Public Advocate Calls For Rikers Reforms At Board Of Correction Hearing After Fourth Death Of 2022

May 10th, 2022

Press Release

Just a few days after Dashawn Carter became the fourth person to lose their life on Rikers Island this year, Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams repeated his calls for urgent action to reform Rikers, address inhumane conditions, and save lives. At a hearing of the Board of Correction Tuesday, Public Advocate Williams again emphasized that years of mismanagement have created danger for people on both sides of the bars. Simply adding more officers, he explained, was not the answer, but rather systemic changes are needed.

"For far too long, the old policies and terrible management have been detrimental to incarcerated people and corrections officers and staff who work there," said Public Advocate Williams. "For fiscal year 2023, the administration plans to hire an additional 598 correctional officers. We should be concerned about hiring more correctional officers when there are other officers in the city not coming to the work, and already in the budget. The message from this administration should be preventive, not punitive. We have other staff we can hire as well, including social workers, other types of interrupters and people who are credible messengers as well. Hiring more officers, while other officers are out sick, sends the wrong message not only to this City, but to the people who are currently coming to work."

The Public Advocate also spoke about impending legislation he is set to introduce in the City Council to prohibit solitary confinement, and said of the upcoming deadline for the Department of Correction to present a plan for Rikers reform, "We cannot wait to see what happens with DOC’s plans. Punitive segregation, going back and forth between punitive and solitary, we know it still exists on Rikers Island. We know the names of people who died while in or after being in solitary: Layleen Polanco, Kalief Browder, Brandon Rodriguez. These are too many deaths for an abusive, inhumane, and immoral system."

As the potential for a federal receivership is imminent, the Public Advocate closed saying, "Federal receivership should not mean the City should stop working together to figure out what is needed...We should take federal receivership as a serious action on the table. It should push us to take this as a final, critical moment for change. It should not be viewed as continuing to do the same thing as before. We know that failed, and we can't continue to do the same thing, if nothing at all."

The Public Advocate's full testimony at the hearing is below.

TESTIMONY OF PUBLIC ADVOCATE JUMAANE D. WILLIAMS

TO THE NEW YORK CITY BOARD OF CORRECTION HEARING -

MAY 10, 2022

My name is Jumaane D. Williams, and I am Public Advocate for the City of New York. I thank the Board of Correction for allowing me to speak today.

As we know, these are critical times for those on Rikers Island. The violence and dysfunction is so high there that federal receivership is now an option on the table. With a three week notice, the Department of Correction must present an "action plan" to a federal court by May 17th. Otherwise, we may see a federal takeover of Rikers. It is disappointing that years and years of mismanagement has led to this moment. We had an opportunity as a City, for months if not years or decades, to do the right thing and offer a plan for those incarcerated and staff on the island. It is clear that we failed. 

The conditions at Rikers Island are truly inhumane. People lack life-saving medication, miss crucial medical appointments, live in unsanitary conditions, and are given spoiled food. The ongoing issue of correctional officers reporting out sick is causing an increase of stress and work for staff at Rikers. With the combination of the already dehumanizing environment and the COVID-19 pandemic, these exacerbated the living conditions and work conditions and increased the violence over the past couple of years. 

Inevitably, this meant that the number of deaths have also increased. Last year, 16 people died at Rikers Island which is known to be the highest number of deaths since 2016. As for this year, there have already been four deaths that have occurred. I refer to the latest death of 25-year-old Dashawn Carter, who committed suicide in his cell, is tragic. At the same time, the number of self-harm cases has risen. During the pandemic, these numbers surged. Towards the end of March 2020, there were 52 self-harm incidents per 1,000 people in jails and this number rose to 88 in 2021. We know the names and the stories of those who we have lost. The City has failed them and their families. We cannot continue to allow this to happen and witness numerous families grieving over their loved ones that took their life while jailed and awaiting trial. 

