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Rikers reforms in spotlight as closure plan pushes forward

Still five years out from its scheduled end date, the Rikers Island jail complex poses daily dangers to detainees and correction officers. Prosecutors as well as advocates argue it's time for the federal government to take over.

RIKER'S ISLAND, N.Y. (CN) — Detainees at New York City’s most notorious jail complex live in conditions that, well before they stand trial, can result in a death sentence. 

DaShawn Carter died by suicide last weekend, just two days after he was transferred to Rikers from a mental health facility. 

“He had mental health issues, and that all by itself means there’s a human who’s crying for help and needs to be heard,” said Kevin Sylvan, the lawyer appointed by the court to represent Carter. “And tragically, like so many others, he doesn’t get heard the right way, the right time, or under the right circumstances.”

Carter is one of four people who died in custody this year alone at Rikers Island where filthy conditions, crumbling facilities and understaffing give way to rampant violence, injuries and illnesses. Medical care is insufficient. Correction officers are assaulted by the thousands. Advocates and government officials agree the situation is dire, but they clash on how to turn it around as pressure mounts to implement serious reforms before the facility is scheduled to be shut down in 2027. 

Facing robbery and burglary charges, Carter had been set to appear in court on May 18. He had yet to meet with his attorney, Sylvan, who first learned about Carter's death from the media. The city’s Department of Correction reached out to him on Monday, two days after Carter was found slumped over near his bed. 

Sylvan said the 25-year-old had been homeless and given few opportunities while detained to speak with family.

“This, of course, is a population that gets less attention than others in general in the first place,” Sylvan said. "The situation at Rikers exacerbates it, as does, naturally, Covid and everything associated with that.” 

The rate of self-injury among detainees doubled during the first summer of the pandemic, and hit a five-hear high in 2021, The City reported. 

Sylvan did not speculate as to the specific circumstances surrounding Carter’s death. 

In each of the three other deaths at the facility in 2022, gaps in staffing and supervision played a part, according to a report released this week by the Board of Correction, which regulates jail conditions. 

In March 2022, ​​Herman Diaz, 52, died after a lag in medical attention when he choked while eating an orange. Other detainees tried to help Diaz, using the Heimlich maneuver, turning him on his side, and trying to get a correction officer's attention. They then physically carried Diaz to the clinic at the facility's Eric M. Taylor Center. No officers gave Diaz first aid. 

Another detainee, the 48-year-old George Pagan, spent days lying in bed or on the floor leading up to his death. He appeared weak, barely ate, and “regularly urinated, defecated, and vomited on himself,” the report explains. Again, other detainees came to his aid, bringing him food and drink. It took more than 30 minutes for a medical team to check in. 

Detainees may spend a week in a cell with 40 men — a holding area where they are meant to remain for just a day — and go two days without food, attorney Morris Shamuil told Courthouse News. It was in that cell that one client witnessed someone try to hang himself. 

After officers responded, Shamuil said, “they came in and they cut him down, and just put him down in the cell and left again.” 

Like many others, Shamuil says staffing issues are behind those incidents. “If they had more staff they’d be able to spread people out, they would be able to give more individual attention to people who need it,” he said. “If you have one officer for every 50 inmates, you can’t. You don’t have the manpower.” 

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The New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association says officers’ risk of getting assaulted on the job is to blame for the lacking workforce. In the past year, 1,500 officers have been assaulted, according to the union’s president. 

It’s not just staffing: For those inside, physical conditions pose a separate danger. Housing units lack heat and air conditioning, and scalding hot showers that can’t be adjusted leave detainees with burns and boils. Overflowing toilets, flooded showers, debris and filthy water cause infections. Shamuil represents a man in a Bronx civil suit who claims he was denied medical care after he got a foot infection so serious that it ultimately required a skin graft and resulted in long-term damage. 

Those conditions compounded the effects of the pandemic. Following a lawsuit filed by Rikers detainees, a judge in the Bronx ordered New York to offer detainees vaccines, finding the state abused its power by giving early access only to staff, not those behind bars in close quarters with poor ventilation. 

During the pandemic, New York came under fire for vaccinating staff, but not detainees, in a lawsuit filed by two men being held on Rikers Island. 

As the buildings themselves fall apart, shards of metal and plexiglass can be pried from the wall and used as weapons, said Vincent Schiraldi, former commissioner of the Department of Correction. 

Rikers Island and its solitary-confinement cells when the prison was new on May 23, 1935, slated to replace Welfare Island. (AP Photo/John Rooney)

Closing Rikers and decarceration 

Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, the same administration Schiraldi worked for in 2021, the New York City Council voted to close Rikers, decrease its population, and replace it with smaller jails in the city’s boroughs. 

Construction has begun in several of those new facilities, including the Manhattan Detention Complex in Chinatown, known as the Tombs, and the Brooklyn Detention Complex, known as the Brooklyn House of Detention. The latter will be knocked down and replaced with a 40-story building that includes retail space. 

Officials say they are on track to complete construction by the 2027 deadline. 

But closing Rikers also means cutting down the population at Rikers to no more than 3,300 people. This city had been on its way for decades, cutting the number from 22,000 in 1992 to 3,800 just before the pandemic hit, Schiraldi said. 

