Better located prisons to replace remote Rikers Island might not end the brutality

MICHAEL J. GILL   | 3/1/2018, 11:18 a.m.
Much like FedEx proudly advertises its tagline—The World on Time—on its many vehicles, each of the few hundred buses and ...
Rikers Island

Much like FedEx proudly advertises its tagline—The World on Time—on its many vehicles, each of the few hundred buses and other vehicles of the NYC Correction Department proudly advertises New York City’s Boldest. And the bridge from Queens to Rikers Island has a sign that greets arriving prisoners and welcomes visitors with these words in large letters: Home of New York City’s Boldest.

Ever since the boldest tagline was introduced in 1998 by newly appointed Correction Commissioner Bernard Kerik, I have been bothered and bewildered by the word boldest as the description of the prison guards in the NYC Correction Department. Do we really want bold prison guards and bold Correction Department supervisors?   

Kerik’s stated desire was to have a morale-boosting tagline equal to NYPD’s finest and FDNY’s bravest. But neither he nor Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who appointed Kerik and approved the tagline, seems to have opened a thesaurus or dictionary. Finest and bravest as well as strongest (Sanitation Department) don’t have glaringly confusing synonyms. Not so with boldest: High on the list of synonyms are daring, defiant and imprudent, plus explanations that include beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or actions.

But perhaps Kerik and Giuliani knew that boldest was not as straightforward and as unambiguous a word as finest or bravest or strongest. They might have consciously wanted the culture of the Correction Department to be daring, defiant and imprudent, as well as beyond the usual limits of conventional thought or actions. Moreover, the successors to Kerik and Giuliani, all of whom have accepted the existence of the boldest tagline, might be accessories to inciting institutional riotous behavior by those paid to behave oppositely.

Words do matter, and the boldest tagline has to be a major contributor to the all-too-often, teach-a-lesson behavior by prison guards and their superiors. For sure, the month-after-month and sometimes week-after-week brutal behavior by some of the boldest of Rikers Island makes both Kerik and Giuliani prescient—although, I hope, now sadly prescient.

A major step in changing the culture and behavior of NYC’s prison guards would be for Mayor de Blasio to get rid of the boldest tagline immediately. Then by the time the replacement prisons are built, the Giuliani-approved bold culture will have faded away and the next generation of Correction Department personnel won’t be competing to be the boldest.

In time, another tagline might emerge. A good tag line can have a positive impact on morale. But let’s hope that the future mayor says about any inappropriate suggestion what Giuliani should have said to Kerik in 1998 about boldest: “That word has meanings that will encourage behaviors we don’t want.”

Michael J. Gill is a co-founder of the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation and was a board member of the Fortune Society.