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The Violence at Rikers Island: An “Insider” Clears Up Some Misconceptions

In response to an article in The New York Times that made dubious claims, a former Assistant Deputy Warden corrects the record

by Marc Bullaro

A Corrections tactical team in action. Photo: Wikipedia

On Dec. 31, 2021 the New York Times published an article entitled “Behind the Violence at Rikers, Decades of Mismanagement and Dysfunction” by Jan Ransom and Bianca Pallaro. The article was interesting and made some strong points. However, as someone who was an integral part of the system, I assure you that some of them were either misleading or less than clear to the general public and I would like to offer clarification of some points.

I served almost 29 years with the Department of Correction, retiring as an Assistant Deputy Warden working in many capacities within the agency. The NYT article claimed that “hundreds of other correction officers were stationed elsewhere in less dangerous positions, including as secretaries, laundry room supervisors and even bakers”.  I can firmly state that during my career those less dangerous positions were all legitimate posts and furthermore, that no correction officer was ever assigned as a baker. In addition, the article claimed that the current jail crisis is the result of “decades of mismanagement and dysfunction”. In my opinion, the crisis is the direct result of eight years of mismanagement and dysfunction under the administration of Bill de Blasio.

Bill de Blasio in a press conference. (Youtube)

According to the Mayor’s Management Report, under de Blasio the inmate violence was the highest it’s been in 25 years. Under de Blasio, the staff sick leave rate and overtime costs have never been higher in DOC’s history, and the employee morale has never been lower. According to media reports, in 2021 alone, with less than 6,000 inmates and a work force of 8,500 correction officers, there were more than 350 slashings and stabbings and about 10,000 instances of uses-of-force. In my view this is not due in large part to Covid or sick leave, but instead to the DOC’s loss of control of the jails resulting in the inability to protect the inmates. Already on Oct 29, 2019 the Gothamist published an article entitled “New Report Shows NYC Jails In State Of Chaos: The System Is Overwhelmed”. This was 17 months before the Covid pandemic.

That same Report indicates the inmate violence and staff use-of-force increased progressively while the inmate population decreased every year from 2014 through 2021. If we compare the figures for 2021 to those of  2003 through 2009, under the effective leadership of Commissioner Martin Horn and First Deputy Commissioner Mark Cranston, we can see that there was a total of approximately 224 slashings and stabbings during that seven year period, averaging about 32 per year with only 19 in 2008 and 21 in 2009. During this time the inmate population was approximately 14,000 with about 9,500 correction officers.

Now, to address the claim made that officers were assigned as bakers: according to the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, upon conviction of a crime inmates can be compelled to work. Also, many pre-trial detainees volunteer to work while in custody. They work in the kitchen, barber shop, law library, laundry room, outside sanitation, snow removal, and the bakery among other assignments. It is DOC policy that inmates must be supervised by uniformed staff at all times. Civilian staff cannot supervise inmates and inmates cannot be left unsupervised. Therefore, as a result, correction officers are assigned to those areas to supervise the inmate workers, not to be working at the task.

Through collective bargaining agreements with the City of New York, DOC uniformed staff, like NYPD, FDNY and DCNY, has unlimited sick leave. Although there unfortunately is some level of abuse, normally, any uniformed employee out sick indefinitely is under the care of a personal physician and is seen by DOC’s Health Management Division. They generally do not declare themselves sick on a sudden whim, as the NYT article implies.

The real question we should be asking is, why is the sick rate so high ? The answer is because of the daily assaults on correction officers by inmates due to the agency’s failure to enforce the law and provide safety and order for staff and inmates. DOC’s own records and the NYT article report a skyrocketing rate of 2,000 assaults on staff in 2021.

When there is sick leave abuse the DOC does have recourse which it uses readily. Management will fire non-tenured officers at will when they believe the sick leave policy was abused. Further, staff will lose privileges like steady posts and future promotions can be at risk. Lastly, DOC has the ability to end one’s employment by medically separating those who cannot perform their job functions.

Commissioner Schiraldi

Ransom and Pallaro also state that inmates are in control of the jail. That is true to some extent, but this has happened because the DOC leadership has abdicated its power. They have stripped uniformed staff of virtually all their authority, resulting in a dystopian “Lord of the Flies” environment where lawlessness prevails and anarchy reigns, leaving the dominant inmates and gangs to prey on the weaker and vulnerable inmates virtually without any consequences.

In an interview with PIX 11 News on Oct 15, former Commissioner Schiraldi specifically stated that “The inmates are in control”.

What then is the solution to the violence, mismanagement and dysfunction discussed  in Ransom and Pallaro’s article? The solution is this: the DOC must regain control of the jails. Its authority must be compelling and clearly established within the law. Its power must be overt but not oppressive, its policies intense but not illegitimate and its resolve unconditional but not unconstitutional. Correction officers must be supported by City Hall and management must stop using officers as scapegoats. The DOC’s failed policies need to change and City Hall must hold top management accountable.

Once the jails are safe and under control, they should be transformed into learning institutions providing degrees, trade school certifications and inner development programs for those that desire it.

 

 

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