As I mentioned in previous testimonies, the city has failed those who also work on Rikers Island. Many correctional officers are obligated to work double, triple, or even quadruple shifts due to staff shortage. According to a report published by the 13th Nunez Monitor, they found that about 19.31 percent of the total number of uniform staff were on sick leave as of January 26, 2022. Some officers have mentioned being sexually harassed, assaulted, and abused during the job. In March, a correctional officer was slashed across the face while breaking up a fight near losing their eye. These horrible working conditions also impact those who are under the staff’s supervision. This could mean that medical appointments for incarcerated people are disregarded or missed, continuing the perpetual cycle of their health and medical concerns being ignored and neglected. For far too long, the old policies and terrible management has been detrimental to incarcerated people and corrections officers and staff who work there. For fiscal year 2023, the administration plans to hire an additional 598 correctional officers. We should be concerned about hiring more correctional officers when there are other officers in the city not coming to the work, and already in the budget. The message from this administration should be preventive, not punitive. We have other staff we can hire as well, including social workers, other types of interrupters and people who are credible messengers as well. . Hiring more officers, while other officers are out sick, sends the wrong message not only to this City, but to the people who are currently coming to work.  

These new correctional officers would be hired for the City’s Risk Management Accountability System. I was encouraged by the comments made at a March 23rd City Council hearing that RMAS would focus on a low census and high staff ratio. Staff may include health and mental health professionals. At the same time, I am concerned about the use of RMAS. As of last week, the number of people on Rikers Island is at least 5,400. Alarmingly, the number of people detained in pretrial detention is increasing. On May 11th, 2021, it was 4,148. As of May 6th, 2022, it was 4,609. As mentioned, DOC continues to have correctional officers who are out sick for an indefinite period of time. What is the procedure when that ratio cannot be achieved? That remains unclear. I actually think the public would be surprised to know that there is an increased number of folk on Rikers Island right now.

We cannot wait to see what happens with DOC’s plans. Punitive segregation, going back and forth between punitive and solitary, we know it still exists on Rikers Island. We know the names of people who died while in or after being in solitary: Layleen Polanco, Kalief Browder, Brandon Rodriguez. These are too many deaths for an abusive, inhumane, and immoral system. As elected officials, we must remain committed to seeing transformative changes to Rikers Island.

There is still an opportunity for us to lead. We must be able to separate for safety. We need to separate for safety. At the same time, isolation is a danger and we need to focus on reducing threats without using separation. DOC's Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation, used for incarcerated individuals with serious mental illness, is an example of using mental health staff that aims to reduce any potential harm being able to separate without isolate and stepping back down to population.

My office will soon present legislation in the City Council on solitary confinement. The bill would end solitary/punitive segregation as we know it. It also centers the lives and the experiences of those who are incarcerated. Solitary is disproportionately used against people of more color. It is also worse for people with pre-existing mental illness as well as increasing the risk of self-harm and suicide. The rate of suicide was five times higher for those in solitary in New York State from 2015 to 2019.

I am excited to see this legislation introduced in the City Council and anticipate its passage based on the urgency of the moment. Federal receivership should not mean the City should stop working together to figure out what is needed. We are elected officials. We are the board. We are expected to implement changes that are needed for everyone in New York City including those individuals who are at Rikers. I hope, when this bill is presented in the City Council, that the Board of Correction provides its support as the foundation of it is based on BOC rules.

We should take federal receivership as a serious action on the table. It should push us to take this as a final, critical moment for change. It should not be viewed as continuing to do the same thing as before. We know that failed, and we can't continue to do the same thing, if nothing at all. I thank the board for allowing me to speak. I always want to make sure I am speaking for those who are housed there and those who are working there. Many folks working those triples, quadruples. We want to make sure we’re bringing folks back in. It’s hard to explain the increase in the budget, while people are on sick leave.

I know this Commissioner and this Board didn’t necessarily create this mess, but we’re here. We had some months to address it, and we’re hoping in the next few weeks to present a real plan because receivership is not something most of us want. If it’s on the table, we have to do something. My office is willing to do what we can to be productive and get us to a place where everybody is safe and feel safe. I understand some of the concerns of the correctional officers who don’t feel safe in that environment. Thank you again.

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