Congress, Court Pressure NYC to Fix Jails Crisis

A barbed wire fence outside inmate housing on New York’s Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

New York City faced mounting pressure Friday to solve the spiraling violence at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, with members of Congress calling for a federal civil rights investigation and a court-appointed monitor blasting the city for a failure of leadership amid staggering violence and the deaths this year of at least 12 inmates.

U.S. District Judge Laura Swain, overseeing a jail consent decree, said on an emergency conference call Friday that  Rikers Island is “clearly in a state of danger and crisis.” On the call, lawyers for inmates and city government debated the monitor’s latest recommendations for reversing deteriorating conditions and debilitating staff absences.

They include requiring new inmates be processed within 24 hours, instead of lingering in intake for days, keeping inmates involved in violent altercations locked in their cells, reiterating to guards their duty to stop harm, and bringing new perspectives by allowing the city to hire wardens and fill management positions from outside the city’s system.

City Councilman Joe Borelli said he visited Rikers Island Thursday night and that conditions there were “worse than I’ve seen before, and worse than you imagine.” Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, said that prior to visiting he thought colleagues who’d gone to Rikers were being hyperbolic, “but I can report to you it is not hyperbole.”

More city jail inmates have died this year than in any of the past three years. There were seven deaths in 2020, three in 2019 and eight in 2018, according to the city’s Department of Correction. At least five deaths this year were suicides, the most since 2005. A city report last week showed sharply higher rates of violence, serious injuries to inmates and assaults on staff compared with previous years. Not all inmates are convicted criminals; many are there awaiting trial because they were unable to post bail.

In a letter Friday to President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, Democratic members of the city’s Congressional delegation called for a federal civil rights investigation of the city’s jails. They said that the federal government had a duty to step in and “provide much needed oversight and accountability for the staff, officers, and detainees that reside on Rikers Island.”

“We cannot continue to allow Rikers Island to deteriorate to the point that it is no longer a safe place for those in custody or those who work in the jails,” the representatives said.

Four New York Congressional Democrats sent a letter Tuesday to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio demanding that inmates be released and Rikers be closed immediately. The city had said it plans to close the facility by 2027.

Uniformed personnel at the city’s jails has plummeted, from a staff of 10,862 in the 2017 fiscal year to 8,388 in 2021. The guard’s union says 7,600 of staff are correctional officers and the rest are in supervisory roles. At one point in the summer, one-third of guards were out sick or medically unfit to work with inmates, the city said. Additionally, an untold number of guards went AWOL.

The city, struggling to fill jail posts, said it is offering incentives, including extra overtime pay, and bringing in food trucks and providing late-night rides home for jail guards who work extra shifts. Since last week, it’s been cracking down on officers who don’t show up for work. City lawyer Kimberly Joyce said Friday that 55 jail guards have been suspended 30 days without pay for failing to report for duty.

Reporting by the Associated Press. 

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