Bernie Kerik: he was the man tasked with fixing what was described as “a powder keg waiting to explode.”
That powder keg was Rikers Island during the early 90’s. Kerik came on board in 1994 and worked his way up the ranks becoming Department of Corrections Commissioner in 1998.
Kerik was able to cut 150 stabbings per month to just 6 or 7 per month by 1999. It was something noticed by inmates and guards during that time.
“There is less violence in the system than there was in the past,” one inmate told PIX 11’s Mary Murphy back in June 1999.
Our PIX11 investigation has found that violence is at a five-year high in the jail. From inmate-on-inmate slashing to officers attacked, our reports have highlighted the issues plaguing the system.
The question now: where did it go wrong? Kerik may have had success, but not without troubles of his own.
A federal investigation uncovered years of corruption, landing him in federal jail for four years. He says while he had some trouble, it doesn’t erase the success he had at Rikers.
“You can’t erase history,” says Kerik. “I know how to fix it. I’ve done it.”
Kerik was strict as Commissioner — no holds barred. The correction officers carried batons and inmates were searched at every corner.
“We tracked and monitored the violence,” says Kerik. “We went after weapons and held the inmates accountable. I had a Bronx DA on the island. He basically lived on the island to prosecute the violent cases.”
Current Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte has touted his success for ridding solitary confinement for 16 and 17-year-olds last year.
“There is a lot of research that shows the use of punitive segregation is a bad idea,” said Ponte. Yet Kerik simply disagrees.
“There is a purpose for solitary confinement and a need for it,” says Kerik. If you are a threat to an institution or an additional security risk, there is a need for solitary.”
After Kerik left corrections, he became Police Commissioner for the City of New York. Martin Horn took over the Corrections Department from 2002 to 2009, where he too was able to reduce crime inside.
But towards the end of his tenure staffing cuts began in the most violent areas — the adolescent jail.
“When I left, they were down to one officer in those units,” said Horn in a 2014 interview.
After Horn, Dora Schriro took over and kept those staffing cuts in place. Crime essentially rose during her reign according to various city reports.
The discussion now among politicians is shutting the jail down. Kerik says that’s a bad idea, since reform is possible.
“I think then primary issue has been a lack of leadership and accountability over the past several years that has led to increased violence and internal corruption.”
After our reports aired, the Department of Corrections responded to the report.
“DOC continues to make strides on our 14-point anti-violence agenda, as evidenced by the 11% drop in the most serious assaults on staff and 23% drop in the most severe uses of force department-wide. Commissioner Ponte has greatly reduced violence in our new Enhanced Housing Units and our ‘model facility’ units, which have seen zero stabbings or slashings since they opened. Meaningful reform takes time, and we are confident that our better training, programming and staffing are leading to safer jails for staff and inmates alike.”