NEW YORK — Five suicides in the last nine months and 10 deaths in the last year — it's a grim picture that illustrates the ongoing chaos on Rikers Island, home to nearly 6,000 detainees and thousands of officers, both facing an unsafe environment that advocates say amounts to a humanitarian crisis.
What You Need To Know
- According to the Department of Correction, the daily average number of officers calling out sick in August was nearly 1,500
- This past Sunday, 29 officers worked triple shifts and 25 guard posts in a single housing unit went unmanned
- Rikers Island is home to nearly 6,000 detainees and thousands of officers, both facing an unsafe environment that advocates say amounts to a humanitarian crisis
Darren Mack — a former inmate who served time on Rikers Island and who is now co-director for the Freedom Agenda — tells NY1 he hasn't seen this level of dysfunction in years.
"If the city can’t keep people alive, then the city shouldn't keep people in custody," Mack said. "People are dying. People are being traumatized. People are not getting access to food or medical care. When people are denied these things, that is driving people to taking their own lives."
For months now, the Department of Correction has been grappling with a massive problem that could be described as an unofficial work action. Thousands of officers have stopped reporting for duty. Many of them are calling in sick and some are simply absent without official leave.
According to the department, the daily average number of officers calling out sick in August was nearly 1,500. Compare that to 689 — the average number of staff that called out sick during the same time last year — and 555, the number of officers who called out sick during the same month in 2019.
City Councilman Keith Powers, who chairs the council's Committee on Criminal Justice, said the workforce is demoralized and inmates are being denied basic rights.
"It starts with a staff shortage,” Powers said. “People are not coming in to work every day, leading to other folks working triple shifts and being demoralized in our jails right now."
Just last month, the department recorded approximately 2,700 AWOL incidents in August alone. That has a domino effect on detainees, who by many reports have at times been left unguarded and without access to basic services.
"The jails are failing at their most basic operations of security, providing food, providing water, providing beds, getting individuals to doctors or to court," said Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society.
Caught in the middle is a population predominately made up of New Yorkers of color — those in custody and the officers tasked with guarding the jails.
Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi held a press conference with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on Thursday. He highlighted the department's efforts to prevent triple shifts and improve working conditions for officers, but he also blamed years of dysfunction for the crisis that is unfolding now.
"I cannot help but think if folks here looked like me or looked like my kids, this would be handled differently and would have been handled differently for decades," Schiraldi said. “It's not five minutes of neglect, it is decades of neglect,”
The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, says officers are being forced to work triple shifts as the inmate population has increased. This past Sunday, 29 officers worked triple shifts and 25 guard posts in a single housing unit went unmanned. Union President Benny Boscio points the finger at Mayor Bill de Blasio.
"Thanks to his gross mismanagement, we are unable to conduct facility searches for weapons and drugs. Inmates aren’t getting their required services, and officers, nurses, doctors, and civilians are getting assaulted with impunity," Boscio said in a statement.
The department has hired 600 new officers, expected to go into service in October even as advocates and department leadership contend more hires is not the solution.
Asked about the ongoing staffing issues at Rikers, de Blasio said the city was increasing officers and pointed to COVID-19 pandemic as one of the reasons for deteriorating conditions on the island.
"We have to do a variety of other measures to keep people in the facilities safe, and those reforms are being acted on and worked on regularly,” de Blasio said. “It's a very tough situation.”
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