Despite New York City’s claims to have made progress in resolving the crisis at Rikers Island, the prison complex remains awash in violence and disorder due to chronic staff absenteeism, according to a report filed in federal court on Wednesday.
By the end of January, about one in three wardens had failed to show up for work, according to the report, issued by a federal observer appointed to oversee reforms at the prison complex. That’s about the same absenteeism rate as at the height of the Rikers Island crisis last year, when violence soared, more than a dozen people died and many inmates were left to their own devices.
The report also found that the rate of violence at Rikers remained high, with January the second most violent month – measured by stabbing and cutting in prisons – since the observer, Steve J. Martin, was appointed to oversee the crime. the complex. In many cases, Mr. Martin that staff absenteeism created the conditions for the violence.
Violent incidents, the report noted, “have normalized and have seemingly lost their ability to instill a sense of urgency in those who have the power to make change,” adding in bold text that the high levels of violence and use of force by correctional officers “are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal.”
According to the report, the rate of violence in city prisons was “seven to eight times higher” than in other justice systems.
The report was the monitor’s first since Mayor Eric Adams took office. It found that under the leadership of its newly appointed corrections commissioner, Louis Molina, the department “remained trapped in a state of persistent dysfunction”, and that the Rikers complex was “unstable and unsafe”. It also noted that transparency has become a serious issue in the department’s communication with the monitoring team.
In January, Mr Molina issued a press release announcing that 1,000 officers – many of whom had fallen ill during the Omicron wave – had returned to work, which he said was remarkable. †an important shift in the right direction.” Last month, he gave an interview in which he attributed the increased communication with the workforce as having restored some semblance of order to the prison system.
The Crisis on Rikers Island
Amid the pandemic and a personnel emergency, New York City’s main prison complex is embroiled in an ongoing crisis.
But the monitor’s findings challenged that assessment, noting that despite employees returning to work in late January, more than 2,000 were unavailable, “a level that had already been identified as a significant crisis.”
Mr Molina took over the department during one of the worst crises in decades. Sixteen people died in New York City’s prison system in 2021, the most since 2013; gang members have taken control of a number of residential areas; and some detainees have been forced to go without food or healthcare.
The department has reported that one person, Tarz Youngblood, 38, has died at Rikers so far this year. Last year around this time, two detainees had died.
Mr Molina has forged a close alliance with the union that represents chastisement officers, overturned restrictions on a departmental sick leave policy instituted by his predecessor and fired an internal investigator after asking her to bring 2,000 disciplinary cases against officers within 100 days.
The researcher, Sarena Townsend, had long been at odds with the union. The monitor’s report called her removal “disturbing” and said it had not been notified of her termination.
Molina did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the monitor’s findings, but appeared to acknowledge the report in a press release Wednesday. In the release, the Department of Correction said attacks on staffers had declined since the previous year.
“Even before I joined DOC in January, I was well aware of the history of the issues facing the department,” said Mr. Molina in a statement attached to the press release. “We have to do better, and we can do better.”
A spokesman for the largest union of jailers, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The report noted that the staffing problems in the city jails were all the more confusing given the vast resources of the Correction Department. In fiscal 2021, the department had a $1.25 billion budget and spent more than half a million dollars on each inmate, a price the report called “unmatched.” It said the amount was more than three times the amount spent on those held in Los Angeles or Chicago prisons.
In particular, the report looked at conditions at a Rikers prison, the Robert N. Davoren Complex, which houses many young adults, and details a number of violent incidents in January alone. They include an attack on an officer by a group of detainees who used his own can of pepper spray to attack him and the stabbing of one detainee by another detainee who suffered no repercussions for more than 48 hours. The report added that some of the violent episodes had occurred when employees were away from their posts.
Molina recently faced criticism after DailyExpertNews revealed that the department had failed to document the brutal beatings that took place on Rikers Island before he took over the agency. He acknowledged the failures, saying, “Transparency is very important to me.”
But the monitor’s report described what it called a “deeply troubling” lack of open and transparent communication between the Correction Department and the monitoring team. It said the department had stopped keeping specific records of absenteeism at the end of January and later noted that the department had refused to provide the monitor with that data in recent months.
“The monitoring team is incredibly disappointed to report that it has lost confidence in having access to all the relevant and reliable information it needs to perform its duties,” the report said.
The monitor acknowledged several other issues related to the lack of transparency, pointing to the serious injury of Khaled Eltahan, 41, whose brutal beatings by another detainee went completely unrecorded by the corrections department. As a result of the attack, Mr. Eltahan was paralyzed from the neck down and had to lie in a nursing home bed.
The monitor also said it had found what appeared to be unreported sexual misconduct in the prison complex, with an inmate having sexual misconduct with multiple people. None of the activities were detected by the staff or recorded in official documents.
The report was the latest in a series of similar filings by Mr. Martin and his team, in which their frustration with the prison leadership and deteriorating conditions has become increasingly apparent. In this report, they called for a different approach and indicated that more in-depth reporting was needed.
With every change in administration, the report said, “the department restarts the reform clock, and initiatives based on solid correctional practices are reviewed or halted before any benefits are ever realized.”