RIKERS ISLAND, N.Y. -- With its inmates and corrections officers virtually at war, this notorious city penal colony had never been considered a model house of corrections.
Now those in charge of the complex say times have changed, and a special grand jury charged with examining conditions at Cook County Jail found it has a lot to learn from its New York counterpart.
Grand jury members traveled here over the summer as they prepared their report on the Chicago facility. What they found were supervisors seemingly trying to foster respect between officers and detainees.
They also found what they believed to be a reliable system for quantifying, recording and tracking inmate grievances and jail conditions--areas the grand jury said in its report that Cook County was failing at miserably.
"Rikers Island is not the Cook County Jail, and to advise the sheriff to slavishly copy all the things the New York people do would be foolish," the grand jury reported this fall.
"However, there clearly is a superior system at [Riker's] to recruit professionals with corrections backgrounds, develop staff, monitor performance, initiate corrective actions, develop clear lines of responsibility and accountability and develop a positive culture.
"This is very much lacking at the Cook County Department of Corrections."
New York watchdog organizations scoff at the idea of a kinder, gentler Rikers Island, saying a decline in the number of violent incidents there has in part mirrored a decline in the jail's population. Rikers has more than 12,000 inmates, down from a peak of more than 20,000 in the early 1990s.
Officials with the Cook County sheriff's office are skeptical too. Despite the grand jury's findings that elite guards at Cook County Jail had engaged in a mass beating of inmates in 1999 and, more recently, the slaying last month of a 17-year-old inmate, the sheriff's office said it does not expect to learn much from the sprawling East River facility.
"They are doing a good job [in New York], but they have many of the same kinds of problems that we have, and they have more resources to handle them, said Bill Cunningham, a spokesman for Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheahan.
At Cook County Jail the average daily population was 10,850 in October (the latest month figures were available) and the average incarceration is twice that in New York. The grand jury noted that the per-shift ratio of inmates to officers is 4-1 at Rikers Island; at Cook County it is 11-1.
Wardens at Rikers Island--similar to Cook County Jail's superintendents--say they have embraced a philosophy that an inmate whose minor complaints are recorded and taken seriously is an inmate who may be less agitated and prone to violence. And they say the numbers back it up, such as the number of stabbings and slashings--more than 1,000 in 1995--reduced to just 40 last year.
Jail leaders at Rikers, who still relish their claim of having the "world's boldest" corrections officers, said they realize they still have an uphill climb to convince many observers of their progress.
"You tell people where you work, and they go, `Whoa, Rikers Island, are you in one piece?'" said Robert Cripps, a deputy warden "They don't know about the changes here."
As part of those changes, officers submit daily reports that are turned into data streams every 24 hours. The staff seemingly record everything for upper management review, from inmate violence to the results of searches to maintenance work orders.
The Correction Department calls it the Total Efficiency Accountability Management System, or TEAMS. Every month, 15 wardens--each runs a jail within the complex--eight chiefs and the assistant commissioners meet with corrections chiefs and Commissioner Martin Horn, who answers to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
When Warden Peter Curcio's Blackberry handheld shows an increase in fights in his jail, he knows to head off a gang problem. And a number of excessive force complaints against any one officer means that person needs to be disciplined or watched closely, he said.
Wardens are taken to task for upticks in key indicators such as violent incidents and inmate grievances. If there's an apparent problem, the corrections brass wants to know why.
"And the answer better not be, `Because that's what happens in a jail,'" said Mark Cranston, executive assistant to Horn and the commanding officer of TEAMS.
While much of the focus at Rikers is on inmates' grievances, in some instances inmates have faced tougher penalties.
In the past, inmates would be sent to isolation for a few days for assaulting a staff member or carrying contraband. Such an infraction now often results in a new criminal case. And just one instance of assaulting a staff member brings a red identification card that can deny an inmate special privileges or the right to a jail job.
But the sticks come with carrots too. Good behavior on a particular tier for a week can mean a DVD player and a movie night, or maybe an extra family day for visitation.
Inmates in the Adolescent Reception and Detention Center, which houses 800 juveniles and 700 adults, said they're treated "like human beings." "We know if we act silly they're going to act silly with us, but they treat us like we want to get treated," said Neil Suarez of Brooklyn, who had been in the jail for seven months on a drug case.
"I think most of the inmates give [officers] respect," he said. "This is a good house."
Rikers Island's supervisors acknowledge their institution's shady past, one long clouded by allegations of corruption and inmate abuse. But they say they are trying to operate with new transparency and reduce that animosity.
The daily report of jail incidents and data that wardens see is available for city leaders and oversight bodies, which include civilians, they said. It is also available to an inspector general, who reports to the mayor.
Still, Jonathan Chasan, a supervising attorney for the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society in New York, said there are questions about the accuracy of data coming out of Rikers. It is up to low-ranking officers and captains to initially report incidents they might be involved in, raising questions about their interest in full disclosure, he said.
"The number and severity of injuries at Rikers and the use of force by guards is still a substantial concern, and has been the subject of ongoing litigation since September 2002," he said.
In Cook County, in addition to the mass beating in 1999, the grand jury's report said supervisors apparently acted to cover it up. There is no solid system at Cook County for tracking legitimate complaints of such activity, the report said. And there are signs of wider abuse issues at the jail as well--due in part, the report suggests, to the absence of an independent body with the power to take corrective steps.
Sheriff's officials said new software is starting to track investigations of alleged abuse of inmates. But the grand jury noted that it took a college student assisting the panel to pull five years of history from more than 70 boxes of scattered paper data supplied by the sheriff's office for an analysis to be performed.
It will take more computers to fully use the tracking software the office is installing, Cunningham said, but eventually Cook County Jail officials will have the same kind of quick access to data that corrections officers do at Rikers Island.
Even so, Cook County sheriff's officials will not be looking to Rikers Island for all the answers. Cunningham said he suspects grand jurors got to see only what New York jail supervisors wanted them to.
"I'm sure we could give a guided tour to a visiting group," Cunningham said. "And they'd probably leave and go back to Rikers Island thinking things at the Cook County Jail aren't that bad either."