Mason Professor Details Plans for Prison Reform


By Olivia Booth, Staff Writer

Professor Laurie Robinson spoke on campus last week regarding proposals to reform the criminal justice system and plans to close infamous jail facilities like New York’s Rikers Island prison complex.

As a criminology professor at Mason and former Assistant Attorney General, Professor Robinson was appointed to serve on the Independent Commission on NYC Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. According to the professor, it took over 13 months for the Commission to research and create a report on proposed improvements to New York’s criminal justice system.

Rikers Island in particular has long been a source of controversy due to the poor physical state of the facilities, the isolation of the site, and what Professor Robinson called the “gladiator culture of violence” that surrounds the institution.

One example described by Professor Robinson occurred in 2013, when inmate Jose Bautista attempted to commit suicide by hanging himself. Four corrections officers rushed in, but instead of seeking medical attention, they began to beat him. Bautista subsequently required surgery for his injuries. This case was one of  many that have contributed to extremely negative public perceptions of the New York prison system.

As an inmate suffering from depression, Bautista is one of the 2,000 who suffer from mental illness on Rikers Island. According to Professor Robinson, this is about 20 percent of the prison’s population.

Mason students attending the lecture seemed to approve of the report’s conclusions. One senior agreed that the criminal justice system should be reformed, and added that the process for restoring convicts’ rights should also be fast-tracked.

The commission’s plan consisted of a “bottom line” recommendation to close Rikers Island eventually. It also included reducing the population to 5,000 by the year 2027, and replacing the current system with five borough-based community prisons.

However, the commission’s proposals go far beyond Rikers Island. The committee recommended better crime prevention, reducing pre-trial detention and eliminating money bail to address the criminal justice system as a whole. Their report also suggested making it easier for family to visit convicted relatives and expanding sentencing alternatives.

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio endorsed the committee’s recommendations for Rikers Island.