A number of articles in The New York Times have noted the recent spate of knife attacks on the streets of New York City. Recently the paper reported that “nearly 900 knife crimes have been recorded since Jan. 1, an increase of about 22 percent from the same period last year,” and a piece in February about a subway attack in the Bronx stated it was “the latest in a string of slashings in New York City in recent months that have injured at least a dozen people…” A January article described a series of horrific attacks on a diverse range of victims including a 71-year-old grandmother sitting in a subway car, a 30-year-old man walking down a street listen to music, a 24-year-old woman walking to work at Whole Foods in Chelsea, all of whom were “slashed by men wielding knives or razors… at least nine other men and women have been similarly attacked… in a rash of slashings that has put many New Yorkers on edge.”
What is causing the recent epidemic of slashing and stabbing incidents all around New York City? Who is committing these violent acts and why? And what can be done to stop this disturbing pattern of random violence? One possibility is that the slashing and stabbing attacks — common among inmates on Rikers Island — are moving into the community as inmates are released back into society without having received any kind of treatment programs while they were incarcerated, or reintegration services upon release. These inmates may have experienced similar fear-provoking random attacks of violence by fellow inmates, or were subject to excessive and quite possibly unprovoked use of force by correction officers. Law enforcement and mental health professionals can see the similarities between what has been happening behind bars for years, and what is now occurring on the streets of the city.
While there are no scientific studies proving a connection between these events —any relationship is purely anecdotal at this point —the main point is that in order to keep the streets of NYC safe, the DOC must put much more effort into providing treatment for the incarcerated, creating a safe environment in jail facilities and effective programs to assist released inmates. These factors have a major impact on reducing street violence perpetrated by persons exiting from the NYC jail system. This does not imply that felons should be kept behind bars for any longer than they currently are or subjected to harsher punishments; on the contrary, it stresses the importance of addressing the many problems at Rikers, including excessive violence –inmate-on-inmate fights, inmate attacks on correction officers, and excessive use of force by correction officers against inmates—as well as the lack of programs for inmates during and after incarceration.
Like a contagious disease, society is being contaminated by direct or indirect contact with people who were harmed and whose behavioral models were formed by Rikers Island jail violence —and the only way to cure the disease is to improve conditions on Rikers and reduce the culture of violence that exists there. This deadly illness has been incubating for some time. A report from the NYC Board of Correction (the oversight group that monitors the operations of the Department of Correction) on Slashing and Stabbing Incidents in New York City Jails noted that “Since 2011, the rates of slashing and stabbing incidents [at Rikers] has increased each year, and it is on pace to do so again in 2015.”
When these slashings and stabbings occur behind bars, prison operations are put on lockdown, and inmates may only leave their units for court appearances or medical necessity. Inmates lose all access to services including visits, law library, recreation, education and religious services. This impacts the surrounding community as well, because relatives and attorneys who may have scheduled a day to travel to Rikers to visit arrive only to be told that their visit is canceled. Despite lockdowns being im-posed to conduct searches and investigations, they don’t seem to diminish the number of attacks, since in the 12 days immediately following a lockdown there were eight more slashing and stabbing incidents. In conclusion, the Board of Correction report recommends that the DOC “address the jails’ deteriorating physical environments from which inmates draw raw materials to fashion weapons… reduce the number of inmates confined to each housing unit [to] improve inmate supervision… [and] implement initiatives [to] reduce violence, including expanded educational, therapeutic and vocational programming for inmates; augmented staff training in areas such as conflict de-escalation, mental health, and gang intelligence… improved contraband detection… [and to] overhaul its inmate classification system so that inmates are more appropriately grouped.”
In the field of criminology, there are two main theories regarding the origins of violence in prison. In Thieves, Convicts and the Inmate Culture, Irwin and Cressey write about the deprivation model, “a set of patterns that flourishes in the environment of incarceration … characterized by deprivations and limitations on freedom, [where] available wealth must be competed for by men supposedly on an equal footing [with the notion] that a minimum of outside status criteria are carried into the situation.” Under this model, inmate violence occurs in response to deprivation of basic rights and needs due to imprisonment. These include the loss of liberty, limited access to goods and services, reduced relationships with family and friends, and loss of personal autonomy and security. Other prison stressors that can lead to violence include discrimination and abusive treatment by the system or prison guards, or attacks by fellow inmates or inmate gangs. Rennison, writing about Prison Life and Life After Prison in a Criminal Justice textbook, notes that “As a result of the deprivations, the subculture is one of negativity, aggression, and resentment towards correctional administrators and officers, as well as other inmates.”
In the deprivation model, inmate violence is influenced and determined by prison-specific variables such as a high inmate-to-staff ratio, crowding, poorly trained staff, and low number of inmate programs. Other variables such as excessive use of punitive segregation (solitary confinement), the lack or loss of rehabilitation, mental health services, drug treatment, education or employment training programs, and poorly designed prisons or crumbling physical plants may also demonstrate levels of deprivation and prison disorder that often lead to violence.
