New York City faced mounting pressure on Friday to resolve its spiraling prison crisis, with members of Congress calling for a federal civil rights inquiry and a court-appointed observer lambasting the city for a leadership failure amid staggering violence, self-harm and the deaths this year of at least 12 inmates.
US District Judge Laura Swain, overseeing a prison consent decree, said on an emergency conference call Friday that the notorious Rikers Island prison complex was “clearly in a state of danger and crisis.” On the call, lawyers for the detainees and the city government debated the Monitor’s latest recommendations to reverse deteriorating conditions and debilitating absences of staff.
These include demanding that new detainees be treated within 24 hours, instead of lingering on admission for days, keeping detainees involved in violent altercations locked in their cells, reiterating to guards their duty to stop self-harm and bring new perspectives by allowing the city to hire guards and fill management positions outside the city system.
“This is an urgent matter of life and death and it needs relief today,” said lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, noting than death of two detainees since Sunday.
As that happened, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would be heading to Rikers Island next week to see the issues firsthand – his first time there since 2017. His announcement follows recent visits from installations by elected officials and defenders who have highlighted a “humanitarian crisis” of misery and suffering behind bars.
Councilor Joe Borelli said he visited Rikers Island on Thursday evening and conditions there were “worse than I have seen before and worse than you might imagine”. Borelli, a Republican from Staten Island, said prior to his visit he thought his colleagues who had been to Rikers were hyperbolic, “but I can tell you that is not hyperbole.”
More inmates in the city’s prisons have died this year than in the past three years. There were seven deaths in 2020, three in 2019 and eight in 2018, according to the city’s corrections department. At least five deaths this year were suicides, the highest number since 2005. A city report last week showed significantly higher rates of violence, serious injuries to inmates and assaults on staff compared to years ago. previous ones.
In a letter Friday to President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, Democratic members of the city’s congressional delegation called for a federal investigation into the civil rights of the city’s prisons. They said the federal government has a duty to step in and “provide much needed oversight and accountability for the staff, officers and inmates who reside at Rikers Island.”
“We cannot continue to allow Rikers Island to deteriorate to the point that it is no longer a safe place for those in detention or those who work in prisons,” officials said.
A message requesting comment was left with the Justice Department, whose intervention in a ten-year-old detainee trial over detention conditions prompted a settlement leading to a consent decree and the Federal Comptroller of the Penitentiary System.
“The government is, of course, alarmed by the extraordinary level of violence and disorder in the prisons, and by the city’s failure to comply with the basic provisions of consent judgment,” the attorney for the Department of Justice said. Jeffrey Powell on Friday’s emergency conference call.
Four New York Congressional Democrats sent a letter on Tuesday to New York Governor Kathy Hochul and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio demanding that the inmates be released and that Rikers be shut down immediately. The city had announced its intention to close the facility by 2027.
Federal Monitor Steve J. Martin said on the emergency conference call on Friday that the city’s prison system needed a “back to basics” overhaul which he dubbed “Fixes 101” while overworked guards continue to leave doors unsecured, abandon posts and ignore signs of distress. He lambasted city officials for failing to come up with “not a” concrete solution to the lingering security problems.
In a recent incident, Martin said, officers did not respond immediately as an inmate attempted to hang himself in their line of sight about 6 feet away, and an officer walking directly in front of the cell did did nothing. Eventually, the guards noticed the man, shot him and he survived, Martin said.
Swain called the behavior of the guards “absolutely unacceptable”.
“It is unacceptable to willfully ignore self-injurious behaviors, to ignore self-injurious behaviors or signs of them. This needs to be communicated immediately, ”Swain said on the three-hour call. “There is no good reason for anyone to think this is acceptable. And since anyone misunderstands, it should be communicated immediately. “
Uniformed staff in the city’s prisons fell from 10,862 in fiscal 2017 to 8,388 in 2021. The prison guards’ union says 7,600 staff are correctional officers and that the rest exercise supervisory functions. At some point in the summer, a third of the guards were ill or medically unfit to work with inmates, the city said. In addition, countless numbers of guards have become AWOL.
The city, which struggles to fill prison positions, said it offers incentives, including extra pay for overtime, food trucks and overnight trips home for working prison guards. extra shifts. Since last week, he has cracked down on officers who do not show up for work. City attorney Kimberly Joyce said on Friday 55 prison guards had been suspended for 30 days without pay for failing to show up for work.