NYC Corrections

NOT PARADISE ISLAND: Mayor de Blasio announced a series of executive orders intended to improve conditions inside the jails on Rikers Island. The penal compound has recently been plagued by a rash of violent incidents, poor conditions, acute staffing shortages and inmate deaths. Correction unions said the Mayor’s plan, announced Sept. 14, doesn’t address what they claim is the overriding reason for persistent troubles inside the jails: insufficient support for officers.

NYPD officers will take over some court duties from Department of Correction officers, according to one of a series of executive orders issued Sept. 14 by Mayor de Blasio. And Governor Hochul signed a bill Sept. 17 and announced other moves that were expected to immediately reduce the city's swelling jail population.

But the Mayor's measure, one of five meant to stanch a recent cascade of dysfunction inside Rikers Island jails—including the deaths of as many as nine people in custody so far this year—drew claims of union-busting from one correction-union leader.

30-Day AWOL Suspensions

The Mayor also doubled down on recent DOC efforts to curtail officer absences, which have skyrocketed in recent months. He said that officers who do not show proof of illness within a day of calling out would be suspended 30 days without pay. Officers who are Absent Without Leave will similarly be punished. 

At the end of July, about one-third of all correction officers were either out sick or could not come into close contact with inmates because of compromised health conditions, resulting in the increased assignment of triple shifts, which pre-pandemic were a rare occurrence.

Department officials, notably Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, have maintained that an excessive number of officers were taking undue advantage of the agency’s unlimited sick-leave by falsely claiming coronavirus infections as reasons for their absences. 

“We understand it's tough work and a tough environment, but folks not showing up for work is unacceptable,” Mr. de Blasio said in announcing the measures during his press briefing. “And when any officer doesn't show up for work, they actually put every other officer in danger, and that's not acceptable.”

'Punishing' COs

The head of the Correction Captains’ Association, Patrick Ferraiuolo, said that deploying cops in the courts would be inviting further discord between city officials and both police and correction officers. 

“That’s union-busting,” he said, adding that such a measure would amount to “punishing” officers on court duty. He said that correction officers who oversee inmates within the courts had earned that prerogative, typically after years of doing more demanding and onerous jailhouse work. 

“They are senior officers that paid their dues in the jails,” he said a few hours after the Mayor's announcement. “Now we’re going to put them back where they started 10 years ago?”

Speaking of NYPD officers, he said, “They were hired to be police officers on the street to fight crime” while correction officers are hired to oversee inmates. Although Mr. Ferraiuolo said he was very supportive of police officers and their mission, “they’re not trained” for supervising inmates, he said. 

'Send Us to Times Square?' 

“Let’s put it this way, would they want correction officers to go to Times Square to fight crime? I don’t think so,” the union leader said. 

The Police Benevolent Association did not respond to a request for comment. 

Mr. Ferraiuolo said that a better solution would be to call on the National Guard to relieve correction officers. National Guard troops have been deployed in several states, including Texas, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Colorado. Queens City Councilman Robert Holden earlier this month wrote Governor Hochul with a similar request.

The Governor’s Office did not respond to an inquiry about possible deployments.

Jail Count Spiking

Although hundreds of detainees were released from custody in the early weeks of the pandemic, the jail population has since increased more than 50 percent to just over 6,000 inmates.

Numerous officials and advocates have for weeks called for the Mayor to facilitate the release of inmates who pose no immediate danger. Tina Luongo, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Practice at The Legal Aid Society, called it “simply unconscionable and unworkable” that Mr. de Blasio did not include early-release provisions as “a fundamental part” of his plan. The administration “could immediately release” more than 250 people serving sentences for low-level crimes, she said in a statement following his announcement. 

But some being held on technical parole violations on Rikers will be quickly released following the Governor's Sept. 17 signature of the “Less is More” legislation, whose chief Senate sponsor had been Brian Benjamin, whom she chose to succeed her as Lieutenant Governor.

The law’s provisions call for the elimination of jail time for most minor noncriminal violations, require quick judicial review of parole-violation charges and place limits on revocation sanctions.

Citing an advocate’s recent description of Rikers as “hell on earth,” the Governor said, “The fact this exists is an indictment on everyone.” 

She called the state’s parole system “antiquated” and said the law would help protect human life and dignity, including that of correction officers.

'Parole About Easing Return' 

"Parole is meant to help people return to life...and not just drop them on a curb and say ‘good luck,’ ” she said. 

The Governor also announced that each day for the next few days, 40 inmates held on Rikers who were scheduled for transfers to state jails would be moved out.

Ms. Luongo estimated that more than 200 being held on Rikers could be released if state correctional authorities immediately implemented the bill’s provisions. “With the stroke of a pen, New York now finally turns the page on a draconian parole revocation system that helped perpetuate mass incarceration for decades,” she said in a statement, adding that the law “would provide essential relief to the ongoing humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island.” 

As he has when discussing the increase in crime citywide, Mr. de Blasio again took the court system to task. “We need to get back to a fully functioning criminal-justice system,” he said, noting that there are 1,500 people awaiting disposition of their cases who have been held on Rikers for more than a year. He said he would petition the Office of Court Administration to schedule 500 of those cases “right now.” 

'Reckless, Knee-Jerk'

Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, called the Mayor’s proposed solutions a “reckless and knee-jerk solution” and chided him for not conferring with the unions before going public with his executive orders. 

“Transferring the relatively few officers we have assigned to the courts will not even make a dent in this staffing crisis,” he said in a statement. 

Mr. Boscio suggested that the Mayor had shunted city jails and DOC staff aside by declining to address the root causes of increased assaults on staff, namely a disinclination to hire additional officers. “He has not visited Rikers in over four years and he has not witnessed first-hand the severity of the damage his policies have created, which our officers must endure every day,” he wrote. 

The Mayor’s announcement followed by a day a visit to Rikers by several elected officials. During the press conference that followed, Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas, who represents the Queens district just south of Rikers, detailed sordid conditions and poor inmate oversight and said she witnessed an attempted suicide. 

“Nobody deserves this. These are human beings,” she said. Referring to officers’ triple shifts, she said, “It’s inhumane for everybody.”

She urged the Mayor and Governor to visit the jail compound to witness for themselves what she said were its abysmal conditions.

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