The second theory regarding the origin of prison violence is the importation model, where inmates’ experiences and socialization from the outside world are brought into prison and contribute to behavior while incarcerated, so the characteristics and social backgrounds of inmates determine how they act in prison. Therefore the violence, hostility and aggression —arising from poverty-stricken neighborhoods, abusive families and relationships, failing schools, inadequate nutrition, poor healthcare, high unemployment, gang involvement and criminal activity —is carried into jail with the inmates. Lahm writes about the origin of the importation model in Inmate-on-Inmate Assault: A Mulitilevel Examination of Prison Violence: “Developed in response to the deprivation model, this theoretical orientation [states that] inmate adaptation to prison life was shaped by… pre-prison experiences and socialization… [suggesting] that as prisoners enter prison, they import their roles from outside of prison into the prison culture that they are entering. Inmate behavior is merely an extension of previously held values, motivations, and attitudes…. [This] model … stresses the importance of variables that originate outside the context of the prison and, in many cases, cannot be directly manipulated by correctional officials.”
Right now, it seems that we are seeing an exportation model of violence, where slashing and stabbing attacks —methods which are common at Rikers —are seeping out into the community at large. It is possible that these recent slashings are purely gang related —”blood-in, blood-out” according to the Department of Juvenile Justice guide to gang terminology, where “to gain admission to some gangs you must kill someone, and to resign you must die or you will be killed by fellow members.” The NYPD Gang Manual specifically notes gang members’ “agility in slashing attacks [which] exemplifies their expertise in the use of razors. On NYC Streets, they carry razor blades in their pockets, and in the jails they have mastered the technique of carrying razors in their anus and mouths.” Still, it is important to know if the perpetrators of this recent spate of attacks were also involved in gang activity on Rikers which is spilling out into the street as the gang members cycle in and out of jail. Effective gang intervention programs while they are incarcerated and post-release support could help reduce the deadly pattern of slashings and stabbings.
First of all, intelligence needs to be gathered to answer some critical questions: Who are the people committing these slashings and stabbings? Were they former inmates at Rikers Island? Were they ever victims or perpetrators of slashings themselves (at Rikers Island or elsewhere)? Are they gang members who are expected or required to commit such acts to enter or stay in a gang, or to prevent gang retribution against themselves or their families? Were they affected by stories of knife attacks in or out of jail? Once this information is in hand, the solution to problem may have to start at Rikers first. Definite approaches which have been proven to reduce these types of incidents behind bars include:
• Video and visual surveillance of ALL areas of the jail, especially in juvenile and mental health facilities, to prevent attacks; routine searches for smuggled weapons and other contraband
• Improved risk assessment and classification tools to identify and separate inmates or groups who are in conflict/rival gangs, especially juveniles who have a demonstrated higher level of violence
• Reduce crowding, total number of inmates, and inmate-to-staff ratio to reduce tension and address all inappropriate behavior; improve custody, care, control and conditions of confinement
• Enhanced training and supervision for correction officers to utilize a case management approach, especially when handling juvenile and mentally ill inmates and in crisis intervention situations
• Ongoing stress reduction, crisis counseling and stigma-free mental/physical health and wellness programs required for all correction officers and staff to reduce excessive use of force incidents
• External monitoring of all violence and use-of-force events, effective inmate grievance procedure, and collection of detailed statistics regarding inmate violence, including types of attacks
• Programs including drug treatment, mental/physical health services, conflict resolution and gang prevention/intervention, organized recreation, education and vocational/job training for inmates
• New construction or renovation of outmoded/deteriorating physical plant of jail, so inmates cannot dismantle crumbling walls and furniture to fashion homemade knives, shivs and shanks.
• Communication and coordination of pre-release/post-release support services, including one-stop centers for education/vocational training, drug abuse/mental health treatment, job placement, etc.
Studies have shown that improving street culture — through universal pre-K, nutrition programs, health care, education and employment — will reduce the “importation” of negative and violent attitudes into prison. Fleisher & Decker note: “By reducing the number and severity of risk factors, such as lowering unemployment for adults and reducing school truancy, communities can expect a reduction in gang crime and related problems.” In the same way, improving prison culture — by providing more humane conditions of custody, care and control; offering more rehabilitation and support services to inmates; enhanced training, supervision and monitoring of staff; and especially reintegration services to help released inmates return to society — will reduce the “exportation” of such violent acts to the surrounding community.
To be effective, these services must be available when former inmates need them most such as late evenings and weekends. They should be located in neighborhoods where they reside, rather than expecting them to travel for meetings with their parole officer, educational and vocational training, drug treatment and mental health services.
In the same way that improving street culture (through universal pre-K, nutrition programs, health care, education and employment) will reduce the “importation” of negative and violent attitudes into prison, so too will improving prison culture (through providing more humane custody, care and control of prisoners and offering more rehabilitation and support services to inmates and enhanced training, supervision and monitoring of staff) will reduce the “exportation” of such violent acts to the surrounding community.
As it stands now, it appears that the violence from the streets was imported into the pressure cooker of Rikers, where it grew exponentially into an explosion of slashings and stabbings behind bars… which have now been exported back onto the streets of the city. We have to improve conditions and cure the illness at Rikers in order to stop this horrific and growing outbreak of violence in the community.
David A. Fullard, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Empire State College, teaching Criminal Justice and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. He is also licensed by the State of New York Board of Regents as a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). He retired in 2011 as a Captain with the New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) after thirty years’ service.