Even as Bill de Blasio contends that a reduction in the city’s jail population is paving the way for the closing of Rikers Island, the Mayor’s Management Report Sept. 17 showed significant rises in violence that throw a cloud over his forecast.
The latest edition of the document that quantifies city agencies’ strengths and weaknesses showed that violent incidents between inmates rose nearly 25 percent, from 55.8 monthly incidents in fiscal 2018 to 69.5 in the fiscal year that ended June 30. Serious injuries resulting from those incidents rose by a similar percentage, from roughly two a month to 2.5.
Big Jump in Staff Attacks
And inmate attacks on Correction Department staff rose by 37 percent, from a monthly average of 9.2 in fiscal 2018 to 12.6 this past fiscal year. Correspondingly, uses of force by officers rose almost 30 percent, from 5,175 in fiscal 2018 to 6,670.
The increased violence in the system, even as the inmate population continued to decline, prompted City Councilman Rory Lancman, who alluded to the fact that most of the detainees are held at Rikers, to tell Politico New York that it was “just another exclamation point on the urgency of closing Rikers Island.”
But Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen, who has accused Mr. de Blasio of touting the closing of Rikers by 2026 as a distraction from his administration’s failure to reduce violence on the island, offered a sharply contrasting interpretation of the numbers.
He said in a statement, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s not surprising that jail violence and assaults on our members, in particular, are up because they’ve been up every year for the past five years. Rather than trying to fool the public that new jails mean safe jails, the department can take three immediate steps to bring these numbers down and make the jails safer now.”
Bring Back Solitary
He continued, “First, bring back punitive segregation for any inmate who commits violence, while incarcerated, regardless of their age. Second, lower the officer-to-inmate ratio from 1-50 to 1-20. And finally, install the body-scanners that detect non-metallic weapons in every facility without delay.”
The de Blasio administration has ended punitive segregation for inmates 21 and younger because of studies showing that forcing persons in that age group to spend stretches in solitary confinement has a negative effect on their mental health. COBA, however, has been joined by both the Correction Captains Association and the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association in harshly criticizing the cutbacks in punitive segregation, contending that it was the most-effective deterrent to bad behavior by inmates that officers had precisely because the detainees did not want to be isolated from the general population.
Wardens-union President Joseph Russo said in a Sept. 19 phone interview, “The reason for this rise [in assaults] is there are little or no consequences for violent behavior. There’s less and less use of punitive seg.”
In the past, he said, it was common to shift troublesome inmates among facilities to keep them from forming last alliances. “Now, they’re telling us where to go” because of the greater scrutiny by management of correction officials’ handling of confrontations.
‘Treat Us Like Suspects’
“There’s cameras on us everywhere we go,” Mr. Russo said. “If we spray the chemical agents, we get written up. If we act too quickly, we get written up. We’re unsupported by the upper management. If an inmate attacks us, they look at the video to see whether we did anything wrong in response, or we did anything to initiate the confrontation.”
He continued, “We’re with predators who are taking full advantage of the lack of control. The goal was to change the culture, where we were perceived as predators,” based on a critical report several years ago by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. “Now, we’re sitting ducks in there,” adding that this was also true of inmates who were “not career criminals—they just made one mistake, they’re not gang members. Now they’re vulnerable because we can’t protect them.”
Recently, Correction Department officials have seconded an argument previously made by Mr. Husamudeen: that while the average daily inmate population has steadily declined due to changes in the law including relaxed prosecution of quality-of-life crimes, this has meant that those still in the system tend to be inmates with the greatest tendency toward violence.
The management report noted that over the past fiscal year, the percentage of the jail population with confirmed gang ties rose from 15.4 percent to 16.4 percent.
Closing Rikers No Panacea
Mr. Russo shared Mr. Husamudeen’s view that closing Rikers would not stem the violence, even though shifting its detainees to land-based facilities in four boroughs would speed the time it takes to transport them to court and shorten the trip family members would make to visit them.
“I have no blind loyalty to Rikers, but closing it is not going to change a thing,” he said. “It’s the same inmates.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.