The city’s jail officers union sued the Department of Correction this week, alleging that officers are being forced to work in “unsafe and unhealthy working conditions,” including 20-plus hour shifts and failing to provide adequate protective gear at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The suit comes as the department faces considerable scrutiny over inmate deaths, mistaken releases and rising assaults on officers, and as the department’s new commissioner releases a plan to address long standing issues.

A recent report from a court-appointed independent monitor excoriated its staff and management, finding widespread failures and low morale. The city is currently investigating an incident where an inmate, Robert Jackson, 42, was found dead in his cell on June 30 after a guard left his post due to exhaustion.

Last week, after the correction union snubbed the parade honoring essential workers, the department’s own commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, lambasted employees who repeatedly call in sick, forcing others to work double and triple shifts, saying that those out sick “should be ashamed of themselves.”

“We are in crisis mode right now, based on everything we've seen in the past few months in our city jails,” City Council member Keith Powers, who chairs the committee on criminal justice, said in an interview before the announcement of the lawsuit.

The city’s budget for the new fiscal year added $27 million to the department’s budget, bringing it to $1.18 billion, as well as a new class of 400 correction officers, which union leaders say is vital -- and the bare minimum of new recruits necessary -- to keep the department functioning, even as detainee advocates criticize the staffing bump. 

“Nothing is being done to help us,” Benny Boscio, Jr., the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which sued the city, said in an interview Thursday. “Officers are at their breaking point.”

The city Law Department said it will review the lawsuit and respond in the litigation.

The suit, filed in Queens State Supreme Court on Tuesday, names the Department of Correction and the state’s Department of Labor as defendants, suing the latter agency to enforce city laws mandating certain accommodations for workers. 

On Friday, Schiraldi, who has been the department’s commissioner for six weeks, released a plan, entitled #NewDayDOC, which is meant to address complaints of guards, including several issues included in the union’s lawsuit. 

Schiraldi declined to comment on whether the lawsuit has merit. 

“There's a lot of pent-up frustration, so people are going to file their lawsuits and complain,” he said. “I’m laser focused on fixing stuff.”

His plan aims to break up gang housing in the units and repair cell doors that the union alleged in its lawsuits have led to inmates leaving their cells and endangering guards. The plan also aims to address overworking by ending triple shifts “as quickly as possible,” providing free meals to all staff on a triple shift and beginning an “inspirational speaker series” for guards. 

Schiraldi added that he did not regret his comments at the parade last week, saying that in June, the department had 2,800 instances of guards being absent without leave.

“There’s a lot of heroes that work in the New York City Department of Correction. There's also some people who are legitimately sick and at home, and I think there are some people who are faking it,” he said. “And those people should come back to work, so they can support their brothers and sisters who wear the uniform.”

The Correction Department oversees Rikers Island and two other jail facilities, as well as two hospital prison wards and court holding facilities around the city. Though the city does not have the largest inmate population in the country -- about 5,800 people are currently being held on Rikers -- it pays the most to house the population: $438,000 per year per person, almost triple the cost of the country’s second-most expensive jailing operation, according to an analysis from the Vera Institute of Justice. 

About 86% of that cost goes to staffing and management, while only about 5% goes to programs, nutrition and substance treatment, the analysis reported. The guard-to-inmate ratio is seven times higher than the national average. 

Yet the department is facing a staffing shortage problem that Boscio says is driven by injured guards using the unlimited sick time over a one-year period included in their contract to recover from assaults by inmates. (After one year, officers can separate from the department and return up to two years later to recover from an injury sustained by an inmate, Boscio said.) A January city report found that assaults on officers increased 23.2% during a four-month period in 2020 when compared with the same period in 2019. 

Recent tallies from the department have counted more than 1,300 officers out sick, out of a uniformed force of about 9,000. 

The result has been officers frequently working double and triple shifts, in many cases without meal breaks, Boscio said. 

Schiraldi said he plans to require guards to get medically approved by a doctor hired by the department before they can take sick leave. (In an emailed statement, Boscio said the union would fight any changes to the sick policy that “negatively affects” officers.)

In May, staffing shortages caused a lockdown of a unit of mentally ill inmates on Rikers, after officers were forced to work triple and quadruple shifts, The City reported

In the case of the death of Robert Jackson, Boscio said, the officer started work at 7 a.m. and left the post at 3:30 a.m. the next morning. Jackson’s body was not discovered until that evening. 

The staffing shortage, Boscio said, presents threats to both inmates and officers. 

“We can't physically defend ourselves, we can't defend other inmates when they are in fights with one another,” he said. “It’s a serious, serious, dangerous problem.” 

Yet an independent monitor recently reported that staffing issues are driven by poor coordination and management of staff, rather than a lack of staff. 

“In most cases, it appears the Staff and Supervisors on the unit are simply unwilling or unable to accept and execute their core responsibilities, such as to provide basic services and resolve interpersonal conflict, and instead seek more Staff to address the problem,” the report states.

The staffing issue drives both low morale among staff as well as frustration for inmates, the report said. 

On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio admitted “real issues” with the department in the wake of a New York Post report about dozens of former correction officers resigning their posts and joining the New York Police Department’s new class of recruits. 

“It’s a tough job, and it's been a tough time for the Correction Department,” de Blasio said. “We’ve really tried to address a number of the concerns that officers have.”

Schiraldi said his plan is the result of several weeks of meeting with guards, City Council members, union leaders and the mayor’s staff. The challenge, he said, will be to address multiple issues at once in the department. 

“You can't have a safe environment unless people come to work, and people won't come to work unless you have a safe environment,” he said. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said that Schiraldi plans to modify the department's contract with officers. Schiraldi indicated that the department plans to change its sick leave policy without altering the contract, a move the union said it may oppose.