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During the early rule of the Roman Empire, Pyrrhus of Epirus won a decisive battle against the Roman Army although the victory also significantly destroyed his own forces, thereby ending his military campaign.
I submit that Steve Martin, the appointed federal monitor overseeing conditions at Rikers Island, is on the same path as Pyrrhus. He is decisively winning the legal battle with the city in federal court but has devastated the Department of Correction and keeps incarcerated persons, who the consent decrees were designed and implemented to protect, unsafe and in constant danger of assault, theft and extortion by detainee gangs. In Martin’s nine-year reign of failure to enact reform and ensure compliance with federal consent decrees, he has severely weakened DOC, making it inert. Some, though, are enthralled by his copious reports, wherein he ostensibly has the consummate solution for all of DOC’s problems.
Here are some statistics: Since 2015, when Martin was appointed as the Nunez federal monitor by the federal court to oversee DOC, about 2,000 detainees have been slashed or stabbed. There have been over 50,000 detainee fights, dozens of detainee suicides and deaths, thousands of assaults on correction officers and non-uniformed employees, and about 50,000 uses of force, mostly pursuant to detainee violence. Lawlessness and anarchy continues to prevail, detainee gangs control the jails, morale is nonexistent and correction officers are leaving the job faster than Olympians running the 100-yard dash.
Prior to Martin’s arrival, detainee violence, fights, deaths, assaults and uses of force were all significantly lower. For example, under the effective and successful leadership of former correction DOC Commissioner Martin Horn, in 2008 there were 19 slashings for the entire year and in 2009 there were no detainee suicides. However in 2021 and 2022, there were 419 and 477 slashings and stabbings, respectively, with 35 detainee deaths 12 of which were suicides.
For nine years, DOC has been bombarded with media sorties and political failures.
Rikers Island, marooned in a sea of personal political agendas and surrounded by an ocean of anti-law enforcement philosophy, appears to sink deeper into the abyss pursuant to monitor reports that lambaste everyone except the incarcerated population responsible for the violence and of course Martin himself. And the cost of this failure continues to take more and more taxpayer money, much like an internet scam that defrauds seniors out of their life savings.
Martin and his team have been paid over $20 million.
In November, the Daily News reported that “The Correction Department hired accounting giant KPMG in 2021 on a $3 million no-bid ‘emergency’ contract to make sure it made deadlines in its plan to fix violence and use of force in New York City jails, records show.” The article also noted that, “In 2015, the city hired the McKinsey consulting firm to a $5.9 million contract to come up with a plan to reduce violence in the jails. … Two years later the contract’s cost had ballooned to $27 million as Correction Department staff questioned the 70% drop in violence the firm claimed.”
If you examine the yearly Mayor’s Management Reports and DOC statistics you will not find a 70 percent drop in violence in 2015 or after. On the contrary you will find consistent increases in violence.
In addition, each incarcerated person costs taxpayers $550,000 per year to keep in custody. And the city will spend at least $10 billion on new borough jails which I submit in and of itself will do little to reduce violence or end the dysfunction. Further, I suspect it will cost closer to $20 billion. Lastly, hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid out to those in custody and their estates in lawsuits brought pursuant to detainee suicides, deaths, assaults and deprivation of constitutional rights.
Like an MMA fighter, the federal monitor has DOC in a chokehold waiting for it to “tap out.” As a result, the uniformed force is unable to protect the incarcerated population or themselves, unable to perform the most basic duty, unable to provide services, unable to return better persons to the communities and even unable to insure that all detainees eat daily, have a mattress to sleep on and a blanket to keep them warm because the detainee gangs are in control of the housing areas and usurp all the resources.
No matter how much taxpayer money NYC spends on snake-oil solutions, DOC cannot fulfill its obligation to keep the incarcerated population, non-uniformed staff and the uniformed force safe unless it asserts its legal authority and regains control of the jails.
Marc Bullaro, a retired NYC DOC assistant deputy warden, is an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
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