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Despite Oversight, NYC Jails Remain Violent Cash Drains

Casting a shadow on year-old federal reform efforts, New York City prison assaults have soared by 25 percent, and prison guards have used force 14 percent more across the metropolis, an audit released Monday found.

MANHATTAN (CN) — When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reached a deal to tame Rikers Island more than a year ago, officials signed onto an extensive agreement meant to combat what a U.S. Attorney called the prison’s  “Lord of the Flies” setting.

Since that time, the inmate population has decreased steadily, but the city’s Comptroller Scott Stringer reported on Monday that the rate of violence has continued to soar among those who remain.

As the city sinks more money into its jails, assaults have spiked by 25 percent, and corrections officials have used force against inmates 14 percent more often, according to his new report.

“By many measures, New York City’s criminal justice system is moving backwards, not forward. Instead of working to reverse the cycle of crime and poverty in our communities, we are warehousing New Yorkers in jails like Rikers Island, which are getting more violent by the day,” he said in a statement accompanying his 10-page audit.

“The fact is, today’s jails are failing to protect inmates and officers alike, while soaking up more and more tax dollars every year,” the comptroller added.

City Hall has taken a radically different view of the numbers, emphasizing that violent incidents themselves have been going down as more inmates return to society.

“We’re proud of our success in reducing the Rikers population, and we’re proud of the reforms that have helped to make Rikers safer for staff and inmates,” the mayor’s spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas said. "Our investments in safety and skills development for staff and inmates cost money but have been key in improving conditions in our jails.”

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s audit is thin on raw numbers, but rather looks at the ratio of violence and assesses the cost-benefit analysis. The data’s resulting picture breeds little confidence in a correctional system dedicated to the city’s stated goal of reform.

Providing a sliver of hope, the comptroller noted that the city’s average inmate population stayed on its downward trend over the past year, falling from a usual 10,240 to 9,790 people.

At the same time, the comptroller found that the budget ballooned from $1.15 billion to $1.29 billion, and the cost per inmate has risen from $112,665 and $132,019.

This data dwarfs other U.S. municipal prison systems, the closest competitor being Illinois’s Cook County at $55,636 per inmate.

Stringer says that the expenditures have not bought New York a less dysfunctional system.

Although the Department of Corrections has brought the guard-to-inmate back up to a 1-to-1 ratio, the comptroller found that those corrections officers are still clocking in more overtime than ever before — almost doubling those hours since 2014.

There have been fewer instances of inmate assault on guards, but the same in not true in the reverse.

In 2016, guards used force an average of 538 times per 1,000 inmates, a spike from 471 times the previous year.

Personal injury claims against New York City have doubled between 2011 and 2015, now up to 2,792 torts.

The steady drumbeat of bad news at Rikers Island has led many — including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Comptroller Stringer, and  New York Times editorial page — to call to shutter the prison.

Stringer echoed this call at the end of his statement.

“New Yorkers deserve a 21st century criminal justice system, focused on fairness and rehabilitation – rather than one that prizes permanent punishment,” he said. “We must continue to explore smarter, and more humane, ways to tackle this issue – and work towards closing Rikers Island once and for all.”

De Blasio’s administration previously rejected such calls as infeasible, and the mayor’s office has doubled down on its position that reform will bear fruit.

Examining total incidents — rather than ratios per 1,000 — the Department of Corrections reported a 36 percent drop in “serious injuries” from a prison guard’s use of force, and an 18 percent decline in minor injuries.

The department reported a 4 percent dip in total use of force.

Calling the city’s numbers into question, the New York Daily News reported in August that Rikers bosses "purge" violent incidents to create an illusion of progress.

The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office declined to comment.

Gotham’s top federal prosecutor has made civil rights one of the focuses of his tenure, recently winning a guilty plea in a case involving a fatal beating at Rikers Island.

The case against Brian Coll, the Rikers guard accused of kicking sick inmate Ronald Spears in the head until he died, goes to jury selection in Manhattan Federal Court on Thursday.

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