 40 percent of the jail

UPDATE Dec 29, 2014 : The quest to end the barbarism that has long dominated New York’s Rikers Island jail complex entered a new phase this week when the Justice Department announced that it planned to join a pending class-action lawsuit that charges the Department of Correction with failing to discipline officers engaged in abuse. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said the city had not made enough progress in reforms to end the jail’s “deep-seated culture of violence,” which was documented in a lacerating report his office issued in August on the treatment of adolescent inmates. That report provided bloodcurdling examples of sadistic violence against young people and called for an extensive overhaul of departmental operations.

UPDATE January 17, 2014: A recent applicant for a job as a correction officer at New York City jails had several friends who were gang members. Another had been arrested four times and had been fired from a job as a security guard for stealing from the business he was supposedly guarding. Another was found psychologically unfit to be a correction officer but was hired anyway. On her personnel file it was written that she was a “family friend of Norman Seabrook,” the powerful leader of the union for city correction officers. Despite such red flags, each of these applicants became a correction officer, along with dozens of other people with questionable backgrounds, including those with gang affiliations, criminal histories and significant psychological problems, according to a report by the city’s Department of Investigation to be released on Thursday. (

This post is adapted from “The Wardens,” which originally appeared in Penthouse magazine in December, 1975.  The magazine sent me on a very eventful two-week media tour across the country, which I have described here

The 19-year-old West Facility is a complex of temporary modular structures and plastic, tent-like structures called sprungs.