A Daily News report on the problems posed in developing the Rikers Island site if and when the jail complex closes because of the presence of methane gas quickly led to a follow-up story in which more than two dozen correction officers both past and present told The News they believed the toxins in the air may have contributed to serious health problems for them and some colleagues.
They cited cases of deaths among colleagues from cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at uncommonly early ages, with one ex-officer, Diego Diaz, telling the newspaper, “We’re talking about people in their early 40s…That’s not a coincidence. Rikers is a health hazard, and people won’t talk about it.”
The presence of methane gas was not a secret when the Lippman Commission, headed by the former State Chief Judge, issued a report nearly three years ago recommending the closing of Rikers as a prison facility and its replacement by smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island. It noted that if Rikers was to be developed, the cost of doing so would be potentially doubled by having to address the mist of methane produced by the landfill on which Rikers was built 90 years ago.
So the obvious question is, why didn’t the panel recommend health checks of the officers and other staff working at Rikers, who may remain there another six years if the original timetable for closing Rikers is followed? As Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Elias Husamudeen told this newspaper’s Richard Khavkine the day before Christmas, “The [Correction] Department and the City of New York should investigate these concerns thoroughly to ensure their employees are safe from any potential threats to their health.”
The DOC is seeking competitive bids for installation of methane-detection and alarm systems for several Rikers facilities that would begin in April. While those safety devices would have relatively short shelf lives if the jails there are closed in six years, that should be irrelevant. The truth is, the lack of urgency to this point in addressing the situation is stunning, given that the prime mission of the Lippman panel was reforming the jail system, not figuring out ways to more-profitably use the vast acreage of Rikers. Presumably, there would have been concern about the health impact the methane situation has on inmates, even if most of them are going to spend less time there—whether awaiting trial or serving sentences that are not supposed to last more than a year—than employees who often spent two decades or more on Rikers.
The health of all those concerned deserves at least as much priority as determining how the methane condition could affect future development.
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