Correction officers confiscated about 5,000 weapons in city jails in fiscal year 2022 — that’s one weapon for every person incarcerated there on any given day, new city data shows. But seizing those weapons has not helped keep people safe, as the number of stabbings and slashings nearly doubled from 2021 and increased fourfold from just four years earlier.
In fact, the rate of people seriously injured by other people in custody ballooned 45% from 2021 to 2022. The rate was nine times higher in 2022 than 2018.
The numbers come from the annual Mayor’s Management Report released on Friday, which documented fiscal year data across city government.
The new statistics shocked even the closest observers of incarceration in New York, providing more evidence that Rikers Island, which holds the majority of people in city custody, is as mortally dangerous as ever, and perhaps more so. Fifteen people died in city custody, or shortly after being released, so far this calendar year.
“It is really hard to see how the city, with the really relatively limited powers that it has, and the constraints on the powers that it has, will be able to turn this around,” said Elizabeth Glazer, a top criminal justice official in the de Blasio administration and the founder of policy journal "Vital City."
Glazer said the data is further proof that the jails should be wrested from the city’s control. She thinks that a judge should appoint a receiver to oversee a federal takeover of the jails. That person would have broad powers to make changes that could make the jails safer. Glazer said the report contains data that was previously not publicly available, which should be updated daily and made available for a federal judge who may be asked to consider receivership as early as November.
City and correction leaders have so far resisted the idea of a federal takeover, but Glazer said officials should see it as an “opportunity.” She noted that Rikers is now statistically more dangerous than in 2015, when a federal monitor was installed following a class-action lawsuit over brutally violent conditions.
A staffing crisis
Several experts who examined the new numbers pointed to a staffing crisis as a reason for the violence in the 2022 fiscal year, when posts in housing areas were left unmanned due in part to an unusual number of officers taking sick time. Staffing is one of the issues a federal receiver could address, by overriding union rules on benefits like unlimited sick time and restructuring organizational charts to put more officers in critical posts.
“Without supervision, there’s time,” said Five Mualimm-ak, who spent years locked up at the Rikers Island jail complex and now runs the Incarcerated Nation Network. “So yes, we’re going to see violence as people put up their own means of defense. That’s a sad fact of staffing not being available and not having supervision there.”
Another reason for the shortage of guards is attrition. The number of uniformed personnel has plummeted from 10,653 in fiscal year 2018 to 7,068 in 2022, according to the report.
“If an insufficient number of officers are holding posts, that forces the workers who are clocking in to hold multiple posts and skip surveillance rounds, leading to potentially perilous situations,” said Hernandez Stroud, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's School of Law.
Stroud first raised the idea of a federal takeover of city jails last year, in part to address the excessive use of sick leave, which he says leads to an overworked skeleton staff of officers — and therefore violence.
“A receivership would offer at least the opportunity to undo a lot of the dysfunction that drives, frankly, the abuse of the sick leave policies,” he said. “If these facilities were staffed appropriately I don’t think the stabbings and slashing would occur at the rate they’re occurring.”
How the correction officers see the problem
COBA, the union representing correction officers, sees a different reason for the rise in violence in the jails: Changes to the system of punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, which allowed officers to remove from the general population those alleged to have committed violence behind bars. Although the extent of the end of solitary confinement is in dispute, a new state law that went into effect in April prevents officers from holding people in solitary-like conditions for 15 days in a row.
“There is no doubt that the continuing elimination of serious consequences for violent crimes committed in jail is responsible for the increased inmate-on-inmate violence, most notably the 99% increase in stabbings and slashings in fiscal year ‘22,” said COBA President Benny Boscio in a statement to Gothamist. “Correction officers have been handcuffed from separating violent offenders from nonviolent inmates, which has only emboldened violent inmates to continue to attack others with impunity.”
The city council has a committee hearing scheduled next week on a bill to eliminate solitary confinement entirely, “which will literally throw gasoline on the fire, jeopardizing thousands of lives,” Boscio said.
The violence at Rikers, and the perception that officers will not protect them, might be leading detainees to arm themselves for protection, observers said. Weapons are relatively easy to come by, and are often fashioned from the deteriorating infrastructure of Rikers Island’s building, like busted plexiglass, Mualimm-ak said. Chair legs and the grates of fans can also be used as shivs.
“You can make pretty much anything on Rikers,” he said. “If you left me alone in a room for eight or nine hours I’m going to find a way to make something. Ingenuity comes from survival.”
Other times weapons are smuggled in by visitors and officers themselves, said Sarena Townsend, who until earlier this year led investigations for the city Department of Correction. Officers transport contraband “to make money or to satisfy a detainee who has threatened them or their family,” she said, and weapons taped to a body with duct tape can throw off a magnetometer. Earlier this year a machete was found at Rikers Island, the New York Post reported.
Even authorized materials — like the razor that detainee Michael Nieves recently used in committing suicide — can also be weapons, Townsend said.
While serious injuries to detainees increased, such injuries to staff decreased.
Townsend believes this is due to a change made by Correction Commissioner Louis Molina to separate gang members into different units, which effectively protected officers because gang members were less able to attack them en masse. But she also believes it led to more fights among detainees living alongside rival gangs.
For his part, Molina — who fired Townsend — blamed prior jail administrations for the violence.
“All of these challenges facing this agency are from poor leadership decisions from the previous administration, but with continued support from our staff, persistence and accountability, we can turn this agency around,” he said in a statement to Gothamist. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made in nine short months and we still have a lot of work to do, but we remain deeply committed to making our jails safer and more humane for all who work and live here.”
Spokespeople for the Department of Correction also noted that tactical search operations from February through September led to the confiscation of 4,000 weapons. And a new “violence reduction plan” at one jail on Rikers resulted in a 70% reduction in slashings and stabbings in that jail this year compared to last.