NEW YORK — Violence on Rikers Island is surging. Exhausted guards are working triple shifts. And staffing shortages have triggered lockdowns at some of the jail’s largest facilities.
More than a year after the coronavirus sickened thousands in New York City’s jail system, the Department of Correction has plunged further into crisis as complaints of severe mismanagement, persistent violence and deaths of incarcerated people continue to mount.
Correction officers and incarcerated people alike have described a tumultuous first half of the year: Six detainees have died, including at least two by suicide and one who passed away later at a hospital, compared with seven through all of 2020. Guards have been forced to work triple and occasionally quadruple shifts, staying on duty for 24 hours or longer, to make up for staffing shortages.
Last month, a report by a federal monitor appointed to oversee the troubled jails described a system in a state of disorder and expressed grave concern about the agency’s ability to change course.
The crisis comes at a pivotal moment for Rikers Island. Mayor Bill de Blasio and leaders in the City Council are moving forward with an $8 billion plan to replace the complex with four smaller jails in five years. But most of the candidates vying to replace de Blasio when his term expires at the end of the year have expressed opposition to the plan.
Several candidates have said they want to close Rikers Island without building jails to replace it, instead focusing on mental health treatment. Other candidates have expressed concern about the size and location of the planned new jails.
The chaos at Rikers Island, one of the nation’s largest and most notorious jails, has erupted at a time when officials across the country are grappling with the pandemic, violence and abuse behind bars.
In New Jersey, the governor announced this month that the state’s only prison for women will be shuttered after a Justice Department review found there was a pervasive culture of sexual violence by guards. At the same time, officials in California, Connecticut and elsewhere have moved to close facilities in response to a drop in the prison population and a broad rethinking of how and when people should be incarcerated.
New York City’s correction department has endured a punishing streak of scandals: A captain was charged with criminally negligent homicide in April after she left a man hanging in a Manhattan jail cell and stopped a subordinate from intervening.
A captain, an assistant deputy warden and two correction officers were suspended in March after a man accused of murder was accidentally released from jail. And now the department is investigating the wrongful release of yet another detainee who escaped Monday. The department, in March, also came under fire following a report in the Daily News that more than 1,500 phone calls between defendants and their lawyers had been illegally recorded.
And late last month, several guards and other correction workers were charged with taking bribes to smuggle contraband into city jails.
“I have real questions about what’s happening with the agency,” said Councilman Keith Powers, a Manhattan Democrat who heads the criminal justice committee. “I think we all recognize that COVID has added a new layer of stress to the system, but it still doesn’t help us account for the various issues we have seen over the last few months.”
At least some of the problems inside the jails appear to be the result of mismanagement, the federal monitor found, such as staffing shortfalls resulting not from a lack of officers but from a failure to properly deploy them.
In interviews, guards described being too exhausted to break up fights or to complete necessary paperwork. For some officers, the longer hours have led to shorter tempers and irritability when interacting with inmates, they said. Officer morale remains low. Up to 2,000 officers — more than 20% of the workforce — are out sick or unable to work daily, jail officials said.
In response, incarcerated people have grown frustrated by a reduction in basic services. Inadequate staffing has forced them to miss meetings with their lawyers and limited access to commissary, the law library, and medical and mental health care.
Cynthia Brann, the former jails commissioner who stepped down at the end of last month, declined an interview.
Speaking at a jail oversight hearing, Brann acknowledged “significant challenges” since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I can assure you we’ve taken all measures to ensure that we are safely staffed and operations go on,” Brann said.
But the 342-page report released by the federal monitor provided a strikingly different view.
“Issues plaguing the department are systemic and deep-seated and have been passed down and accepted by all levels of staff across the agency,” the monitor, Steve J. Martin, a lawyer and national corrections expert, said.
He said the jail’s use-of-force rate was at a five-year high and added that “the pervasive level of disorder and chaos in the facilities is alarming.”
‘We just want answers’
Instances of self-harm have been on the rise in the city’s jails in recent months, statistics show. In March, 148 people harmed themselves, including 12 seriously, according to Correctional Health Services data.
Yet training officers to better respond to suicide attempts has lagged. As of May 6, just 10% of the city’s more than 9,000 officers and their supervisors had received a required annual refresher course in suicide prevention training, the department said.
Underscoring the issue, Manhattan prosecutors in April charged a correction captain, Rebecca Hillman, with criminally negligent homicide after they say she left Ryan Wilson hanging in his cell for 15 minutes Nov. 22 and stopped another officer from saving him.
