Commissioner Joseph Ponte's Mission to Save Rikers Island

PHOTO: "Were asking people to kind of look in faith at can we change peoples lives," Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte told ABC News Diane Sawyer.PlayABC News
WATCH Inside 'The Box' With Some of Rikers Island's Most Violent Inmates: Part 1

It is known as “the Box,” “the Hole” or “the Bing.”

It is the unit that houses some of the most dangerous inmates at New York City’s Rikers Island, the biggest jail complex in the country. They are locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, also known as punitive segregation. And in the one hour they can spend outside for recreation, they are locked in cages.

In an ABC News exclusive, Diane Sawyer’s “Hidden America” team was given unprecedented access inside Rikers Island for 70 hours over seven days. Some of the questions raised: What to do with its most violent inmates? And do long stretches in solitary make prisoners more or less dangerous?

On the day Sawyer went to punitive segregation, some of the 165 inmates’ shouts filled the air.

“They treat us like animals in here,” one inmate yelled from his cell.

“They throwing us in for no reason,” shouted another.

A third yelled: "You need to shut this s*** down!"

They are in solitary confinement as punishment for attacking officers or each other, fighting or slashing with hidden weapons. Inmate Raphael Figueroa said he once spent a year and a half straight in the Box.

“I would say maybe 30, 40 [times] I’ve been beaten down, almost killed exactly in this jail,” Figueroa told us. “I’ve been more in prison than in streets. When I went to the streets, I feel like I was in jail. I’m so institutionalized, brainwashed, call it what you want to call it.”

Figueroa said he is changed forever.

“In here, I feel comfortable inside my cell because I’m safe from myself. I’m safe from others. I can’t function in society,” he said.

Watch the full episode of “Hidden America: Inside Rikers Island,” a Diane Sawyer Special Edition of "Nightline," HERE and now on all ABC News devices, including Apple TV, Roku and Xbox One.

That’s what worries Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte – knowing that 80 percent of the inmates at Rikers will end up back on the street.

“Punitive [segregation] does not keep you safe. It can keep you limited for a time period. But I don't care if you could do 100 days or 50, they're going to get out.” Ponte said to Sawyer. “It’s really a public safety problem, because these guys are getting out. They’re going to be your neighbor.”

Joseph Ponte’s Greatest Challenge

Two years ago after successfully reforming smaller jails in Maine and Tennessee, Ponte was hired by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to turn around Rikers Island, with its 10 jails, 7,300 officers and staff, and nearly 8,000 inmates – 80 percent of whom have not been convicted of any crimes.

When Ponte took the job in April 2014, Rikers was in the cross-hairs of a two-year investigation by the Department of Justice and a class-action lawsuit from the Legal Aid Society. Both documented a “deep-seated culture of violence” where adolescent inmates were brutalized by correction officers who routinely lied and covered-up their actions, violating inmates’ constitutional rights.

Ponte said he came to change the notorious place, despite the challenges ahead. Last fall, he laid out an ambitious plan for reform, including 100 percent camera coverage, a crackdown on contraband, crisis intervention teams, a higher staff-to-inmate ratio, and classes or programs to reduce inmates’ idle time.

But Ponte’s top priority was punitive segregation. In the past two years, he has reduced the population by 70 percent across the jail by limiting an inmate’s time in solitary to 30 consecutive days or 60 days for a serious assault on staff, banning solitary for seriously mentally ill inmates and eliminating “the Box” completely for the youngest inmates, ages 16 to 17, this past December.

“A 16-year-old … locked up in a cell like this for, you know, over a year and no break ... it’s not humane, it’s not effective,” Ponte said. “They should be treated as juveniles.” Ponte’s most controversial idea is something that has never been done before. . Next month, he will eliminate punitive segregation for the 18- to 21-year-olds – the group of inmates with the highest potential for violence on the island. They comeprise just 10 percent of the population but commit 30 percent of the violence.

“Reducing punitive [segregation] for 18- to 21-year-olds will work because we know that age group thinks differently, acts differently,” Ponte said, “And when you manage them differently, you get better outcomes … It's really faith. We're asking people to kind of look in faith at can we change people's lives.”

“I Didn’t Sign Up to Be a Punching Bag”

The 7300 officers and staff of Rikers are divided about the threat of ending solitary for the young adults. Some say Ponte is taking away their most effective tool to control a violent population.

“I didn’t sign up to be a punching bag,” said Officer Henderson, who works on programs with the 18 to 21-year-olds. “Punitive segregation should not be dismantled for the 18 to 21-year-olds, not at all.”

Henderson said there needs to discipline – and repercussions – to maintain order in the jail. “For instance, if an inmate walked up to me right now and slapped me in the face, he’s like, ‘Oh, whatever… I’ll do it again,’” said Henderson.

Correction officials say any assault on an officer can be prosecuted as a felony. And Ponte argues there will be repercussions. At the end of June, the most persistently violent young adults will be housed in brand-new “Secure Units.” Instead of being locked in a cell 23 hours a day, these 18 to 21 year olds will be allowed out of their cells 10 hours a day and can earn up to 14 hours out with good behavior.

