An ‘Absolute Emergency’ at Rikers Island as Violence Increases

By Jonah E. Bromwich and Jan Ransom

A federal monitor said that staff shortages had led to a sharp deterioration in conditions at the jail complex over the summer.

In a letter, the monitor said the staff shortages had compromised the safety of detainees and employees, generating “high levels of fear among both groups.  
In a letter, the monitor said the staff shortages had compromised the safety of detainees and employees, generating “high levels of fear among both groups.  Credit...Mike Segar/Reuters

A detainee was stabbed. A correction officer was slashed. And another person who was incarcerated at Rikers Island had scalding water thrown on him, causing second-degree burns all over his body.

The episodes were included in a letter that a federal monitor filed with a court on Tuesday that described “unreasonably high” levels of violence this summer at Rikers, New York City’s vast jail complex.

The letter, filed by Steve J. Martin, who was appointed to monitor the city jails, said the violence at the Rikers complex had worsened significantly since a report in May that described a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” in the jail system as a whole.

The filing described a series of episodes that began when an assailant passed through an unsecured door to throw scalding water on another person being held at Rikers. One person involved in the attack was stabbed four days later; another assaulted a jail officer and a fellow detainee this month, causing serious injuries to all three people, including the assailant.

Mr. Martin’s letter attributed many of the problems to staff shortages, which it said had seriously compromised the safety of “detainees and staff, which in turn, generates high levels of fear among both groups with each accusing the other of exacerbating already challenging conditions.”

Most of those being held at Rikers, as well as those in other city jails, are awaiting trial. There are currently close to 6,000 people in custody in the city’s jails; more than three-quarters of them have yet to be tried, and are presumed innocent.

Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoner’s Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, whose 2011 lawsuit led to the federal monitor, said in an interview that the city’s jails were more dangerous today than they had been at any time in the past 50 years.

“The city has completely lost control and as a result, people are not being protected from violence and are locked in the housing areas for days with no food, showers, access to lawyers or medical visits,” she said.

The staff shortages and the violence have intensified even as a new correction commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, was named. Mr. Schiraldi, who began work in June, has vowed to remedy his department’s staff problems, saying the system will remain dysfunctional until he does.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Schiraldi said that the Correction Department was committed to addressing the issues raised by the monitor, and that jail officials had worked diligently to “impose formal discipline or other corrective action when warranted.”

The monitor’s letter said correction employees had failed to intervene in violence between incarcerated people, and regularly made derogatory comments to those being held. It also said staff members were often slow to act when those in their care threatened to harm themselves. Overall, the letter noted, levels of self-harm at Rikers remained troublingly high.

Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the Board of Correction, an independent body that monitors the jail system, said there had been five suicides in the past nine months, and many serious attempts.

“Every person they send to jail is at great risk of harm and death,” Dr. Cohen said.

One episode this month captured his concerns, and underscored the monitor’s findings.

On Aug. 10, officers found Brandon Rodriguez, 25, unresponsive in an intake cell at Rikers, jail officials said. He was pronounced dead by medical officials a short time later.

Brandon Rodriguez, right, was found hanging from the shower of a cell on Rikers Island this month. His mother, Tamara Carter, said he had been mistreated.Credit...Family photo

Two days earlier, Mr. Rodriguez had been involved in an altercation with another incarcerated person, according to an official with knowledge of the incident. His family’s lawyer, William O. Wagstaff III, said Mr. Rodriguez had been treated at Elmhurst Hospital Center for a broken eye socket.

The next day, the official said, Mr. Rodriguez was involved in a violent encounter with the Probe team, a group of guards with helmets and armed with batons who were summoned after he would not leave his cell to be transferred to another location.

Mr. Rodriguez was then placed in a cell far from the general intake area, according to the official and a staff member with knowledge of the events. While he was in the remote cell, he used a shirt to hang himself from a shower fixture, according to an internal report.

The officer on duty had been working a triple shift at the time, according to the staff member, raising concerns about how well the cell was being watched.

“We are working closely with all relevant agencies to investigate the cause and circumstances so that we may better understand how this happened,” Mr. Schiraldi said in a recent statement. “Mr. Rodriguez’s loved ones have our utmost sympathy; this is an awful, painful tragedy.”

Mr. Rodriguez’s mother, Tamara Carter, 43, questioned the department’s account in a phone interview on Tuesday, saying he had not been diagnosed with a mental illness and had not described having suicidal thoughts.

“To have been beaten like that, to then be put in a cell where there is no bed, is absolutely disgusting,” Ms. Carter said. “He’s a human being and he wasn’t being treated like a human.”

Advocates for incarcerated people and jail oversight officials have said that Mr. Rodriguez’s experience is emblematic of a system that has spiraled out of control.

Condemning the “deterioration of basic security protocols and denial of basic services and protections” that had led to the escalation in violence, the monitor’s letter said that about 35 percent of the Correction Department’s 8,500 staff members had either called in sick or were otherwise limited in working with those behind bars. (Department employees get unlimited sick time.)

By the end of July, the letter said, the department had reported that employees had failed to report for 2,300 shifts that month without providing advance notice that they planned not to work.

Like the federal monitor, Mr. Schiraldi has said the department has enough employees, even as a corrections officers’ union, which is suing New York City over what it says are inhumane working conditions at Rikers, has urged city officials to hire thousands more.

Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the union, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the monitor’s letter showed that Mr. Martin “was working as a public relations arm of the D.O.C.”

“Officers are out sick because they continue to be forced to work under hostile and inhumane working conditions where they are forced to work 25 hours or more without meals and rest and are brutally assaulted by inmates with impunity,” Mr. Boscio said.

“Fix the inhumane working conditions and you will fix the staffing crisis,” he added.

Keith Powers, a City Council member who leads the criminal justice committee, said in an interview that he approved of the commissioner’s focus on improving the morale of department staff while addressing the problem of absenteeism.

But, Mr. Powers, a Democrat, emphasized, “we are in an absolute emergency inside the city jails.”

Benjamin Weiser contributed reporting.