Innocent in America’s Worst Jails

The United States prison population has surged upwards since the 1980’s, quadrupling in just the past quarter-century alone.  The uptick in inmate numbers has seen a corresponding deterioration in the living conditions at many jails and prisons throughout the country. The 306 people exonerated through DNA testing spent, on average, 13 years in these facilities.

A recent Mother Jones magazine series profiles the 10 worst prisons and jails in the United States.  Worth noting is the number of jails—where the majority of inmates have not yet been convicted and may very well be innocent of their charges—that appear on the list. A number of Innocence Project clients have lived in these facilities. I spoke with two of them, Barry Gibbs of New York and Ray Krone of Arizona, who had the unfortunate distinction of serving time at two of the worst jails in the United States.

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Riker’s Island, an island jail-complex in the middle of New York City’s East River, was number eight on the list. Riker’s is infamous for its deeply entrenched patterns of violence, abuse at the hands of guards, and high numbers of inmates in solitary confinement. At any given time, there are approximately 10,000 inmates on Rikers Island, the majority of whom have not yet been tried.

When I ask Barry Gibbs to describe the time he spent on Rikers, he’s quiet for a moment. “A horror,” he then says. “Every day was an absolute nightmare.” Barry spent nearly two years on Rikers Island, awaiting the trial that would eventually wrongfully convict him of murder. He served over 17 years in prison before his exoneration in 2005, and although he was bounced around to several different New York State prisons—including Attica—Rikers Island still stands out as the worst in his memory.

 “What can I say? It’s a very dangerous place for a person who is innocent, for someone who has had nothing to do with the criminal justice system.” On his third day in Rikers, Gibbs  walked into the main room of his housing unit to get a cup of coffee. Suddenly, a blanket was thrown over his head and six men began to punch and kick him. “I got beat up, bad,” he said.  “And the whole time I’m wondering, where’s the security? Who’s watching? Where are the guards? Finally, they stopped, but I was all messed up, and I had to go to court the next day.” 

Acts of violence like these have become endemic at Rikers. In 2008, Christopher Robinson, a teenager who had landed in Rikers after violating his probation, was stomped to death in his cell in the youth detention unit. After a lengthy investigation, it was revealed by the Bronx DA that the murder was a result of “The Program,” wherein Rikers guards would exploit teenage inmates into acting as ‘enforcers’, bribed by guards into organizing fights and assaults under the guise of maintaining order.  A lawsuit filed as recently as 2012 by the Legal Aid Society revealed continued alleged collusion by the staff in regards to the widespread violence.

Gibbs continued to assert his innocence to anyone at Rikers who would listen. “When I first got there, I kept saying over and over that I was innocent. They didn’t want to hear it. They put me in the Mental Observation ward, and forced me to take Synequan [an anti-anxiety medication]. It turns out that I was allergic to it. My whole body swelled up. I had to go to the hospital. They took me to Bellevue, handcuffed, and in chains and shackles with the other prisoners. They dragged us down the hallway of the hospital like that. Everyone could see us.  I could hear the people saying ‘look at those murderers.’ Do you know how humiliating that is?”

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In 1993, faced with the high cost of constructing a new jail to accommodate the ever-expanding inmate population, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio found that housing inmates in Korean War-era military tents—in the baking hot Arizona desert—would be much less expensive than the construction of a new facility.  Tent City, as it has become known, is an extension of Phoenix’s Maricopa County Jail.  Tent City houses roughly 2,000 inmates, packed tightly into canvas tents where, in 2011, the Arizona Republic reported that the internal temperature surged to 145 degrees Fahrenheit.

The conditions at Tent City—which Sheriff Arpaio likened to ‘a concentration camp’—landed it the number four spot on Mother Jones’ list.

Ray Krone, who was wrongfully imprisoned (and later sentenced to death) for a murder he did not commit, was housed at Maricopa County until he was convicted and moved to prison.  “You’re treated like a criminal from Day 1,” he says. “There is no innocent until proven guilty. It’s guilty until proven innocent. They take absolutely everything from you. It’s Arizona, and you’re living outside. There’s no air conditioning. The coolest it gets is in the 90’s, maybe, at night. There’s one fan in this giant tent for about 40 guys… the tough guys got to be near the fan, so there was a lot of violence and fights over that cool area.”

In November 1996, 400 inmates housed in Tent City rioted in protest. Motivated by the inadequate medical care they received, bad food, brutality by the guards, and the general squalid living conditions, they set fire to the tents. 

“It was a big riot,” Ray told me. “Nothing changed after that, except that they had nowhere to put those inmates, so they stacked mattresses in the hallways of the adjacent prison building and had them sleep there.”

I asked him about the food. “It was the stuff that wasn’t fit to be sold in stores, so the inmates got it,” he said. “The sheriff would brag about spending 50 cents a day on his inmates and a dollar a day on his dogs.”

Like Barry, Ray was also prescribed antipsychotic medication. “If you’re facing the death penalty, like I was, you didn’t have to get real creative or real forceful to be put on psych meds. In fact, during most of my trial, I was on Thorazine. On the weekends, when I wasn’t in court, they would come around with a cart to give you your pills. But it’s so violent in there; you don’t want to walk around all blocked out from the drugs. I needed my mind about me. So I’d hide the pills under my tongue.”

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After speaking with Ray and Barry, it seems the prevailing sentiment at both Rikers Island and Maricopa County is this: you’re here, so you must belong here. If you belong here, you’re a criminal. If you’re a criminal, then you forfeit your rights to be treated with common decency; you forfeit your rights to decent health care and nutrition; you forfeit your rights to live without the constant threat of violence. The problem is, there are innocent people in jail. There are innocent people, wrongfully convicted, in prison.  In summation of his time served, Ray told me, “It’s top-down. Nobody cares. The guards don’t care. The guards don’t care, ‘cause the boss don’t care. That’s how it is.”  

Krone and Gibbs’ experiences are sobering reminders that innocent people continue to inhabit our prisons and jails. DNA testing provides the opportunity to identify and free some of the innocent, but those cases are a select minority. Many others will serve out their sentences or die behind bars. Conversely, many of the guilty men and women—the majority of the time serving sentences for non-violent crimes—will be released back into society. Should innocent people and future parolees be spending their time incarcerated in a culture of violence and neglect? At the very least, our correctional institutions should be habitable for them—we owe that to our common humanity.

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