New York City Council members had 90 minutes on Tuesday to question the city’s jails chief and Mayor Eric Adams' chief counsel about the ongoing humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island, but they declined to ask specific questions or follow-ups about the issues facing the jails complex that have garnered the most public attention.
Among the issues not raised by members of the Council’s committee on criminal justice were systemic problems which may have led to the deaths of nine detainees at city jails so far this year, plus 16 last year. Councilmember Shahana Hanif did bring up the death of Mary Yehudah, 31, who reportedly overdosed from drugs in her cell in May, but Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said he couldn’t talk about what happened because the matter was still under investigation.
Three recent deaths may have been connected to correction officers’ failing to render aid, according to an investigation by the oversight Board of Correction, with one man brought to the medical clinic by other incarcerated people after he choked on an orange. Staffing shortages, which the Rikers’ federal monitor has attributed in part to the department’s unlimited sick leave policy, have resulted in a lack of officers available to interact with inmates.
Molina said so far this year he suspended 162 officers for abuse of sick leave — more than last year. And he said there are now about 20 unmanned posts in housing units at any given time, compared to 110 last September.
Nothing we have heard this morning — very few facts — indicates the administration appreciates the full gravity of the situation on Rikers Island.
The hearing was called to get an update on the Rikers Island Interagency Task Force, which Adams created in May, but Brendan McGuire, chief counsel to the mayor, said many of the details of what the task force was working on couldn’t be discussed publicly, and the task force would not issue public reports. He said the group's main role was to support the implementation of the so-called action plan that a federal judge mandated the city put in place, in order to improve conditions at the facility.
The judge, Laura Swain, has given the city until at least November to make those changes before she will consider a possible federal takeover, or receivership, of Rikers. Attorneys for those detained at Rikers have called for a takeover, and federal prosecutors have also hinted at the possibility. But Adams opposes such a move.
Among the issues that have led to calls for a takeover is the fact that thousands of detainee medical appointments are missed each month, leading a judge last month to hold the Department of Correction in contempt for violating a court order to provide proper medical care.
At the hearing Tuesday, Councilmember Carlina Rivera asked about the possibility of creating “emergency triage floating medical teams” to treat those missing appointments. McGuire referred the question to Molina, but Rivera didn’t follow up with Molina and no answers were provided.
Another issue that went unmentioned was the fact that a Board of Correction member recently alleged the current intake facility at Rikers is filthy, crowded, and lacking operable bathrooms, so people urinate on the floor. The board member, Bobby Cohen, also said that there aren’t enough staff to scan people for weapons and contraband when they enter Rikers.
Those allegations caught the attention of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes and Carolyn Maloney, who wrote a letter Monday to Molina and McGuire requesting a briefing within two weeks on the work of their task force.
“We are concerned that there are currently no Task Force members specifically dedicated to ensuring that the mental and physical health of those detained at the facility are appropriately considered and prioritized,” they wrote. “This is particularly important in light of recent reports of ‘frightening’ and ‘chaotic’ conditions at the intake facility on Rikers, with detainees being packed into ‘tight filthy pens, urinating on the floor.’”
While Council members pulled their punches on Tuesday, the outrage against the Adams administration for the crisis at Rikers was left to the public comment period, after McGuire and Molina finished their testimonies.
“Nothing we have heard this morning — very few facts — indicates the administration appreciates the full gravity of the situation on Rikers Island,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, attorney from the Legal Aid Society, which filed the lawsuit that led to the creation of the Rikers federal monitor. “People are continuing to die at a rate unmatched in any other city jails. What we heard this morning was extremely disappointing, extremely defensive.” It's difficult to calculate death rates at city jails because reporting criteria differ. But jails across the country are seeing increased deaths, not just Rikers. In fact Philadelphia, with a smaller jail population, saw 18 deaths last year, compared to 15 at Rikers.
Kelsey De Avila, of Brooklyn Defender Services, alleged that one of their clients was recently raped in his housing unit, but the DOC didn’t even respond to his attorney’s request that he be transferred.
“It’s clear there is no sense of urgency within this department, nor is this agency capable of keeping people safe,” she said.
And Julia Solomons, a social worker at the Bronx Defenders, said there was something more nefarious at play: “The administration’s testimony today made clear that the task force’s work aims to protect the [Department of Correction] as an agency, and not at all to protect those in its custody.”
Correction and clarification: Nine people have died after being held in New York City jails this year. Eight of them died after being held at Rikers. An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the number of people who died after being held at Rikers. This story was also updated with more details on how death rates at Rikers compare to those at other city jails across the country.