Rikers Programs Suffer After Cuts, Despite Mayor’s Promises
Mayor Eric Adams and Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, July 13, 2023. | Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
When New York City Mayor Eric Adams cut $17 million in funding for nonprofits that provided programming on Rikers Island in June, his administration claimed that incarcerated people wouldn’t miss out. Courses and programs ranging from therapy to housing counseling to carpentry were discontinued, but the administration said the Department of Correction would run the services itself.
“The department will assume the responsibilities previously carried out by contracted providers,” Department of Correction spokesperson Frank Dwyer said in May, as the budget cuts loomed.
That hasn’t happened.
“There was no programming” beyond cursory visits from counselors, Sammy, who was incarcerated on Rikers in August and part of September and asked not to use his full name, told New York Focus.
“Nothing exists over there. The only thing that exists is you decide to go to the library, if you can, and you find some old GED book, because nobody’s looking at it, and it’s missing pages, and you grab that.”
Adams’s office referred New York Focus to the Department of Correction. The department has hired five new employees to handle programming in recent months, Dwyer told New York Focus in an email. Prior to the cuts, dozens of nonprofit staff members came to the island each day.
“People in custody have not lost the ability to engage in the same programming curriculum/content they were previously afforded by a nonprofit facilitator. The hours of group programming on-unit have not shifted,” Dwyer wrote.
The department does admit that programs have been canceled. At a July meeting before an oversight body, Nell McCarty, the Department of Correction’s director of counseling and social services, said that the department has eliminated some one-on-one offerings and transferred staff to group programs.
“Obviously something had to give in order for us to focus on doing group” programming, McCarty said at the meeting. “I don’t want this shift to be considered a loss of services.”
For one-on-one conversations, McCarty suggested that incarcerated people could turn to chaplains or recreation staff.
“We’re not changing, but rather broadening, to incorporate the universality of the group experience,” she said.
Dwyer did not answer questions about whether specialized offerings like workplace safety training and cognitive behavioral therapy have been replaced.
A city-employed mental health provider at Rikers, who asked not to be identified for fear of professional reprisal, said that incarcerated people have faced significant losses of programming since the cuts went into effect.
The losses have been particularly painful in housing areas for people with mental health issues. “This one patient, she’s frequently asking, ‘Where’s Stacy? When is Stacy coming back?” the provider said, referring to a nonprofit worker who previously cared for the patient. “Despite not always being 100 percent grounded in reality, she did know what a positive impact and how helpful this person was to her.”
“The Department of Correction did not replace anything in the mental health housing areas that is anywhere equivalent,” they added.
There are more services still operational in specialized units, like those that house young adults or LGBTQ people, the provider said. But in other units, courses on practical life skills like finding housing or employment have been replaced with generalized counseling — if there are any offerings at all.
“Their statement was, ‘Well, we’re going to replace this, there’s not going to be any loss of services,’ the provider said. “I can say for certain that that’s not true.”
The jail agency was falling short on its programming mandates even before this summer’s cuts. A 2017 law requires the Department of Correction to offer five hours of daily programming to each person it detains, but in January 2020, the department acknowledged in a letter to city councilmembers that it was still working to meet that requirement.
Dwyer told New York Focus that the department “makes every effort to offer five hours of programming per detainee per day.”
Correctional staff would have a hard time replicating the role of outside workers, predicted Archana Jayaram, president and CEO of the Osborne Association, which provided cognitive behavioral therapy on Rikers until July 1.
“If you are correctional staff, even if you don’t wear a uniform, you’re still part of that institution. So if I’m incarcerated, am I going to talk to that person about my concerns?” Jayaram said. “There’s a level of emotional honesty that we get in engaging with people as an outside provider who has decades of experience doing this work.”
Osborne and other nonprofits also offered “wraparound services,” meaning that programs begun in jail could be continued in neighborhood-based facilities after release. That model helps people reintegrate into their communities, proponents say.
“When you come into an Osborne office location post-release, you are familiar with the organization, you know some of the staff. You can ask for the person that you’ve worked with in the past, and they’re very likely there,” Jayaram said.
At the July meeting, Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner Francis Torres did not directly respond to a question on how the budget cuts would affect the connection between programs in jail and community-based services. Instead, she said that 10 providers of transitional services that help people prepare to leave jail continue to operate within Rikers.
The shortcomings aren’t surprising, said City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who chairs the body’s criminal justice committee.
“This is how this administration operates: high confidence, but no data or implementation plan to back it up,” she said. “I just found it irresponsible.”
In the weeks leading up to the cuts, the Adams administration barely engaged with the nonprofits to discuss how city employees could take over their work, she added. (Jayaram said that the jail agency did ask “some very limited questions.”)
Until July 1, the nonprofit Fortune Society had provided courses in areas like employment readiness, therapy, and plumbing for 20 years. When its contract expired, those all ceased overnight.
“Some of our staff cried because they felt really strongly that the participants needed the services we were offering,” said Ronald Day, vice president at the Fortune Society. “We’ve had some participants for two or three years and we didn’t want to make it seem like we were abandoning them.”
The drought of programs has increased the pressure on the remaining care providers.
“I’m coming into an area where the clients have been really starved from services,” the mental health provider said. “I feel like the patients need a lot more from me when I go in there because they’re not getting it from anywhere else.”