Rikers' Island was designed to hold people accused of crimes less than a year. Why have some detainees been there for six, eight and even 10 years?
The last time these detainees awaiting trial were free, Eli Manning was quarterback for the Giants, Bill de Blasio was in the middle of his first mayoral term, and Donald Trump was just taking office as president.
This isn’t supposed to happen.
Rikers, and the city’s other jails, are designed to be a temporary holding spot for people awaiting trial or convicted of crimes with a sentence of a year or less.
But several men have been on Rikers Island and in other city Department of Correction jails as their criminal cases snake their way through the court system for years — in one case a decade and counting — according to a list of the longest-serving detainees in city custody.
What’s more, the roster of criminal court cases pending for years comes as the city jail population has gone up to pre-pandemic levels. There were 5,688 people in custody as of Aug. 16, according to city records. That’s up from less than 4,000 during the peak of the pandemic, which was the lowest total since 1946.
The average length of stay in DOC custody has steadily gone up over the past three years, records posted online show. The average number was 125 days as of July this year, up from 105 in 2021, 90 in 2020, and 82 in 2019. Those figures include people who were in and out of custody within one day.
“Many individuals have remained in DOC custody for substantially longer than they otherwise would have,” read the preliminary fiscal year 2022 Mayor’s Management Report, which was released in October.
“Data shows that the longer one remains in custody, the greater the likelihood that they will be involved in a violent incident,” the report states.
The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees people’s rights to a “speedy and public trial.” The state of New York has its own speedy trial laws that apply in different ways based on the types of charges.
But exceptions are made for a host of trial adjournments and other frequent delays.
Some cases drag on for years for reasons such as defendants repeatedly changing their lawyers, verdicts overturned on appeal, and prosecutors seeking extensive delays, records show.
That was the case with the longest serving pre-trial detainee who was slashed at some point since he was first locked up on Oct. 27, 2012, according to a jail official familiar with his case.
His name is withheld for safety reasons.
Shortly after his arrest 10 years ago, the man pled guilty to a felony murder charge related to a robbery he allegedly orchestrated that ended in a homicide, records show. He agreed to testify against two other men involved in the robbery and murder, according to his lawyer.
But he has not been formally convicted or sentenced as police hunted down two other people involved in the crime. One co-defendant was recently nabbed out of the country and is currently awaiting trial — now also at Rikers.
Inmate advocates and criminal justice reformers contend the city needs to drastically reduce the number of people held before their trials. Thirteen detainees have died in Rikers and other city lockups this year, after 16 deaths in 2021, the highest total in decades.
City officials previously had regular meetings with the representatives of the city’s five district attorneys and court honchos to discuss the long-stalled court cases, according to former staffers at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
That was part of the so-called Justice Reboot launched in April 2015.
“We put together teams that consisted of the chief presiding judge in every borough, the DAs, the defenders, correction, and the police department,” recalled former MOCJ executive director Elizabeth Glazer.
The teams figured out the delays were due to everything from a lack of licensed drivers to get people from jail to court to a lack of space in the Bronx courthouse for lawyers to meet with their clients, she added.
“All kinds of technical things,” said Glazer, the co-founder of VitalCityNYC. “These huge teams would try to resolve the operation problems.”
Another effort was focused on the people incarcerated and why they were locked up, she said. “We called it Jail Stat,” she said. “That existing structure was used starting in the pandemic to review every single case to see who could be released.”
Representatives at the Department of Correction and City Hall declined repeated requests for comment.
The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice still regularly meets with representatives from the DA offices every Tuesday, but the Justice Reboot program doesn’t currently exist as initially launched, said MOCJ spokesperson Maggie Halley. They also meet with the five individual DAs each month, she added.
Back and Forth
Locked up for eight years, Dr. Keith Howard, who is facing a second-degree murder charge, is the second-longest-serving detainee on Rikers, records show.
He’s been held without bail since May 14, 2014, when authorities charged him with killing his tenant, Karla Shah-Boguwolski, 39, in Arverne, Queens, days before superstorm Sandy. He initially fled to Maryland after the murder, according to the Queens District Attorney’s office.
In 2017, his trial ended in a hung jury. A second trial in 2019 resulted in a mistrial due to jurors’ scheduling conflicts. Howard has also changed lawyers multiple times, court records show.
Howard, a former psychiatrist now in his 60s, has long maintained his innocence.
The third trial is scheduled for the fall.
“At this time, the People stand at the ready to proceed with trying the defendant…and have abided by the request of his new defense counsel to push the start of the trial to the fall to accommodate her heavy trial schedule,” said Queens DA spokesperson Meris Campbell.
The calls to decarcerate also come as a growing number of activists and jail experts call for the federal judge overseeing a class action lawsuit against the Department of Correction to appoint a receiver who would be given total autonomy to run the agency.
Bernard Gumbs, also known as Thomas Williams, has been in Rikers awaiting a new trial since Oct. 21, 2016, making him the third-longest-serving city detainee.
On March 8, 2013, a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and he was later sentenced to 20 years to life. But in 2016, an appeals panel overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial, saying the lower court “erred in admitting, as dying declarations, the victim’s statements implicating defendants.”
Antonio Robinson has been locked up facing a first-degree murder charge since Oct. 2, 2016, making him the fourth-longest-held detainee, records show. Rounding out the top five, James Seabrook, held on a criminal possession of a weapon charge, has been behind bars since May 7, 2016, records show. They are both awaiting trial.
“It’s widely recognized that Rikers Island is unfit for human habitation even for short periods of time,” said longtime defense attorney Ron Kuby. “For people to spend years awaiting trial is unimaginable.”