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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Rikers Island and the anti-professionals

Ideas to reform the Rikers Island jail complex

Ideas to reform the Rikers Island jail complex would help, but such measures are dismissed, corrections veterans say. Credit: AP/Bebeto Matthews

Violence and neglect drive the perennial news stories from New York City's Rikers Island jail complex. Conditions have deteriorated. Fingers are pointing — to inmate behavior, officer conduct, and management failures.

Worse trouble is feared every day.

This week City Hall, under the soon-departing Mayor Bill de Blasio, took the unusual step of suing the biggest jail union, the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, alleging that its leaders condoned mass absenteeism over the course of this year — a stunning show of officers abusing unlimited sick time.

Another side of the story, told by reform-minded ex-officers, involves management's failure to take clear, tested, non-abusive steps to exercise control over inmates. Keeping gang members apart, isolating the worst offenders, and preventing the ongoing collapse of the physical plant would help, but such measures are dismissed, corrections veterans say.

COVID-19 spread as inmate numbers rose. Deaths have included an eerie cluster of apparent suicides. The professional mantra of "custody, care and control" seems like a mockery in the current mayoral administration and a massive challenge for the next.

All this is happening under the gaze of a federal monitor who has raised alarms.

Judging from a distance, a luxury those in Rikers on either side of the bars do not have, you hear a familiar theme — challenges to the authority of professionals from outside the operation, and instances of unprofessional behavior within.

It's a problem that also crops up these days far from Rikers in blue-collar, white-collar and academic occupations.

Top scientists may generally agree on a set of facts, but peddlers of "alternative theories" then demean their credibility in cyberspace. We see this with climate change and the pandemic.

At the same time, professional practitioners can undermine their own credibility. A surprising number of scholars' papers in psychology, economics and other fields are published in journals without the results being verified or replicated — yet are widely cited anyway, according to the journal "Science Advances."

Lack of confidence inside and outside a profession also arises in medical care.

Nurses rarely get the acclaim they deserve for difficult, high-pressure jobs. But what's to be said of the professionalism of any health care employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 despite exposure to patients and risk to themselves?

The same problem arises in the political world amid new controversies over voting. Election professionals, including qualified lawyers and technicians, developed modern voting systems to be palpably fair and accurate.

But in the past year, competent election officials of both parties were collectively denounced and defamed by substandard lawyers for the losing side of a national race who brought frivolous lawsuits to overturn results.

That said, election boards traditionally hire party lackeys of dubious professional devotion on whom occasional fiascoes are blamed. Just recently, the city board accidentally allowed anyone who knew where to look to find out how a smattering of individuals voted — supposedly in secret.

A no-confidence campaign is hitting all kinds of professionals, much of it off-base. Blind faith in experts costs us, but so can scorning facts and knowledge.

Professional opinions don't always prove correct. Fiascoes occur. But ignoring or opposing those most likely to know what they’re talking about can have terrible consequences in hospitals, voting booths, schools, labs, jails and elsewhere.