NYC Public Advocate Pushes For Rikers Reforms After Nineteenth Death In City Custody Of 2022

December 13th, 2022

Press Release

Just two days after the most recent death of an incarcerated person on Rikers Island, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams emphasized the need for rapid change at the complex. At a hearing of the Committee on Criminal Justice, he lamented the current conditions in the complex, and advocated for taking new and different approaches to protect New Yorkers on and off the island. Nineteen people have lost their lives in city custody this year, already three more than the previously unprecedented crisis in 2021 and more than any year since 2013, when the jail population was twice as large.

The Public Advocate described the deteriorating and dangerous conditions on Rikers Island, including, “crumbling infrastructure, a lack of staff, fights and assaults, slashings and stabbings, missed medical and court appointments, doors that do not lock, frequent overdoses, and nineteen deaths so far this year,” despite the fact that the jail has the highest corrections officer to incarcerated person ratio in the country and it costs over $556,539 to incarcerate a single individual for a year. New York City also forces excessively long wait times on those charged with crimes: New Yorkers wait three to four times longer for a fair trial than the average American.

He also spoke about the city’s seeming inability to improve conditions in a way that strengthens safety for people on both sides of the bars, arguing that “We have spent enough time waiting for the federal monitor to improve the conditions at Rikers Island. It is time to explore other measures, including whether a federal receivership of the jail is necessary to end the cycle of violence and death…The threat of receivership should push us to take this as a final, critical moment for change. It should not be viewed as keeping the status quo, as we know that that does not work, and it should not mean the city should stop collaborating to figure out what is needed to make our jails humane and respectful of the dignity of those incarcerated in them.”

Public Advocate Williams is the sponsor of Intro 549, the most comprehensive and concrete legislative effort to end the practice of solitary, which the United Nations defines as torture, on a citywide level. The bill has supermajority support in the City Council.

Read the Public Advocate’ full comments from today’s hearing below.

STATEMENT OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL COMMITTEE ON

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

DECEMBER 13, 2022

Good afternoon,

My name is Jumaane D. Williams and I am the Public Advocate for the City of New York. Thanks again to the Chair and the members of the Committee for holding this important hearing and allowing me to speak.

In 2011, a group of people incarcerated at Rikers by the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) filed a lawsuit—Nunez, et al. v. City of New York, et al., or just “Nunez”—in the District Court for the Southern District of New York. They alleged that correction officers often took incarcerated people into areas of the jail that were out of view of video cameras and beat them, resulting in injuries including broken bones, concussions, and other emergency conditions requiring hospitalization and surgery. To cover up the misconduct, the officers falsified records or fabricated disciplinary charges.

Four years later, this lawsuit resulted in the court-appointed federal monitor for Rikers Island, with the goal of creating a safer environment for both the incarcerated people and the staff who are there. But that clearly did not fix the dangerous and deadly environment we know Rikers to be today: the jail is plagued by crumbling infrastructure, a lack of staff, fights and assaults, slashings and stabbings, missed medical and court appointments, doors that do not lock, frequent overdoses, and, as of yesterday, nineteen deaths so far this year, with another heartbreaking one, as I mentioned, just days ago. 

Sadly, the current state of Rikers is not surprising. We do know that correction officers work in dangerous jobs because of the environment that is there, and no one is safe on that island, and they suffer from injuries because of tha, and do need time to recover. We also know, and it is clear that there are officers who are misusing sick leave. Chronic staffing shortages caused by officers abusing unlimited sick leave creates a more dangerous environment where those incarcerated cannot access services and programming and officers must rely on last-resort measures such as emergency lock-ins and solitary confinement to manage the jail population. 

Further, in October, the Legal Aid Society alleged that DOC has been tampering with intake information that is used to monitor compliance with the Nunez ruling. We do not know if this was an isolated incident or an indication of chronic falsifying of records to skirt the requirements set by the federal monitor.

Since 2015, New York City taxpayers have spent more than $18 million on the federal monitor, Steve J. Martin and his team, who have failed to reform any significant part of life at Rikers. This price tag does not include the specially created unit within DOC that provides information to the monitor and ensures compliance with his mandates. Martin has in fact argued in his most recent report that the “problems [at Rikers] are so deeply entrenched and complicated that no single person, power, or authority will be able to fix them on the rapid schedule that the gravity of the problems demand.” 

This begs the question: where do we go from here? It is clear that Rikers and DOC needs a dramatic change in its culture. Correction officers who are abusing sick leave must come back to work, and we need a concrete plan from Commissioner Molina and DOC leadership to hold accountable officers that abuse sick leave, falsify records, and use excessive force. We must end harmful practices that make jails less safe, including and especially solitary confinement. And the city as a whole must commit to further decarceration, moving from historically punitive approaches to justice to restorative justice practices and alternatives to incarceration. We have to also get our court system to move more quickly to adjudicate cases.

We have spent enough time waiting for the federal monitor to improve the conditions at Rikers Island. We have to explore other measures, and while I haven’t decided on my opinion yet, I do think that we have to consider whether a federal receivership of the jail is necessary to end the cycle of violence and death. Last month, the court ruled that we should give Commissioner Molina more time to implement his plan for the jail. The court will review the progress made in April, and I hope to work closely with the administration and the City Council to ensure that there is positive progress made in that time. DOC and the city must also commit to the 2027 timeline that the prior administration agreed to close the jail on Rikers Island. The threat of receivership should push us to take this as a final, critical moment for change. It should not be viewed as keeping the status quo, as we know that that does not work, and it should not mean the city should stop collaborating to figure out what is needed to make our jails humane and respectful of the dignity of those who are detained and those who work in them. We have the distinction of having less people than we did over a decade ago, a better detainee to correction officer ratio, and the most violent jail in the nation. Hopefully we can do something about it. 

Thank you.

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