Adi Talwar

Rikers Island


Correction work has always been challenging, but never so deadly. Recently, there have been several extremely violent assaults on staff in Rikers Island, some committed by inmates with untreated serious mental illness, some directed by gang-affiliated offenders.

The New York State report Corrections Without Protections noted correction officers (COs) have experienced an “alarming increase in assaults… putting officers in the hospital,” with a 21 percent rise in stabbings and slashings over the prior year, and nearly 50 percent more inmate-on-inmate assaults – from individual fights to large-scale riots – over the past three years, despite declining inmate population. These attacks have been particularly vicious and life-threatening – not merely disrespect, shoving, or hitting. They include an “orchestrated, retaliatory attack” by 15 gang-affiliated inmates against a DOC captain; five inmates fracturing a CO’s spine and causing bleeding in the brain during a “premeditated beatdown”; a CO slashed in the face by an inmate; another CO having first- and third-degree burns and a broken nose after an inmate “threw scalding water… and repeatedly punched him in the face” marking the fourth attack by an inmate in just over a month;” and a recent case where one inmate choked another to death in the mental health wing.

Politicians and prison administrators keep saying “something must be done,” but not what that “something” should be. It is easy to point to inmates as the cause of violence behind bars, but studies show that “prison management… creates an environment within a prison that then exerts an influence upon inmate misconduct… independent of the individual or collective characteristics of the inmates and staff who live and work at the prison.”

The time has passed for general statements or expressions of concern for officers who have been injured in violent inmate attacks, or inmates who have been victimized by other inmates, or harmed due to excessive use of force by officers. It is only through improving policies and procedures that violent attacks will be reduced and eliminated.

While many programs are needed to address the problem of violence behind bars – especially the need for creation of a special administrative unit, where extremely violent inmates can be held in a secure, separate area while receiving all services from specially trained staff without being subject to the damaging effects of solitary confinement or excessive physical restraint – little mention is made of the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on both inmates and officers. There is a critical need for stress-reduction programs for inmates and officers to address symptoms of PTSD in both groups, which can develop as a result of prior experience or exposure to violence within the prison setting.

Most inmates and officers follow the rules

First, it must be stated that the majority of inmates do not engage in violent behavior: “Most offenders, including those who are gang-affiliated, comply with most prison rules most of the time.” Equally, the lion’s share of officers come to work and do their jobs with integrity and decency, including those on Rikers Island. However, “a minority of rogue officers can establish a code of silence… [creating] an overall atmosphere of deceit and corruption.” A few bad actors on either side can cause very serious damage. Systems must be in place to root out those few inmates who carry out violent attacks, and to ensure that officers who break the law are investigated and receive assured consequences if they abuse inmates in their care.

Evidence-driven deterrence literature shows that providing treatment for the violent mentally ill in a secure setting where they cannot harm others, and imposing swift, sure group sanctions on gang-affiliated offenders (i.e., punishing the group for the activities of its members, as well as the individual involved), can significantly reduce violent incidents.

Equally, it is important to enforce consistent, fair, and impartial investigations of officers to prevent contraband, allowing inmate-on-inmate violence, to apply strong, consistent and meaningful discipline to those who do not follow the rules – and to prosecute those who actually break the law. Punishment must be swift and certain for both groups.

PTSD and violence

Inmates and staff who experience or are the victims of extreme violence should be screened and treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as otherwise it may contribute to future incidents of violence or excessive use of force.

Many enter prison with a history of deeply disturbing and distressing events which may lead to PTSD symptoms. Prisoners often come from urban areas with high unemployment, crime rates, gangs, guns and drugs, leading to high rates of PTSD for this population. Inmates may have been sexually or physically abused at home, shot at, stabbed, witnessed crimes or lost loved ones to extreme violence. Managing reactions to these traumas through self-medication often leads to substance abuse and alcoholism, present in nearly 100 percent of this population, as well as a lack of coping skills. Officers may have served in the military, police force, as firefighters or EMTs where they saw dead or mutilated bodies, had to use deadly force, saw partners die on duty, and more.

Once behind prison walls, both inmates and officers are surrounded on a daily basis by a high-stress environment, requiring constant awareness that danger is always possible. Chronic vigilance for potential violence leaves officers and inmates hardened, hypervigilant, depressed and anxious.

Prison policies can help reduce PTSD symptoms: “Prisons that attend to order, security, and safety, were found to exhibit less violence and more program participation… [reducing] the likelihood of developing PTSD symptoms as a result of… incarceration.”
Trauma-informed correctional care (TICC) is important to “minimize triggers… and avoid practices that may repeat aspects of past abuse,” such as handcuffs, leg irons, severe body holds, restraint chairs, or punitive isolation. The correctional system must train staff in techniques to de-escalate traumatic situations and responses, including present-focused, cognitive behavioral approaches. Ultimately, “trauma-informed correctional care and staff training can go a long way toward creating an environment conducive to rehabilitation and staff and institutional safety.”

The trauma of incarceration cannot be overstated. The negative psychological effects of being locked in a cage, experiencing violence – seeing people murdered, being beaten by guards, or attacked by other inmates – can lead to PTSD and other psychiatric disorders, and those held in solitary confinement suffer even more severe symptoms: delusions, violent outbursts, paranoia and panic attacks.

These conditions make adjustment difficult upon release, and often endure for some time, especially given minimal re-entry programming or community treatment. With over 7 million adults in the U.S. under correctional supervision, nearly all of whom will be released (usually back to the same inner-city neighborhood they came from), the implications for society are obvious. These returning citizens may be in worse condition than before they went in, suffering from mental or physical illness, and facing obstacles including loss of connection to family, stigmatization, lack of education, work experience, job opportunities, and wage inequality, making it hard if not impossible for them to become productive members of society and raising the likelihood of recidivism.

