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EXCLUSIVE: Inmates, officers discuss life behind bars at Rikers Island

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NEW YORK — Rikers Island is often described by many as a "hell on earth."

When we say many, we refer to inmates, officers and staff alike.

It is a reputation that has plagued the massive jail complex for decades.

PIX11 has spent over a year reporting on the issues within the jail system, encompassing both the positive and negative aspects.

Recently a new ad hit the airwaves calling for Rikers Island to close.

Jail officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio have set their attention on reforming the jail.

In 2016, there were nearly 12,000 instances of violence.

PIX11 requested unprecedented access, a chance to talk to inmates, officers, wardens, to find out the real issues at stake, how they are being tackled and if it is working.

The request was granted, and the instructions were simple - no talking to inmates in the hallways for safety.

We began in the Anna M. Kross Center, one of the largest facilities. PIX11 met with Deputy Warden in Command Melissa Matthews who addressed the issue of public perception.

"I think they think we are brutes," says Matthews. " I think they think we come to work to abuse inmates. "

Matthews has been on the job for 25 years and is working now to change that perception. She works in a new and improved unit where inmates receive five hours of programming a day to keep them busy.

She says it was just a few years ago there were major issues.

"The issues were staff and inmates felt they were not safe in their units," says Matthews. "It is a very dangerous job. I want everyone to go home the way they came in."

Slashings and stabbings remain a big problem within the facility, rising from 131 in 2015 to 155 in 2016.

Part of the past problems had to do with how inmates were housed.

For starters, inmates facing murder and something as small as robbery were housed together, many times from rival gangs.

One officer described rival gang members being forced to share one television as a "recipe for disaster."

Deputy Warden of Security Jeane Rene says a big challenge was described simply as "the unknown."

That unknown is felt by both staff an inmates.

"I don't feel safe everyday, I am in jail," described inmate Nico Trouche.

Part of that unknown fear comes from illegal contraband that finds its way inside the facility.

Drugs, weapons and cell phone finds were up in 2016, but one inmate tells PIX11 that the real issue is how those items get inside.

"The officers are bringing it in, they are foul'' describes inmate Norman McKenny.

At the helm of fighting all of this is Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who remains positive.

"We want to operate the best jail system in the country," says Ponte. "New York has the talent to do that."

As for his officers bringing in contraband, he admits it does happen.

"The officers develop relationships that are unhealthy, and staff, in small numbers bring in phones and contraband," describes Ponte.

However, the Commissioner says it is the splashy headlines that paint a negative picture about what is happening on the inside.

"It is frustrating," says Ponte. " You don't get to walk through the jail everyday, so we need to get our message out."