“Part of it was just the natural decline, but part of it was supervised pretrial release, and all these different things, bail reform,” he explained. But the number has since “crept back up.” 

The proportion of people awaiting trial has increased, Schiraldi said, and courts slowing down during the pandemic has left those detainees in limbo. 

As commissioner, Schiraldi dealt with understaffing issues that he said arose from New York corrections officers’ powerful contracts, including unlimited sick leave. At any point in time, around 20% of staff was out sick, Schiraldi said. 

Officers who out for more than 12 days are subject to home-confinement checks to make sure they're really home, attorneys said in a recent court hearing. This entails knocking on the door 20 times and calling the home phone 40 times,. 

Whether through a union-negotiated deal or more informally, Schiraldi said correction officers choose to work at posts that don’t involve working directly with detainees.

“And when we tried to move those people from those preferred posts to be a correctional officer, they would say they were sick,” the former commissioner said. “The ability to run a department when there's that much malfeasance is greatly, greatly hampered.”

Activists erected a model of the Rikers Island jail complex outside City Hall on Sept. 5, 2019, before a land-use hearing on a proposal to close Rikers and replace it with four new borough jails. (Amanda Ottaway/Courthouse News Service)

Federal takeover

The tension surrounding union contracts is one of the core issues in an ongoing debate about whether it’s time for Rikers to come under federal control. The U.S. government would not have to abide by the state’s contracts. 

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Receivership is now being argued in a Manhattan federal court case that has been ongoing since 2014, and has resulted in a court-appointed monitor overseeing changes, or lack thereof, at Rikers. 

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams presented a federal takeover in a letter filed last month. The letter cites a lack of specific details from the city and correction department as to how the monitor’s recommendations will be implemented, although the agencies say they generally agree with those recommendations — which include coming up with a “remedial scheme” to address absentee officers and those doing jobs that can be filled by civilians. 

The Department of Correction says that under its current commissioner, Louis Molina, Rikers is already in a better place. 

"We firmly believe that Commissioner Molina, with the support of the monitoring team and this administration, will be able to create a path forward towards resolving the longstanding issues in the city’s jails. We will be working diligently to accomplish the goals we have set,” the department said in a statement to Courthouse News. 

The department and Mayor Eric Adams say that the holdup in reforming Rikers is because previous administrations lacked the will to do so. The mayor has touted fewer attacks on jail staff, more searches for weapons and contraband, and a drop in sick leave to levels before “horrendous shortages” last summer. 

“Fixing Rikers is critically important, a moral imperative, and we need to get it right. But to do that, we need the opportunity to implement our plan,” Adams wrote in a recent statement. “These are generational challenges, deeply ingrained, and no administration can solve them in less than four months.”

The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association has also pushed back against receivership, blaming staffing issues on the dangers facing officers at Rikers and a lack of resources. 

“No other city workforce, no other workforce is being assaulted at the alarming rate that we are,” the union’s president, Benny Boscio Jr., said last month. 

Adams recently appointed 578 new correction officers to help with the department’s restricted housing units. Boscio had asked for 3,000 new officers, but said the new influx was a “great start.” 

“If you want us to fix the problem, give us the resources we need,” Boscio said in April, holding that the jail suffered from “eight years of neglect” under the previous administration. 

Some advocates don’t necessarily agree with receivership, either, but say it may be the only option at this point. 

“It's not something that I think public defender offices are excited about. It's definitely not the answer. But at the very least, I think it will mitigate the ongoing harm that people who are in custody are experiencing,” said Tahanee Dunn, director of the Prisoners' Rights Project at The Bronx Defenders. 

“Department of Corrections is just not capable of keeping the people who are in custody safe and providing them with the minimum standards that they are entitled to,” she continued. “I think that that is no longer an opinion. It's a fact.”

A solitary confinement cell known all as “the bing,” at New York’s Rikers Island jail on Jan. 28, 2016. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

Detainees banding together

The jail complex’s troubles are decades old, and with no immediate, specific reform plan — the city must propose one next week — Dunn said she is encouraged, at least, by the way Rikers detainees come together to support one another, including giving medical aid as described in the oversight report. 

“I have not seen so many people from different backgrounds of life with different charges and even different gang affiliations, deciding to come together to really push against the narratives and the mistreatment,” Dunn said. 

“We're talking about people who have no idea about CPR, and were pumping somebody's chest, or lifting them onto the gurney because the correction officers wouldn't touch them,” she continued. 

Dunn said she heard stories about people making makeshift quarantine areas, putting curtains around someone who was seriously ill and symptomatic, and taking turns to visit them every hour, checking temperatures, and making sure the sick person was hydrated and eating. 

In January, Rikers detainees organized a dayslong hunger strike in protest of lacking medical care and other services, an effort those involved knew may result in further mistreatment, Dunn said.

“They recognize that there will probably be retaliation on an individual level, as well as an organizational level, against them for talking to reporters, and organizing, and refusing to lock out or refusing to let COs into housing areas, or what have you.”

As a public defender, Dunn finds the tenacity of her clients buoying. 

“This work is hard, you know, and it makes you feel like you're not really making a difference,” Dunn said. “And then you look at them, and you say to yourself, I have absolutely no reason to be giving up if they're not giving up.”

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