RIKERS ISLAND (CN) — Perils plaguing the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City have existed for decades. But pressure to reform the dangerous and unsanitary conditions has mounted in recent months as the city-operated facility faces a potential takeover by the federal government, and rates of violence against detainees and correction officers topple those in recent years.
Plans are on track to close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with borough-based jails, the city says, but there is widespread agreement that the facility needs serious fixes in the meantime.
On Thursday, a panel of city experts weighed in on the potential of federal receivership, addressing the issue within the same week that the city released a plan to reform the jail and the fifth person this year died in the custody of the city’s Department of Correction.
Slashings and stabbings at Rikers are occurring at four times the rate in 2020, according to one panelist. Exhausted staff are forced to work triple shifts, while some floor officer posts remain empty. Flooded toilets and faulty plumbing lead to severe medical problems. Bits of crumbling buildings are turned into makeshift weapons.
“Put simply, we have reached rock bottom,” said Liz Glazer, founder of the policy-focused organization Vital City and former director of the New York City Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice.
Glazer advocated for the federal government’s control of Rikers, as did others on the Columbia University-hosted panel who said it’s not an ideal solution, but a last resort in a clearly untenable situation.
“The 'polycentric' dysfunction [a court-appointed] monitor has vividly described is the result of structural deficiencies, like complex personnel and procurement rules, that the city lacks the power to address adequately,” Glazer said. “A receiver is specifically empowered to cut through these chronic dynamics and work with city leadership, over the longer term, to create viable changes for years to come.”
That’s in part because a receiver would be able to circumvent state laws and contracts with correction officers that include terms that allow for unlimited sick leave and, according to senior status, choosing preferred posts — namely those outside of housing units.
Some of the more than 200 directives dictating how the department operates haven’t been reviewed or updated since their 1996 implementation, said panelist Stanley Richards, deputy CEO of Fortune Society and the former first deputy commissioner of the Department of Correction.
Rules around collective bargaining, job descriptions and officer recruitment could all change under receivership, said Richards, who was also formerly incarcerated at Rikers. Officers could be appointed to posts based on skill and competence, rather than seniority.
“We don’t want five borough-based Rikers Islands,” Richards said. “And if we don’t do the fundamental changes that we need to do, that’s what we will have.”
Though it would still take effect on the order of years, not months, receivership may be the fastest way to overcome the barriers in place now, Richards said, stressing that the time to do so is “right now.”
“Lives are at stake,” Richards said, “both officers and incarcerated people.”
Last week, a correction officer stationed at Rikers died by suicide. The president of the city correction officers’ union pointed to dangers facing its members in a response to the loss, according to the New York Daily News.
“This tragedy is also a solemn reminder of the enormous stress correction officers face on a daily basis,” said Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr.
“The worsening conditions in our jails doesn’t just affect the inmates. Our officers go to work every day not knowing if they will return home the same way they left. They go to work every day not knowing if they will miss time with their loved ones because they are forced to work a double or triple shift.”