Four years after a federal judge installed a monitor tasked with overseeing reforms in New York City jails, a new report paints a bleak picture of "hyper-confrontational" correction officers who cannot control themselves or the people they are paid to oversee, and managers who have failed to lead or hold their subordinates accountable.
The reports from the monitor, Steve J. Martin, have been prepared every six months since the de Blasio administration entered into a consent judgment with the federal government in 2015, with the goal of reducing violence in the city's 11 jails, eight of them on Rikers Island. Thousands of cameras were installed on Rikers, and the report notes that the Department of Correction now has the training and the tools to properly assess their problems, but "the Department is not progressing past this first stage of reform."
"In particular the Department does not effectively manage its Staff," the report reads. "The Department enjoys the largest staffing compliment for jails in the United States with an inmate-to-staff ratio of 1 to 1.3. This places the Department in a unique position in that it has more Staff than inmates and presents its own challenges and obstacles compared with most other systems that struggle to maintain adequate staffing." (There are around 11,000 uniformed DOC staff and 1,900 civilian employees.)
For the most recent period covered by the report, January through June 2019, correction officers used force an average of 550 times per month, the highest rate since the monitor was installed.
"These high numbers of uses of force are occurring while the system’s population has steadily decreased—now consistently below 8,000 inmates in comparison to 10,000 inmates when the Consent Judgment went into effect," the report states.
The report recounts a single anecdote to sum up the litany of problems within the Correction Department:
On May 22, 2019, a single Officer needlessly and recklessly escalated an event in a housing unit. The Officer was out-of-control in confronting an inmate, but when a fellow Officer attempted to intervene, she repeatedly and forcefully shoved the fellow Officer who relentlessly attempted to intervene to de-escalate the event. Ultimately, this exchange spawned five separate applications of force by other Staff as the environment became chaotic—some of which included improper applications of chemical agents and an unnecessary head strike. Countless Staff filed participant and witness statements, culminating in a 221-page Preliminary Review report. The Immediate Action Committee failed to initiate any action, notwithstanding the mountain of documentary evidence, including video evidence of the entire incident. Further, as of this writing, not a single Staff Member has been disciplined for their problematic conduct in this incident. But for the Monitoring Team’s review, this event would have languished virtually unnoticed among the hundreds of back-logged investigations in the Investigations Division (“ID”). Simply put, the system is overwhelmed.
"That incidents like these are occurring at all, and are not addressed immediately by management, clearly serves to perpetuate an already toxic environment," the report goes on to state.
Management turnover is extremely high: "Effective supervisory relationships simply do not exist as Staff are assigned interchangeably and do not have relationship continuity with supervisors day-to-day."
The DOC can't even ensure that all the cell doors on Rikers Island will properly lock, and prevent people in their custody from being attacked, according to the report:
The locking mechanisms at RNDC are both antiquated and complicated. The lack of dependable locking mechanisms is a reported frustration for Staff... on-site inspections revealed that at least some cells had inoperable locks and were occupied by inmates. It is unclear whether Staff in these cases had conducted checks as required and/or reported these findings. Of course, it is possible for cell locks to be manipulated after Staff’s checks have been completed. That said, the number of inoperable cells identified suggest that, at least in some cases, checks were not occurring as required and/or that Staff were not moving inmates when inoperable cells were identified.
In a statement, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who succeeded the scandal-ridden Joseph Ponte, said that "the safety and wellbeing of the people who work and live in our facilities is our top priority and this latest monitor’s report makes clear there are no easy solutions and we have hard work ahead of us when it comes to reducing violence and the inappropriate use of force."
Brann added, "Meaningful reform and culture change take time and we will not be satisfied until we see substantial improvement across the board.”
In theory, because the federal monitor determined that the de Blasio administration is not complying with "four of the most consequential provisions" of the consent judgment, a federal judge could step in and order compliance.
“It’s clear from the report that we have further work ahead of us. We remain committed to ensuring the safety and security of everyone in our facilities, and will continue working with DOC and the Monitor to achieve that," Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for the Mayor's Office, said in a statement.
A representative from the correction officers union, the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, did not respond to our request for comment.
De Blasio's plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with four new jails by 2026 passed the City Council earlier this month.
“The report describes a failed state," Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement.
"The City’s efforts to close Rikers—not just the buildings, but the culture—will fail if it cannot gain basic control of the violence in the jails before exporting it to borough facilities. In this moment of promised reform, the toxicity described in this report sounds loud alarms," Werlwas said. "The City must close Rikers Island. But if the Department does not professionalize its operations now, it will not see better results and safer jails.”
You can read the full report below: