Violence in city jails continues to increase, with incidents between correction officers and inmates rising despite a reduction in the jail population, according to the most recent report by an independent Federal monitor.
Both the raw number of occurrences and their per-inmate frequency have climbed, with the rate of incidents now nearly double what it was three years ago, shortly after the monitor was put in place in late 2015, the report found. The jail population has dropped by 20 percent since then.
Except for one six-month span ending in June 2017, the rate of incidents has increased in each period documented by the monitor and his team. The rate, which is calculated using a facility’s average daily population, now stands at 7.41. It was 3.75 when the consent decree went into effect.
But while the report noted that the DOC’s “practices create a risk of pain and/or injury to both staff and inmates,” it added that the proportion of incidents resulting in any injuries has declined from about 40 percent to 30 percent, with serious injuries accounting for less than 5 percent of incidents.
Still, the report’s authors said those incidents that don’t result in injuries are “equally destructive to the culture of the facility.”
Although the DOC has made some progress in implementing reform initiatives required by the consent decree to address what has for decades been one of the nation’s most stubbornly violent jail systems, “the Department has not shown itself capable of devising and implementing effective strategies to fully institutionalize the use of force reforms required,” the report said.
In particular, the DOC has so far failed to initiate a use-of-force directive that went into effect two years ago—after being completed in October 2015.
The directive covers policies regarding the use of restraints, batons, chemical agents and spit-masks, as well as mandates concerning the tracking, reporting and documentation of use-of-force incidents.
“Whether examining use of force (“UOF”) trends systemwide, by Facility, or by age group, the number of incidents and rates have continued to climb, thus producing a concomitant high number of problematic incidents, and backlogs in both investigations and Staff discipline,” the report said.
Attempts to speak with Elias Husamudeen, the president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, were unsuccessful.
In its response to the report, the DOC said it was restructuring how it conducted investigations into incidents by streamlining its investigative processes so that its reviews are timely and any resulting discipline will be consequential and consistent. It also said it is centralizing investigations by deploying a single team of investigators, attorneys and supervisors.
In a statement, DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann said the department would be adopting the Norwegian model of “dynamic security” to emphasize de-escalation techniques. Those protocols are “based on the idea that treating people humanely is a fundamental component of creating safer facilities for all,” she said.
DOC officials recently returned from a visit to that Scandinavian country, which has one of the world’s lowest incarceration and recidivism rates.
“One of the most important ways we have made clear our dedication to supporting a wide range of culture change efforts is by modernizing the way in which we teach so our academy curriculum reflects a clearer understanding of how adult learners learn, and change behavior,” Commissioner Brann said.
While the DOC noted that it was in either partial or substantial compliance with 85 percent of the consent decree’s elements, including with regard to training, reporting and investigations, the report said four key provisions remained unaddressed: implementation of a use-of-force policy; timely and quality investigation; meaningful and adequate discipline; and reducing violence among young inmates.
Although the jails system is well-staffed— it has the nation’s “largest staffing complement for jails...with an inmate-to-staff ratio of 1 to 1.3,” the report noted—and has “high-quality training programs,” it has failed to adequately use newly installed technology such as live-video monitoring to affect needed change.
In essence, the report found, DOC supervisors failed to manage correction officers, including by “identifying misconduct and holding staff accountable.”
Some of those shortcomings are attributable to “high turnover” in uniformed leadership, the report found.
The monitoring period gave rise to one “essential question,” the report’s authors said, namely, “why had the various reforms designed to improve the detection and response—and ultimately prevention of—UOF-related misconduct not been effective?”
“Simply put, the system is overwhelmed,” the report said.
“The Department has been unable to gain traction when attempting to implement the various initiatives designed for this purpose, some of which never get off the ground,” it said.
But former DOC Commissioner Martin Horn said it was important to situate the report’s many criticisms within a singular and manifestly complex context with many stakeholders—oversight boards and elected officials among them—putting demands on it.
Adding to administrative and other pressures has been the effort to close Rikers, as well as pointed debates on the use of solitary confinement, he said.
Mr. Horn, who was DOC Commissioner for more than seven years starting in 2002 and is now a distinguished lecturer at John Jay College, also said that as the inmate population decreased because of criminal-justice reforms, those who remain “are in fact in the most intractable prisoners. They are most aggressive, the most violent.”
That ties in to what is perhaps the greatest obstacle to a thorough makeover of the correctional ecosystem, he said. “The culture of the workforce, dating back to the mid-90s, has been to expect immediate conformance from prisoners to directives from officers,” he said.
Mr. Horn recalled being vilified by union leadership for disciplining officers who he thought had used inappropriate excessive force on inmates. “This issue predated me,” he said.