After NYC jail officials ignored suicide prevention plan, five detainees took their own lives

A Department of Correction van off Rikers Island, Sept. 13, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Logo for THE CITY 

This article was originally published on by THE CITY

City jail officials updated the Department of Correction’s suicide prevention policies early this year but failed to enact the changes before five detainees took their own lives, a federal monitor found. 

The monitor, Steve Martin, also called Friday for the department to bring in supervisors from the private sector as 1,800 correction officers are calling in sick on any given day — plunging Rikers Island into chaos. Meanwhile, eight local members of Congress called on President Joe Biden to “stabilize the current crisis” as Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would soon visit Rikers for the first time in four years. 

A dozen detainees have died behind bars this year, with five taking their own lives — the highest suicide total in at least a decade. Overall self-harm incidents spiked last summer as COVID-19 ravaged New York and has climbed to historic levels in the months since, WNYC/Gothamist and THE CITY reported earlier this month

In response to Martin, Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi plans to move detainees who serve as “suicide aides” to intake areas where several of the recent deaths have occured. Officers will also be cautioned to look out for self harm and undergo new training. 

Martin, who was appointed to oversee city jails in 2015, said officers need to do more to protect detainees who try to harm themselves. 

“An officer will observe [suicidal] gesturing, the possession of a ligature, preparation of a ligature, and will not intervene,” he said during an emergency court hearing Friday morning after his latest dispatch detailing dysfunction in city jails. “That must be stopped. It must be stopped now.”

A Letter to Biden

The Legal Aid Society, which brought the class action suit that led to Martin’s appointment, on Friday pressed Manhattan Federal Court Judge Laura Swain to order the release of some 250 detainees with low-level criminal charges. 

“This is an urgent matter of life and death, and it needs relief today,” said Mary Lynn Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society. She questioned whether more training and added directives would be enough to prevent more suicides. 

Swain said she wasn’t legally allowed to spring detainees unless other remedies are first tried.

The exchange came a week after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Less is More Act, which limits the re-jailing of certain parole violators. She also ordered the release of 191 people held on low-level raps.

Jail reform advocates promoted decarceration during a rally outside Rikers Island, Sept. 13, 2021.Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On Friday, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-The Bronx) led the call for assistance from Biden and requested a civil rights probe into the Correction Department. 

“We cannot continue to allow Rikers Island to deteriorate to the point that it is no longer a safe place for those in custody or those who work in the jails,” the letter to Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland says. 

It was also signed by Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Yvette Clarke, Adriano Espaillat, Hakeem Jeffries, Mondaire Jones, Carolyn Maloney and Gregory Meeks.

They join a growing chorus of elected officials, medical professionals and advocates demanding de Blasio take more action to address deplorable conditions in the city jail system. The letter apparently spurred the mayor to announce he’ll visit Rikers next week.

‘Gasoline on This Inferno’

Earlier this month, a group of state lawmakers and Bowman toured the various facilities on Rikers, where some saw a man attempt suicide. The elected officials said they found men using plastic bags instead of toilets as well as people forced to sleep on shower floors inside intake areas. 

Schiraldi has closed the central intake section at Rikers’ Otis Bantum Correctional Center and opened up smaller units at other facilities on the island. He is also ordering supervisors to check on detainees in those areas to make sure they are properly fed three times a day and moved out expeditiously. 

As for bringing in outside help to deal with the staffing crunch, the union representing jail officers slammed the idea — and a city lawyer representing the department argued against it as well during the emergency court hearing. 

“Not only is this knee-jerk amendment union busting, it’s completely reckless as well,” said Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio Jr. “For profit prisons and jails have a well documented history of abuse.” 

Guards with lack of training or vetting “will only pour gasoline on this inferno by needlessly risking thousands of lives,” he added. 

City Drops Suit

In 2007, then-Gov. George Pataki signed an anti-jail privatization law supported by the union. The law states: “The duty of maintaining the custody and supervision … shall be performed solely by members of the uniformed force and shall not be delegated…to private persons or entities.”

Schiraldi has told the three unions representing jail officers and supervisors that the city will be forced to bring in private security to handle perimeter areas and other spots where there is no direct contact with detainees. 

The de Blasio administration sued COBA on Monday, charging an illegal job action has led to staff shortages, seeking to fine the union $1 million a day. The city dropped the suit shortly after the union agreed to issue a statement to its members urging them to show up for work if they are fit for duty. 

Before the action was withdrawn, Boscio accused de Blasio of scapegoating the union for his bungled leadership over the department. 

The staffing crisis has gotten so bad some detainees are not brought to court, THE CITY recently reported. Many are also missing medical appointments because there aren’t enough officers to transport them to clinics in each facility, according to a report by New York Focus. 

Schiraldi is moving to allow more detainees to walk themselves to medical appointments and plans to move some clinics closer to housing units.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.