The Department of Correction must institute a number of remedies to address deteriorating conditions in city jails, notably those on Rikers Island, a Federal Judge has ordered.
Among other steps, the DOC must produce a security plan to address "various security breaches," including faulty cell doors and officers' alleged abandonment of posts; communicate to staff their obligations to the safety of inmates; and process new admissions and transfers within 24 hours.
11 Have Died
Judge Laura T. Swain’s Sept. 29 order is intended to quell what unions, advocates and some elected officials have all described as near-chaotic, sordid conditions, particularly on Rikers, where at least 11 inmates have died so far this year, including five by suicide.
The department also must provide detailed accounts of correction officers’ duty status. Judge Swain set timelines by which the DOC must meet either reporting or implementation targets for the stipulations, none later than Nov. 15. Her order follows three recent status reports by a Federal Monitor and his team, all of which described increasing turmoil, tension and violence inside the jails.
DOC officials deferred questions about the Judge’s order to the city Law Department. A spokesperson there said the DOC had already begun instituting reforms, including by issuing information on suicide prevention and intervention.
“The City worked collaboratively with the Monitor and the parties on the order approved by the Court. The order memorializes actions the Department of Correction has already taken or was on the path to implementing, and actions the Department intends to take going forward,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
'Easing Political Pressure?'
But Joseph Russo, the president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, said that however well-intentioned the Monitor’s suggestions, the Judge’s subsequent order and the DOC’s reform efforts amounted mostly to an end-of-term effort by the de Blasio administration to deflect attention.
“Could it be a political moment to ease the pressure?” the union leader asked. He suggested the moves, while intended to reflect concrete action, could be little more than window-dressing: “‘Look, this is what we’re doing—we’re doing these bunch of things. It will take a little time to take effect but then the Rikers disaster will be better.’”
Mr. Russo said the Monitor’s suggestion, and the subsequent order from Judge Swain, that the DOC expand its criteria for leadership positions and not just select from its uniformed ranks was particularly ill-conceived. “I don’t think it would change anything,” he said, recalling a similar effort at the start of the de Blasio administration when outside managers were brought in and coupled with Wardens and Chiefs to improve conditions.
“No doubt that they were managers at a reasonably high level, but they had no expertise in jails and I never saw any impact,” he said.
'Restore Punitive Seg'
Mr. Russo said that conditions inside would get significantly better with the reinstatement of punitive segregation—otherwise known as solitary confinement—and the disciplining of inmates who have engaged in violent behavior toward staff and other inmates. As it stands, he said there are few incentives for the incarcerated to heed regulations and to respect the will of staff.
The Legal Aid Society, which served as counsel in the 2011 class-action suit that led to the appointment of the Federal Monitor, had submitted an emergency request Sept. 20—three days before the Monitor's most recent status report—for Judge Swain to address “the collapse of basic operations in the City jails.”
“This order is a necessary and important step, requiring the City to take actions we have been urging for years,” Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement following the Judge's order.
She said Legal Aid would continue to file court actions if “immediate improvements to safety and security” in city jails were not apparent. Ms. Luongo said the order “should not supplant the need to decarcerate,” and called on Governor Hochul, Mayor de Blasio and city District Attorneys to work toward that end.