Following a tour of Rikers Island, Mayor Eric Adams on Wednesday delivered a forceful defense of his administration’s management of the troubled jail complex, where deaths and reports of inhumane conditions have renewed calls for the federal government to intervene.
His visit comes during the same week when two inmates in city custody died on consecutive days, bringing the total to eight detainee deaths so far this year. Another inmate at a Bronx correctional facility died this month, after he tried to hang himself, but was not included in the count because he was granted compassionate release three days before his death, according to the Daily News. The city did not disclose how the two latest inmates died, though the New York Times reports that the cause of a death for the inmate who died Monday was from a suspected drug overdose.
Last year, a total of 16 people died while in city custody.
Asked by a reporter how the city can claim progress amid such tragic figures, Adams pushed back and suggested the deaths may be due to “pre-existing conditions” of inmates.
“Why did they die?” the mayor said. “Because Rikers didn't give them heart disease, if that's the reason they died. Rikers didn’t give them diabetes if that's the reason they died.”
“The headline does not tell the story,” he added.
The moment was one of several during a nearly one-hour press conference where Adams sought to promote the strides made by Louis Molina, the city Department of Correction Commissioner, who he appointed in January.
Pushing back on reports of inmates failing to receive adequate and prompt medical attention, Adams cited 140,000 medical interventions received year to date by the roughly 5,000 inmates and touted his introduction of a policy that requires all New York City detainees to be screened for dyslexia.
However, in April, there were more than 11,700 missed medical appointments on Rikers, a 67% increase from December, according to city data.
City officials also sought to highlight the more than 2,700 weapons and prohibited items that correction officers have confiscated from inmates since February. Adams credited the department’s decision to bring back a so-called “tactical search operation” that had previously been suspended.
A mounted display included some of the weapons found, which included multiple makeshift knives fashioned from plexiglass taken from the deteriorating windows of jails and drugs.
Adams said that the recovery of such weapons had resulted in a 63% drop in slashings and stabbings at Rikers, while staff members experienced a 30% decrease in attacks resulting in a “use of force” response.
Although Molina revealed that 900 correction officers across the city’s jail system call out sick on any given day, that number is down significantly from the more than 2,000 absences last summer.
Adams said 1,400 officers had returned to work under the new commissioner. He also criticized the scrutiny on absences. “This is the only occupation where we're asking, ‘Hey, are your members faking sick?’”
Advocates sharply condemned Adams’ comments.
“That the Mayor visited Rikers Island and did not take responsibility for the deaths of nine people who have died in city custody this year, including the two New Yorkers since Sunday, is both irresponsible and callous,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement.
The group added that the administration “continues to be in denial about the realities on Rikers Island.”
Rikers has been facing the looming threat of a federal takeover since a staffing crisis last summer created a full-blown crisis that’s led to deteriorating conditions. Adams, who has made at least three visits to Rikers as mayor, has taken a new approach that has included bolstering the morale of the city’s roughly 7,000 uniformed correction officers.
“They come in, they deal with some of the most dangerous people in our city,” he said on Wednesday. “When a person commits a crime — a homicide, a rape, a robbery — they do not go back to the block, they go back to a cell block.”
Earlier this month, a federal judge approved the city’s plan to improve conditions at Rikers. The next court hearing is scheduled in November.
This story was updated to include comment from the Legal Aid Society.