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Although they noted some progress, the Federal Monitoring team overseeing the Department of Correction said the menacing conditions inside city jails that surfaced earlier this year persist.
During a Dec. 2 status conference with a U.S. District Judge that was prefaced by an 11-page report submitted the day before, the team reiterated its prior findings that compromised security along with poor management and deployment of staff remain intractable.
Although the de Blasio administration and the DOC have implemented a series of steps to quell the disorder and disturbances since Judge Laura Swain compelled the department to address security breaches and a troubled admissions process that had inmates straggling in intake areas for days, the team echoed its “ongoing concerns” regarding conditions, which they said were worse than before the current crisis began roughly six months ago.
“The Department’s decades of poor practices have produced a maladaptive culture in which deficiencies are normalized and embedded in every facet of the Department’s work,” the Monitor and his team wrote in its report. “This traps the Department in a state of disrepair, where even the first step to improve practice is undercut by the absence of elementary skills—be it staff deployment, safety and security, or managing/supervising staff. It is therefore impossible to fix these problems quickly; it is also somewhat unrealistic to expect that the desired outcomes would be achieved during the recent period of crisis.”
Although the Monitor, Steve Martin, and his team have said the DOC must be empowered to fix the majority of its problems, some remain out of reach for an agency that lacks the necessary protocols and specialized staff.
Among the monitoring team’s suggestions, subsequently ordered by Judge Swain, was for Correction to expand its criteria for leadership positions rather than selecting and promoting only from its current uniformed ranks.
But civil-service- and correction-law provisions preclude the hiring of non-DOC staff to fill uniformed posts, a city Law Department lawyer said during the status conference. While the city would like to go ahead and follow that recommendation, “the current legal landscape prevents that,” attorney Kimberly Joyce said. Although she conceded those regulations left some maneuvering room, she also suggested that a dearth of suitable candidates would complicate the effort.
“I don’t believe the state is willing to suspend those laws, especially when we don’t have candidates for the positions,” she said.
A U.S. Justice Department attorney, Jeffrey Powell, was skeptical on both counts, arguing that Federal law empowered judges to order circumventions of civil-service and other provisions when confronted with “egregious conditions” similar to those present on Rikers Island and in other city jails.
“It’s our view that Your Honor could enter an order requiring the city to hire outside folks,” he said. The outstanding question would be whether the city would consent to such an order, Mr. Powell said.
He also questioned whether city officials had done enough to locate qualified persons for the positions.
Judge Swain, noting that the hearing, conducted remotely, was nearing its allocated 90 minutes, counseled the parties to try to reach agreement on a consent order that she would consider Dec. 22 at the next scheduled hearing, or prior to that date.
Earlier in the hearing, Mr. Powell said the Justice Department, which was party to the 2014 lawsuit that led to a consent decree and the appointment of the Federal Monitor, was “extremely concerned” about the “ongoing, imminent threat of harm” brought about continued staff absenteeism and jail violence.
'Is There a Plan?'
“The data shows little improvement in the numbers,” he said, noting both the incidence of use-of-force by correction staff and inmate-on-inmate violence.
Mr. Powell said the department was continually challenged to meet staffing demands, given an absentee rate that, at more than 30 percent, has remained fairly constant for months. “It’s just too much to ask a correction officer,” he said.
“Is this the new normal?” he asked. “Is there a plan?”
A day earlier, DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi cited data showing that conditions inside the jails were improving. He said uses of force had declined by 11 percent in the most-recent five-month period compared to February through June. Fights among inmates had also dropped nearly 20 percent, he said.
Staffing, too, had improved—in part, Mr. Schiraldi said, because the jail population had decreased from just over 6,000 in early September to roughly 5,200 early this month.
'Nowhere to Go But Up'
“So, our thought is that, as we suspected, when we have more staff, and you're less tired, and posts are staffed, we're going to have less violence, less use of force, less assaults,” he said.
But Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, which represented plaintiffs in the case that led to the consent decree, while noting the incremental progress, nonetheless said jail conditions “remain dire” given the persistent level of violence.
“Frankly, from where we were in August and September, there was almost nowhere to go but up,” she said during the hearing. Still, she said that six years after the consent decree, the city’s lockups have only gotten worse. Even short jail stays, she said, were “traumatic, violent and life-threatening.”
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