Officer Ray Calderon said it’s too great a risk. Last November, he was attacked by two 19-year-old inmates who grabbed him from behind and slashed his face. “Whoever thought getting rid of solitary confinement was a good idea, you need to pack your stuff up and you need to go,” Calderon told ABC News at a rally organized by the powerful correction officers union, COBA. “I’ve got 22 stitches in my face okay? This could have easily been a funeral arrangement today. I could have easily been killed. I almost died.”

What happened to Officer Calderon was “tragic,” Ponte told ABC News. “But reality is, we lock people up and release them.” He said what happened to Calderon actually makes his point that solitary doesn’t reduce violence. The 19-year-olds who attacked Calderon had been in the Box, but it didn’t stop them when they got out. “If we believe we can change them and we stop you being harmed or me being harmed or our family being harmed by the fact that we did some good with these individuals … we won’t save them all, but I’ll guarantee you, [with] what we’re doing [now], we’re saving nobody,” said Ponte.

Signs of Trouble: Peanut Butter and Sneakers

Deputy Warden Brantley, or “Dep. B” as she’s known at Rikers, oversees the population of 18 to 21-year-olds. Brantley, who has been at Rikers for 31 years, is a master at seeing signs of trouble. She explained some of them to ABC News.

“In here now, everybody has on their sneakers, everybody’s dressed,” Brantley said. “So that’s either they knew you guys were coming or something’s getting ready to happen … If I want to have a fight I don’t want to fight with slippers on.”

Another potential sign of trouble is smearing peanut butter on the camera lens to obscure video of a fight, Brantley said.

“They are very unpredictable. Young adults, they act out and they attack each other,” Brantley said. “They’ve experienced so much at this point. Now we’re trying to change how they think. That’s not going to happen overnight.”

Brantley grew up in the Bronx, where nearly one out of every four inmates at Rikers is from. She understands how the combustible mix of gang affiliation and hours with nothing to do can build tensions that explode. But after watching violence continue to rise for eight straight years, she believes Ponte’s reforms should be given time to work.

“We can’t continue to do business the way we have in the past. We have to do programming. We have to occupy their time,” Brantley said. “[During] the bewitching hour, we call it -- between say [7 p.m. and 9 p.m.] -- they have nothing to do….. If we did programming up until around 8:30 p.m., 8 p.m., get them in the shower, get them in the bed, it would probably reduce our violence problem a lot.”

In another unit, younger inmates have mandatory school and can choose to spend five additional hours learning horticulture or cooking. They can also earn extra money by attending college-sponsored classes and job training programs.

Some parts of Rikers are today a test lab for reform. In a unit where three years ago a major riot erupted, there are now more officers, increased opportunities for inmates to go to school, and the ability to earn money for job training and college classes.

Correction Department statistics show violence has plummeted here: no slashings or stabbings at this unit so far this year.

Caught on Tape

Across Rikers, use-of-force incidents resulting in serious injury to inmates are down by 50 percent in the last year – which Ponte said is a major victory. At the same time, use of force incidents where inmates do not have any injuries are up 17 percent. And equally troubling, overall violence between inmates, which includes stabbings, slashings and fights, is also up.

“We couldn't fix everything at the same time.” Ponte said. “But where we did make that effort to do a lot of fixes … we've gotten the kinds of results that we expect will get everywhere. Every level of violence has been reduced.”

“Change takes time,” DOC Security Chief Turhan Gumusdere told Sawyer. “All we’re doing is setting [the inmates] up for failure if we don’t do something here, so it’s just a vicious circle.”

When fights and assaults do erupt, Gumusdere said he reviews almost every incident on surveillance tape with the officers and supervisors involved. The goal is to train officers to avoid serious injuries and defuse conflicts by using nonviolent alternatives, like pepper spray instead of clubs or fists.

“We’re calling people in, allowing people to watch themselves and see what they’re doing.” Gumusdere said. “Every single incident is being scrutinized every single incident is being used as a training tool … The most simplest things in this job can help save a career … save your life sometimes.”

For the youngest inmates, like 17-year-old Franklin Smalls, Rikers is a turning point that could change their lives forever. Smalls, like more than half the inmates at Rikers, is at the jail for a nonviolent crime of possession and selling of drugs. He showed Sawyer a letter he wrote to the judge.

“I learned from my mistakes,” Smalls wrote in the letter. “There’s a lot I look forward to in the future.”

In the past, officers weren’t allowed to be friendly with young inmates like Smalls, but Ponte has given them a new mandate: to get to know the kids and try to help them.

“It’s humanity of our staff. It’s humanity of the inmates that come into our care, and it’s our future,” Ponte said. “Everybody believes we can change people’s lives, and if you don’t believe that, then you got to say that these are throwaway people, right? They were violent when they came in. They’re going to be violent when they go out … I'm not saying this is an easy task for us. But it's a much better hopeful outcome than what we were doing.”

Watch the full episode of “Hidden America: Inside Rikers Island,” a Diane Sawyer Special Edition of "Nightline," HERE and now on all ABC News devices, including Apple TV, Roku and Xbox One.