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ProPublica: NYC Paid McKinsey To Stem Jail Violence. Instead, It Soared


How did an effort to reduce violence in New York City's jail complex go wrong? New York had a problem with violence. It was inside the famous facility at Rikers Island. So New York hired a famous consulting firm to find fresh ideas. McKinsey & Company was paid millions for a new anti-violence strategy. And a ProPublica investigation finds that strategy failed, which McKinsey obscured with bogus numbers.

ProPublica's Ian MacDougall has been leading the reporting, and he's on the line. Good morning.

IAN MACDOUGALL: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Can I just note, McKinsey is a business consulting firm. Why would you send them into a jail?

MACDOUGALL: Well, the city says that it's because they are well known for dealing with complex organizations that have problems. What I've been told by people who were in meetings with city officials back then is that there was this public outrage about the violence at Rikers and they wanted to - the city wanted to address it quickly and also head off a likely civil rights lawsuit by the Justice Department.

INSKEEP: OK, reasonable thing to want to do. People, even if they're in prison, or especially when they're in the custody of the state, should be safe. But what did Rikers employees tell you about how the McKinsey strategy went wrong?

MACDOUGALL: Well, it had problems from the start. As they were formulating their anti-violence strategy, they really spoke only to Corrections Department officials, despite being told they ought to talk to inmates, clinic staff, others who have direct insights into drivers of violence at Rikers. They didn't do that.

INSKEEP: And so did they try things that didn't actually address the problems?

MACDOUGALL: They did. One of the big focuses was these sort of advanced data analytics tools that, you know, in theory could've been helpful to do things like address gang violence and so on. But at a place that's as low-tech as Rikers, where there aren't really computers in a lot of the jails, those were not very helpful solutions.

They were, however, helpful to McKinsey, which was trying to expand into corrections consulting. They could hold up these shiny objects to other corrections departments and say...

INSKEEP: Oh, meaning they came up with great data that wasn't based - weren't based on anything.

MACDOUGALL: Yeah, so they had that problem, too. They - in these units where they sort of combined all of their reforms - they called them restart units - they claimed to have these really dramatic drops in violence, and they did. But a big part of that, a significant part of that was that they had from the very earliest stages stacked those units with inmates who were known not to be unruly or prone to violence particularly.

INSKEEP: Oh, so they focused on the people who weren't such a problem and declared them not a problem. Now, while they're doing this, were people inside Rikers, who, in many cases, have not been - even been convicted of a crime - they're just accused - they're continuing to be intimidated, beaten, sometimes even killed?

MACDOUGALL: Yes. Yeah, the violence continued to get worse. You know, there are blips up and down here and there, but the trend has been increasingly worse violence. In fact, a monitor's - a federal monitor's report that came out just in October said use of force by guards has just continued to escalate in the whole - the period that the monitor has been in place.

INSKEEP: Oh, so it's not just employ - inmate-on-inmate violence; it's also violence by guards on inmates.

MACDOUGALL: Yeah, yes. And also inmates against staff as well.

INSKEEP: OK. Mr. MacDougall, thanks for your reporting. Really appreciate it.

MACDOUGALL: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Ian MacDougall is a reporter for ProPublica, which looked at a McKinsey effort, a strategy to reduce violence inside Rikers Island in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAMAME'S "THOUSAND-HAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.