Saturday, October 16, 2021

Staffing crisis puts beleaguered NYC prison on the brink

The beleaguered New York City prison on Rikers Island has slid to the edge of utter chaos due to staff shortages, poor conditions and restrictions imposed on guards. The city is scrambling to bring in more officers, reduce the prisoner population, speed up repairs and crack down on officers who fail to come to work.

The large prison complex, located on a small island in the East River, has been criticized for decades in disrepair and deteriorating condition, but has worsened over the years. Fighting, suicides and attacks on guards have increased. Ten inmates have died so far this year. Drugs, cell phones and even “wild parties” have been reported, with overworked workers sometimes unable to keep order.

The city plans to close the prison by 2026 and replace it with four smaller prisons. The prisoner population was to be reduced gradually, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and courts were closed, the population increased.

Before the pandemic, Rikers had about 700 prisoners who had awaited their trial for more than a year. This number has now more than doubled. Many of them have missed court dates because the overwhelmed personnel can’t find anyone to take them to court. According to jail officials, many people have missed medical appointments for the same reason.

Despite some officers working triple shifts, prisons sometimes do not have enough people to staff all positions. As of 14 September, 70 units lacked a floor officer, meaning that each was manned by an officer from a stable position, one of the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC) officials on September 15 of the city council. Said during the hearing.

Terrible sanitary conditions have been reported. Inmates live in filth and some even share bags to use as toilets, according to city public advocate Jumane Williams, who was among officers who recently visited the prison.

“I don’t think anyone working or living there feels safe or secure,” he said during the hearing.

It has become almost impossible to maintain security based on hearing testimony and reports in the local media. In the young adult facility alone, more than 200 cell doors have been broken down, leaving prisoners free to come and go. During the hearing, DOC commissioner Vincent Shiraldi said the repairs were expected to last until February. He said that before he assumed office in June, the department had estimated it would take two years to fix the doors.

There have been an average of less than 6,000 prisoners on Rikers on any given day this year. This is almost half of what it was 10 years ago. With a uniformed staff of over 8,000, why can’t the prison management?

The main issue is that about a third of employees are either on sick leave or have medical exemptions saying they cannot work directly with prisoners, Shiraldi said.

Some of those officers have legitimate health problems, and some don’t, he suggested.

Officers enjoy unlimited sick days and many, it appears, are taking advantage of the benefits to avoid work.

Part of the reason is the series of improvements the city has made in recent years, Shiraldi indicated.

From 2015, the city gradually banned the use of solitary confinement for people under the age of 22 or with severe mental illness and back it for everyone else. This type of confinement, officially called “punitive isolation”, places an abused prisoner alone in a cell for between 20 hours a day and 30 days.

If prolonged, solitary confinement becomes a form of psychological torture and can drive the person insane. Some activists call for getting rid of it altogether and the city government supports the idea. But the Correctional Officers’ Association says confinement is necessary to handle violent prisoners and a ban on its use is already too far away.

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“We can’t keep them for more than 30 days, leading us all to ask ‘What do we do with them after 30 days? Especially if their behavior doesn’t change and is not modified?'” Union chief Ilyas Husamuddin said in 2019.

The city further restricted what officers were allowed to do when pacifying a violent prisoner. Kicking is prohibited, hitting the prisoner’s head or face is prohibited, hitting the neck, kidney or spinal cord is prohibited, hitting the neck is prohibited.

Meanwhile, activists are pressuring the city to impose disciplinary penalties against corrections officials. There have been shocks from high-profile incidents, such as the death of prisoners allegedly due to the carelessness of staff.

“The way our corrections officers perceived it … is that we were punishing employees more and underreporting people. And it didn’t go down well with people, ”Shiraldi said.

“So there’s a lot of gloom around that and some low morale.”

He said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem. For one thing, city-imposed restrictions in response to the virus, cutting off visits, socialization and programming for prisoners, add to the psychological pressure.

As the CCP (Communist Party of China) virus spread through the city, more officials began calling in sick and the situation began to spiral.

“More people were called in sick, the staffing supplement was diluted, people had to triple work, violence increased, programs were cut, more violence increased and more employees were called in sick,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a series of measures to ease the situation. NYPD officers will partially staff the courts so that some corrections officers stationed there can be transferred to the prison. Also, officers who fail to report on work without explanation will be suspended without pay for 30 days. On 14 September there were about 100 such officers. The city has contracted with a local hospital to check whether health problems reported to the authorities are legitimate. Shiraldi said the administration is “accelerating emergency repairs” to the facilities.

He called on the state legislature to pass a law that would reduce detention for “technical violations,” such as breaking parole rules that are not in themselves a crime. He said there are about 275 prisoners on the island with such violations and releasing them would address the staff shortage.

Meanwhile, the city is trying to hire 600 more corrections officers. Some 75-125 new officers should report for duty in January, Shiraldi said, with the first Academy class starting in October.

The city has shown interest in a return in recent years, with several dozen people reaching out to officials who have resigned or retired.

Shiraldi said that in addition to more staff, fewer inmates and better security, the prison also needs more inmate programs.

“The more people who are productively engaged, the better the facilities run and the better people do when they return home to their neighborhoods and their families.”

Raphael Manguel, senior fellow at the Conservative Manhattan Institute, recently suggested expanding the use of solitary confinement in a New York Post op-ed. There is no indication the city would consider such a move.

The mayor’s office, DOC, and the Corrections Officer Benevolent Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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Petr Swab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education and law enforcement.

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This News Originally From – The Epoch Times

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