NYC Corrections

CATASTROPHE IN WAITING? Jail union officials said that the imposition of the city’s vaccine mandate on the Department of Correction Dec. 1 could bring about a disaster within the city’s lockups given an already serious staffing shortage. Under 70 percent of uniformed staff are vaccinated, according to city officials, but the ranks of Captains and above are inoculated at significantly higher numbers than Correction Officers, who by far make up the largest share of jailhouse staff. Above, an officer in an enhanced supervision housing unit on Rikers Island.

With a week left before the city’s vaccination mandate kicks in for the Department of Correction, just two-thirds of uniformed staff were inoculated. 

But the 67-percent figure as of Nov. 23 represented a 9-point jump from earlier in the month, Mayor de Blasio said during his press briefing that morning. He added that he was confident that the vax figures for officers would increase as the days ticked down toward the Dec. 1 deadline. 

'Overwhelmed, Overworked'

“We expect that number to go up a lot. We know mandates work, and we've got to double down,” the Mayor said.

But jail-union leaders were notably more skeptical, saying that should the mandate kick in as planned, it could bring about a complete meltdown within the city’s lockups given an ongoing staffing crisis they said would be amplified by increased absentees and even outright resignations. 

“My staff will be overwhelmed and overworked,” the president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Dep­uty Wardens Association, Joseph Russo, said Nov. 24. 

Although he expected vaccination numbers to climb somewhat as the deadline drew closer, the increase would not be sufficient to properly staff the jails, he predicted. “I don’t think we’ll be able to function. It will be an absolute catastrophe," he said. Mr. Russo’s union counts 120 union members, about 75 percent of whom are vaccinated. 

Urging Inoculation 

Both he and Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of the Correction Captains’ Association, sent letters to their members encouraging them to get the jab, but with the understanding that doing so was a personal choice, they said. 

Mr. Ferraiuolo said Office of Labor Relations officials had asked him to encourage his members to file religious-exemption requests to ease what was expected to be an increase in staff absences when the deadline hits. “They’re just trying to prolong the agony,” he said. “It was just a way of procrastinating.”

City officials did not reply to a request for comment. 

The Captains’ union leader said the city needed to rethink the vax mandate for the DOC to avert a “major catastrophe.”  

Conditions at Rikers steadily worsened this year, with inmates crowding into sordid cells and poor security and oversight compromising the safety of both inmates and officers, according to elected officials who toured the jails in recent months. The latest status report by the Federal monitor overseeing reform efforts in city jails concluded that jail conditions were “nothing short of an emergency.”

'City Needs to Concede'

Other city departments were required to comply with the mandate’s directives by Oct. 29, but Correction staff were given several more weeks because of acute staff shortages—particularly among officers—that DOC officials, the Mayor and a Federal monitor have cited as the primary reason for the jails' exceedingly poor conditions, particularly those on Rikers Island. Union officials say some officers have been repeatedly forced to work triple and even quadruple shifts as a result.

“I asked for the status quo,” including a continuation of testing regimens, Mr. Ferraiuolo said, referring to the meeting with OLR. “We’re a unique agency, because we’re already facing staff shortages.

He said there was “no way” for officers to oversee a jail population of about 5,500 while potentially losing hundreds if not thousands of officers. “The ones that are vaccinated are going to be doing quadruples,” he said. “At the end of the day, you’ll be calling the National Guard.”

Both union leaders reiterated their belief that city officials have to at least push back the Dec. 1 deadline. “The city needs to concede,” Mr. Russo said.

A spokesman for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which counts 8,000 active members, did not respond to a request for comment on the approaching vaccine mandate.

'Hopeful' Notes

The DOC, though, has noted an improved staffing situation since the department and the city separately announced in September that AWOL officers and those who did not show proof of illness within a day of calling out would be suspended 30 days without pay. 

The department counted nearly 1,800 out sick in mid-September and 1,474 Nov. 5, while the number of AWOL officers declined 61 percent between Sept. 1 and Nov. 9. Unstaffed posts decreased 53 percent in that time, Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said during the Nov. 9 Board of Correction meeting. 

“Between those two, reduction in AWOLS and reduction in people out sick, along with a lot of staff redeployment...this has largely allowed us to isolate triples to [Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island],” he said. 

The Commissioner also noted that there was a more-than-threefold increase in court appearances in September and October compared to earlier in the year. Violence among inmates also decreased, with fights down 11 percent since May. Use-of-force by staff since then was down by 18 percent overall, with use-of-force incidents requiring medical attention down 44 percent. 

Sounding what he said were “more hopeful” notes following months of near-anarchy inside the lockups, Mr. Schiraldi added, “we have a lot of work do here.” 

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