New York City faced mounting pressure Friday to solve its spiraling jail crisis, 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, self-harm 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 the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex 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 self-harm, and bringing new perspectives by allowing the city to hire wardens and fill management positions from outside the city’s system.
“This is an urgent matter of life and death and it needs relief today,” said lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, noting the deaths of two inmates since Sunday.
As that was happening, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he’ll go to Rikers Island next week to see problems first hand — his first time there since 2017. His announcement followed recent tours of the facilities by elected officials and advocates who’ve highlighted a “humanitarian crisis” of squalor and suffering behind bars.
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.
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.
A message seeking comment was left with the Justice Department, whose intervention in a decade-old inmate lawsuit over jail conditions spurred a settlement leading to a consent decree and the jail system’s federal monitor.
“The government is, of course, alarmed at the extraordinary level of violence and disorder in the jails, and the city’s ongoing failure to comply with the core provisions of the consent judgment,” Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Powell said on Friday’s emergency conference call.
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.
The federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, said on the emergency conference call Friday that the city’s jail system needs a “back to basics” overhaul he dubbed “Corrections 101” while overworked guards continue to leave doors unsecured, abandon posts and ignore signs of distress. He excoriated city officials for failing to present “not one” concrete solution to lingering security concerns.
In one recent incident, Martin said, officers failed to immediately respond as an inmate attempted to hang himself in their sight line some 6 feet away, and an officer walking directly in front of the cell did nothing. Eventually, the guards did notice the man, got him down and he survived, Martin said.
Swain called the guards’ behavior “absolutely unacceptable.”
“It is unacceptable to be willfully ignorant of self-harm behavior, to ignore self-harm behavior or signs of it. It needs to be communicated immediately,” Swain said during the three-hour call. “There is no good reason for anybody to think that that’s acceptable. And to the extent anybody misunderstands, that has to be communicated immediately.”
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.