Inmates often have poor ability to form and maintain support networks, critical for both in-prison adjustment and post-release community re-entry. Interpersonal trauma history may cause them to engage in hostile behavior or fall prey to victimization, and hopelessness. Many turn to alcohol, substance abuse, and addictive behaviors, leading to new problems. Intervention is needed to help prisoners begin to trust positive influences and find social support from safe sources, including in-prison and post-release service providers.

A recent study showed 30 percent of correction officers suffer from PTSD, with 100 percent exposed to at least one incident of violence, injury or death during their career, and an average of 28 such events overall. Examples include “being physically assaulted, encountering dead or mutilated bodies, being threatened with physical harm or death, and witnessing riots, arson, and other potentially life-threatening, and thus traumatic, experiences.” Correctional officers are exposed to traumatic events such as “suicide, extreme violence and all kinds of harassment [and more than half report] symptoms consistent with at least one mental disorder including: PTSD, major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and alcohol abuse.”

Correctional staff are also vulnerable to PTSD via “vicarious trauma,” identifying with trauma experienced by inmates. Officers and staff who have daily relationships with inmates are regularly exposed to their disordered behavior, which may lead to feelings of vulnerability and an increase in PTSD symptoms such as reliving trauma, numbing and avoidance, and hypervigilance. When these experiences become chronic, burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, depression and stress may suggest a “need to support prison workers and to address inmates-to-staff relational dynamics.”

Whether acquired prior to or in the prison environment, officers with PTSD symptoms have difficult work and home lives, and suffer from high rates of depression, alcoholism, and attempted suicide themselves.

Officers exposed to violence in prison suffer from PTSD rates two to three times higher than military veterans, EMTs firefighters and police. Those with signs of PTSD are at greater risk for experiencing anxiety and stress, as well as more absenteeism, health services utilization, health conditions (such as obesity and high blood pressure), substance use, and suicide rates twice as high as police officers. The correction officers’ union says the numbers are even higher, since many do not want to report their condition or seek treatment out of fear of stigma or dealing with red tape. They develop stress-related injuries from dealing with a difficult working environment and traumatic events such as prison riots, suicides, but they just try to handle it themselves, afraid to ask for help.

Correction agencies are starting to address mental health, domestic violence, depression, and support healthy behavior via physical fitness challenges, wellness fairs, peer support, conducting checks and follow-up on staff members who miss their shifts or are consistently late or absent.

Treatment is needed to provide relief from psychic pain, improve work and personal relations, and to reduce addiction, domestic disturbance, and many related health problems.

With appropriate therapy most PTSD survivors can learn to successfully manage thoughts, memories, nightmares and fears, although some may never be able to work in the same environment after a particularly horrific event. Institutional response must be there to support officers, rather than a macho culture that just tells them to “suck it up” and get back to work. This will only perpetuate the problems and contribute to potential ongoing or worsening violence and inappropriate or excessive use of force.

Ways of coping

Stress reduction programs are needed for both inmates and officers, as a permanent fixture, not a temporary offering. For Inmates, mindfulness-based stress reduction programs have been shown to be effective. Given often dysfunctional homes and neighborhoods leading to high incidences of criminal behavior, many inmates have “an inadequate ability to effectively deal with severe stress, deprivation, and low self-esteem, and with peer pressure [from] gangs.” This can be worsened by drugs and alcohol, and the incarceration experience only adds additional stress. Meditation-based mindfulness interventions help inmates to be “less reactive to intense emotional states [resulting in] improvements in psychological and physical well-being and reductions in anxiety and depression.” These evidence-based outcomes provide strong support for the “effectiveness of meditation-based interventions in correctional settings,” and improvements were maintained for months afterward, even in that stressful environment.

For officers, stress reduction programs are critical for reasons from cost savings (reducing sick time/overtime, reducing turnover) to improving morale and performance (reducing errors due to inattention or distraction). The main challenge to any employee assistance program is to get past the macho culture common to most paramilitary organizations, where officers feel they have to “tough it out” rather than seek help. Stress reduction services should be provided to all officers, especially those who experience a traumatic event, and can help them return to work more quickly. Officers need to feel that they are displaying strength, not weakness, by attending these programs, which should acknowledge the stressful nature of corrections work – from dealing with hostile and often mentally ill inmates, fearing unprovoked attacks or being charged with abuse if they respond, to being forced to work mandatory overtime, or having conflicts with other officers or supervisors. By providing an effective stress reduction program, departments of correction can show that they care about their employees as human beings, and this helps with recruiting, hiring, training, and retaining quality staff.

In light of the recent horrific attacks on officers, extreme violence between inmates, and use of excessive force by officers, steps must be taken to correct the situation at Rikers right now. While the process of closing Rikers is underway, and there are improved programs for inmates since solitary confinement was reduced under the federal consent agreement, at the same time there must be systems put in place immediately to ensure that both correction officers and inmates are safe in the current correction setting. These events are not run-of-the-mill assaults that might result in simple bruises or contusions from punches to the body; they are life-threatening, vicious attacks that could result in death.

We must recognize that the culture of violence exists on Rikers Island – and will continue to exist in the new borough facilities that will be built – if concrete measures aren’t taken to directly address and effectively reduce the violence that exists currently. The time is now to do something that will effectively reduce the level of violence, or even more deaths will occur.

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 30 years’ service.