NYC’s Rikers Island Jail Spirals into Chaos Amid Pandemic

September 17, 2021

NEW YORK — A spate of inmate deaths. Cellblocks unguarded. Staggering staffing shortages caused by AWOL guards. Detainees deprived of food and medical care.

New York City's notorious Rikers Island jail complex, troubled by years of neglect, has spiraled into turmoil during the coronavirus pandemic. It's not just inmates and advocates saying that. City officials, including the mayor, admit there are serious problems. 

One jail watchdog called it "a complete breakdown in the operation of the jails."

"In our office's 50 years of monitoring the city jails, this is one of the most dangerous times we've seen," said Mary Lynne Werlwas, a lawyer and the director of the Prisoners' Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

At one point during the summer, more than one-third of the city's jail guards — about 3,050 of 8,500 — were on sick leave or medically unfit to work with inmates, according to the agency that runs the city's jails, the Department of Correction. Some guards have been missing shifts without any explanation.

The growing crisis, brought to light in recent weeks by advocates, news reports and a federal monitor who wrote of "grave concerns" with the city's jails, has sent officials scrambling for remedies amid plans to close Rikers by 2026.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this week unveiled reforms that include requiring absent guards to get a doctor's note if they're out for more than a day, speeding inmate intake procedures and fixing infrastructure problems like broken cell doors.

On Wednesday, the city started suspending jail guards for 30 days without pay if they refused to come to work. Last week, the city said the staffing situation was so dire it was enlisting a telemarketing company to entice recently retired correctional officers to return to work.

Advocates, lawmakers and even the union for jail guards say the measures aren't enough to fix a system where 10 inmates have died this year, at least five in suspected suicides.

Advocates want inmates released immediately. Some say Rikers should be closed right away.

Lawmakers who toured Rikers complex this week said it's filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food. State Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas said inmates told her they felt like they were being treated like slaves and animals.

The union, meanwhile, has said that hiring more guards is the answer and that suspensions will leave remaining officers working "triple and quadruple shifts with no meals and no rest."

"The mayor cannot discipline his way out of this staffing crisis that he caused by refusing to hire a single correction officer for nearly three years, even as the inmate population doubled," said Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

In actuality, the city's jail population has risen by about 58%, topping 6,000 inmates at the end of last week after falling below 3,900 inmates as bail reforms took effect, arrests slowed and some inmates were sent home early in the pandemic. In addition, city jail Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said Monday that the city has authorized the hiring of at least 200 correctional officers.

De Blasio has blamed virus-related court backlogs for the increases and called on judges to use supervised release instead of jail for people accused of nonviolent offenses. He wants the state's prison system to transfer sentenced inmates from Rikers within five days and joined advocates and lawmakers in calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign a bill overhauling the parole system. 

Most of the city's jail inmates are being held for trial or on parole violations.

Problems at Rikers aren't new. The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported on past concerns including violence, deaths, sexual assaults and mistreatment of mentally ill inmates.

"It's taken a really long time to mess this place up. It has been decades of neglect out here," said Schiraldi, the jail commissioner since June. "I call it the junk drawer of the criminal justice system."

Inmates have wallowed for days at a single intake unit without basic medical attention, like having their blood sugar checked, and unable to make phone calls to relatives, lawmakers and advocates said.

Inmates have lashed out at guards and each other. In July, an inmate tossed feces at a jail captain. In August, an inmate slashed a guard.

In March, in what was supposed to be a secure and closely watched mental health observation unit, authorities said an inmate managed to kill himself.

"These conditions are not just responding to the crisis of the pandemic that hit the jails 17 months ago," said Werlwas. "This is a severe and remarkable decline in the very most basic security and operations of our jails."

The jail's federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Laura Swain in August that worsening conditions in the city's jails — rising violence, self-harm, death and use of force by guards — were tied directly to a spike in "excessive and unchecked staff absences" dating to April.

Guards who did show up said they were forced to work double and triple shifts, leading the union to sue the city over what it called "inhumane" working conditions. Some housing units had no guards at all, Martin said, and some Rikers inmates were able to access off-limits areas that were supposed to be highly secure.

The five suspected suicides at Rikers this year are the most there since 2005. In the past five weeks, three inmates have died. One of them, 25-year-old Brandon Rodriguez, had been there a week. Another, 24-year-old Esias Johnson, who died on Sept. 7, was a month into his stay. 

State Senator Jessica Ramos said lawmakers touring Rikers on Monday saw a man trying to kill himself.

"Everything goes back to the problem of Rikers Island itself," de Blasio said. "We need to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, we have immense challenges."


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