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Can Rikers Be Saved?

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Can Rikers Be Saved?

The city jails complex on Rikers Island is in crisis, but reforms can stanch the bleeding. October 4, 2021
New York
Public safety

If the main responsibilities of correctional facilities are care, custody, and control, the New York City jail complex on Rikers Island can’t currently fulfill them. Staffing deficits have worsened many problems, including rising violence, that Rikers had already been struggling to curtail. Without enough staffing, the safety of everyone who enters Rikers’s gates—inmates and officers alike—is in jeopardy.

Rikers has 8,370 uniformed staff, but current Corrections commissioner Vincent Schiraldi has said that 1,416 officers call in sick daily. The New York Post reported that 1,789 officers called in sick and 93 were AWOL on September 14 alone. A federal monitor attributes the labor shortage to poor administrative management. The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association agrees, but also blames staff illness and attrition. Hiring freezes, retirements, and other leaves of absence have left many correctional facilities short-staffed during the pandemic.

Whatever the cause, Rikers doesn’t have enough officers, even with some working double and triple shifts. The New York Post reported that housing blocks apparently have been left without a “B” officer (B officers typically work the blocks, while A officers use a video-camera system to observe the blocks). This past May, a housing unit holding inmates with severe mental illness was placed on lockdown because of insufficient staff, according to The City. Stories have circulated of incarcerated men running blocks in a B officer’s absence and making calls on restricted phones to try to facilitate clinic and court visits.

Violence both contributes to, and is exacerbated by, the staff shortage. In 2016, officers reported approximately 390 use-of-force incidents every month; by 2019, that number had risen to about 600. Meantime, violence among inmates increased 70 percent between 2014 and 2020, with the majority of violent incidents occurring after 2016. Violence at the facility coincided with a reduction in the jail population, but reforms left behind a more violent population of inmates. For its part, the federal monitor assigned to Rikers notes that inconsistent enforcement, poor interpersonal skills, and the failure of some supervisors to intervene during volatile situations helps escalate use-of-force incidents. And mismanagement—some officers have been placed in positions of authority while lacking training and expertise—has also been an issue for the unionized work force.

But officers attribute rising violence to policy reforms that made it harder for them to impose disciplinary measures such as “punitive segregation” (commonly known as solitary confinement). In 2016, the mayor banned the use of punitive segregation for those aged 18 and under; in 2017, the cutoff increased to 22. One staff member tells me that an inmate could assault an officer but be out “rocking the tier” by the end of the week—that is, placed back into the general population, with no restrictions. The New York Post reported that a maintenance worker was recently robbed at knifepoint by inmates. Women officers have been sexually assaulted and violated by incarcerated men, a staff member has told me. “We have never seen this before,” the staff member says. “Female officers and captains are being routinely violated.” Affiliated gang members are often housed in the same block, yet officers have no tools to enact proper discipline—and, as one staff member says, “the inmates know it.”

The result is disorder. Inmates have smeared peanut butter on facility cameras so they cannot be recorded. The New York Post reports that the inmates are smoking cigarettes, marijuana, and K2, listening to music and dancing, and engaging in assaults—all while recording themselves on cell phones and posting videos on social media. An anonymous staff member tells me that if a detainee were alleged to have a cell phone years ago, it would have prompted a full investigation. Now, she says, “they don’t do anything. What can they do? Staff have no time to write tickets. There is no one to hold disciplinary hearings and no one to escort the men to these hearings even if they were being held. And, even if there is a hearing, there is no punishment.”

All this imperils the safety of detainees, who have complained about unresponsive or absent staff, unable to provide for their safety or their basic needs. Staff shortages lead to fewer programmatic opportunities, increased violence, and missed court and medical visits. Inmates are locked in their cells with limited access to services or hygiene.

The criminal-justice system has moved glacially throughout the pandemic. Though many court proceedings can be heard virtually, virtual trials are constitutionally questionable; hence, detainees who want to take their case to trial must wait. If inmates don’t have staff to escort them to video appearances or transport them to in-person appearances, their court proceedings must be continuously postponed.

Serious consequences result when there is no one to supervise those on the housing blocks. Twelve residents have died so far this year, four by suicide. Conditions appear so dire that on a recent tour by local politicians, an inmate attempted to hang himself in their presence. Visiting Democratic lawmakers were horrified by conditions that they said surmounted to a “humanitarian crisis,” citing deplorable conditions such as hallways littered with decaying food, maggots, feces, urine, and cockroaches. Detainees have been housed on intake units for days, worsening the risk for Covid transmission; recently, the jail has witnessed a spike in infections.

Frustrations are running high. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who wants to close Rikers and build four high-rise jails across the city, has visited the island and released a five-point plan to deal with the staff shortages. It includes punishing absentee officers who don’t provide documentation for their absence with a 30-day suspension, reopening clinic spaces to speed up the intake process, and replacing corrections officers in the courts, who are often responsible for inmate supervision before and after court proceedings, with NYPD officers. Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Benny Boscio had criticized de Blasio for not visiting the facility, he says, for four years, and for creating a reform plan without union input. De Blasio’s recent visit drew criticism; Boscio says that the mayor’s plan to hire private security to staff the island will be met with litigation.

What can be done? Staff members, both custodial and non-custodial, said in interviews that, despite a recent death there, the Bronx Barge—a “temporary” jail that has been there for decades, used for extra capacity—was in better shape than the main Rikers facility. They touted better administrative techniques.

Staffing and hiring protocols need revision. One staff member said that people are often appointed to administrative positions who don’t possess a corrections background and never served as uniformed staff. One senior appointed member of the department has a felony on his record; others, staffers allege, have been promoted based on friendships or familial relationships. “It is all about putting people in the right position,” one staff member said. “I have been trained in mental health, but I am not a mental health counselor. If one of the inmates needs counseling services, I am not the person they should be getting it from. Let them do their jobs. And, in the same respect, when it comes to security, let us do ours.” Still, some officers hold administrative positions—such as record-keeping—that civilians could fill.

The jail itself requires physical changes. The closure of facility space has made the overall space more crowded and dangerous. Staff would like to see previously closed facilities reopen, providing much-needed space. And inmates should not be housed according to gang affiliation. Gangs cause much of the violence at Rikers; when housed together, they command the block. If administrators place a new inmate in a housing unit that happens to be a “gang” block, they could be signing his death sentence. It is not clear that staff are tracking these security risks or effectively curtailing them.

More correction officers should be hired, and they should be better trained. And staff must be permitted to discipline inmates. The restrictions on punitive segregation were not paired with effective alternatives, leaving little consequence for the most violent offenders, especially those who face significant prison time and feel they have nothing to lose.

For the safety of staff and detainees, reforms are needed at Rikers—and quickly.

Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

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