Mayor Bill de Blasio on Wednesday pledged to visit the jails at Rikers Island before the conclusion of his term at the end of this year — but only after his emergency executive order to stabilize the jails from their current state of chaos is fully implemented
“I want to make sure first and foremost that we get this plan in place. We’ve got a lot of work to do with the state, we’ve got a lot of work to do to maximize the efforts here and the other agencies that we need to help Corrections,” Hizzoner said at his daily press briefing Wednesday, in response to a question from amNewYork Metro. “That’s what I’m focused on now, but I will definitely be visiting at the appropriate time.”
The mayor has not visited Rikers Island throughout his second term, despite having announced in 2017 a plan to close the troubled lockup within a decade and replace it with four smaller “borough-based” jails. De Blasio last visited Rikers in June of 2017.
The mayor’s remarks Wednesday are a clearer indication that he intends to visit the jail before his term is up than he proffered on Tuesday, when he vaguely said he would go “at some point.”
The island has seen a significant escalation of violence and chaos this year; 10 people have died there so far this year, the most recent being 24-year-old Esias Johnson on Sept. 7.
Absenteeism among corrections officers is substantial: Gothamist reports an average of 1,416 corrections officers, out of about 8,400 total, called out sick daily in August, double the numbers from August of 2020, and that on average 93 officers went AWOL per day, a threefold increase from last August.
Corrections honchos told the City Council that 1,789 officers called out sick just on Wednesday.
Lawmakers who visited the jails on Monday have described seeing harrowing conditions in the complex, such as a dozen people being crowded into tiny intake rooms, showers being used as stalls, garbage being strewn about, and inmates being surrounded by bags of their own urine and fecal matter. One inmate even tried to commit suicide as the lawmakers partook in the tour.
State Senator Jessica Ramos, who witnessed the suicide attempt, said that she made phone calls to the families and attorneys of incarcerated people she met because they were not afforded access to a telephone nor the ability to go to court. Incidents of self-harm among inmates have spiked markedly during the pandemic.
The mayor’s five-point executive order, unveiled Tuesday, calls for shifting NYPD personnel to staff courts to free up corrections officers currently staffing them, threatening AWOL officers with 30-day suspensions, speeding up the intake process by opening two new processing centers, dispatching additional medical personnel, and doing “emergency contracting” for repairs and more efficient distribution of resources.
The plan also calls for the state to implement a law limiting the use of incarceration for technical parole violations, expediting transfers from Rikers to state facilities, calendaring 500 court cases for pretrial detainees, and encouraging judges to sentence supervised release instead of pretrial incarceration.
The mayor’s plan has been met with criticism on all fronts. Some say that the mayor should rapidly depopulate the notorious jail for the safety of everyone there.
“On the city level, low-level offenders should be granted supervised release, early and compassionate release options should be exercised, and technical parole violations should not be grounds for incarceration,” said Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who visited the lockup with state lawmakers and referred to it as a “humanitarian crisis rapidly descending toward even greater disaster.”
“We must simultaneously move to get more staff back onto the island and more incarcerated people off of it,” Williams said.
The jail saw large-scale decarceration at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus rampaged through the city and congregate jails were identified as a potential superspreading location; the jail’s population fell below 4,000 in April of 2020 as the city released droves of inmates deemed nonviolent or especially vulnerable to the virus. But the population has shot back up since then, with average daily population once again above 6,000. The vast majority of inmates at Rikers are pretrial detainees.
“It is simply unconscionable and unworkable that significant and immediate steps to decarcerate Rikers Island and other local jails are not a fundamental part of this plan,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. The public defender organization is calling on the mayor to immediately release 250 inmates under the “6A” work-release program, but the mayor on Wednesday demurred and said that was “not our focus right now.”
On the other side, Benny Boscio, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, the largest union representing Rikers jail guards, said the mayor’s plan was a “reckless” and “knee-jerk solution” and called on him to resign.
“Mayor de Blasio’s latest reckless and knee-jerk solution to the crisis he has created for the past eight years only reaffirms why he is unfit for office,” Boscio said, according to the Daily News.
De Blasio’s pledge to visit Rikers came as Vincent Schiraldi, the DOC commissioner since June, was grilled by City Council members at an oversight hearing on staffing and conditions at the complex.
“I think [there’s] a duty for all of us to be at Rikers Island,” said Criminal Justice Committee chair Keith Powers of Manhattan, “to see those conditions and to witness it personally.”