rikers death sentence

DECARCERATION DEMANDS: Activists say that nine persons being held in city jails have committed suicide so far this year. The Board of Correction and a Federal monitor both recently cited staffing issues as a primary reason for the devolving conditions inside, particularly on Rikers. The board and activists are calling for officials to reduce the inmate population. Above, two persons at an Aug. 31 rally outside City Hall hold a banner listing the names of the inmates who have taken their own lives so far this year.

For a time late last month, inmates in two Rikers Island jail units were running things. 

A shortage of officers meant that inmates being held in the Otis Bantum Correctional Center essentially supervised themselves for more than 24 hours starting Aug. 31, the Daily News reported. 

'I'm Answering Phones'

The episode took place during a critical time within city jails, where at least five inmates and as many as nine have taken their own lives since December.

Inmates were left to coordinate rides to court dates and to facilitate video conferences, one of them claimed. “I’ve been answering the phones,” the paper quoted Terrance Ferguson as saying. 

“We are really running the dorm by ourselves. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Mr. Ferguson, who is serving time on felony gun-possession charges, told the News Sept. 1, adding that no officers had been present in the units since daybreak on Tuesday.

The Department of Correction did not respond to an inquiry. A spokesman for the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association would only confirm the paper's account.

OBCC houses only male adults.


Board: Reduce Inmates

The DOC has been beset by staffing issues for several months, with the Federal monitor overseeing jail conditions saying last month that a “pervasive high level of disorder and chaos” was plaguing city jails. 

And on Sept. 1, the Board of Correction noted that “at least five persons” had taken their own lives while incarcerated in city jails since December, adding that there had been no reported suicides at Rikers in all of 2018, 2019 and most of 2020. Inmate advocates, though, said that nine had committed suicide this year, two in August alone.

The monitor said worsening conditions inside jails were tied to spikes in “excessive and unchecked staff absences” that began in April. In a letter to a U.S. District Judge, he noted that “crisis-level” increases in absenteeism had obliged officers to work unreasonable overtime in the form of double and triple shifts, “further compromising the safety of the Facilities.”

“This state of seriously compromised safety has spiraled to a point at which, on a daily basis, there is a manifest risk of serious harm to both detainees and staff, which in turn generates high levels of fear among both groups, with each accusing the other of exacerbating already-challenging conditions,” the monitor’s 10-page letter noted. “Turmoil is the inevitable outcome of such a volatile state of affairs.”

The board’s statement also called attention to the severe staffing shortages. It called for “all criminal-justice stakeholders,” including at the state level, to immediately reduce the number of inmates in the jails. 

The board demanded that the city "move with urgency to create a safer environment for persons in custody and staff.”  

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