Two days later, another man, Ishmael Hamilton, 26, tried to kill himself while in a mental health clinic on Rikers Island, according to an official with knowledge of the incident. The city’s Department of Investigation is now investigating.
On Jan. 23 at another facility on Rikers Island, Wilson Diaz-Guzman, 30, used a bedsheet to hang himself from a sprinkler head in his cell, the official said. An officer discovered Diaz-Guzman at 7 p.m. He was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.
Tomas Carlo Camacho, 48, was in a mental health observation unit on Rikers on March 2 when he was found unresponsive and on his knees with his head through a small slot in the cell door known as a cuffing slot. He died at a hospital after he was granted compassionate release from the jail. Earl Ward, a lawyer for the family, said Carlo Camacho should have been under constant surveillance.
Carlo Camacho’s son, Kevin Carlo, said his father had schizophrenia disorder.
“He was a God-fearing man. He had two kids and grandkids who love him,” Carlo, 28, said. “We just want answers. We want somebody to take responsibility.”
Seventeen days later, Javier Velasco, 37, used a bedsheet to hang himself while also housed in a mental health observation unit. Velasco had been transferred to the unit after he had attempted suicide three days earlier, according to two people with knowledge of the incident.
Given the earlier suicide attempt, advocates say, jail officials failed to protect Velasco.
With the pandemic starting to recede behind bars — 10% of incarcerated people have already had the virus, and 38% were at least partially vaccinated as of last week — new issues have arisen.
“This isn’t even about COVID anymore,” said Kelsey De Avila, the jail service project director at the Brooklyn Defender Services. “This is the aftermath now. This is the crisis that follows the pandemic.”
‘Our officers feel defeated’
The correction officer had not eaten or had a break from her post at a facility on Rikers Island in more than 16 hours. When a fight erupted in the jailhouse, she said, she was too tired to stop it.
It was not the first time the officer, 27, who spoke anonymously because she was not authorized to speak to the media, had to work a triple shift. She said she had worked 15 24-hour shifts since the fall. She had started sleeping in her car, she said, because she was too tired to drive home and often had to return in a matter of hours.
Another officer, 31, said she had worked so many long hours that it began to affect her health. She was only relieved after she suffered a medical emergency on duty, when her heart was racing and she had chest pain.
Benny Boscio Jr., president of the union representing correction officers, said 1,000 officers had resigned in the past two years, in part because of the work conditions. “Our officers feel defeated,” he said.
Jail staff and elected officials had questioned Brann’s leadership in the months before her departure. Many welcomed the appointment of her successor, Vincent Schiraldi, who is widely seen as a reformer. Schiraldi has said he plans to downsize the system and move forward on efforts to close Rikers Island.
In an interview, Schiraldi said he would focus attention on young adults and incarcerated people with mental illnesses at a time when more than half the city’s detainees receive mental health services. These groups have experienced the highest rates of violence and use of force by guards, he said.
Schiraldi said he also wanted to prioritize getting jail officers to return to work.
“It’s like peeling an onion; there are many layers to the violence that’s occurring there, and that includes an insufficient number of staff coming to work, the pandemic, programs being closed down,” Schiraldi said. “We need a multifaceted approach.”
Councilwoman Adrienne Adams said Brann, the previous commissioner, was “failing her employees in not getting to the bottom of sick-outs and making a better work environment.”
De Blasio, during an “Inside City Hall” interview on NY1 in March, praised Brann for her work on the plan to close Rikers and, following pressure from advocates for incarcerated people, a move to end solitary confinement.
“Commissioner Brann has taken on an incredibly tough situation and made real progress,” de Blasio said.
Joseph Russo, president of the union representing assistant deputy wardens and deputy wardens, said that staff members felt “trapped” and that some had resorted to calling out sick to avoid being forced to work multiple shifts.
Jail officials said that staff had been redeployed from headquarters and specialized and support units to make up for the wave of absences. The city also plans to hire 400 new correction officers this year.
But the staffing issues, the monitor’s report said, had led to problems, including the elevated use of excessive force, tension among detainees and morale issues among staff members working extra shifts.
The monitor also said that jail officers tended to rely too heavily on emergency response teams to assist with routine jailhouse matters, often resulting in extreme uses of force.
“The department struggles to manage its large number of staff productively, to deploy them effectively, to supervise them responsibly, and to elevate the base level of skill of its staff,” the monitor said.
Boscio, the correction officer union leader, said the workforce felt abandoned.
“People are frustrated with the working conditions we’re forced to work in,” Boscio said. “We feel like they’ve forsaken us.”