Many Rikers Island Guards Hired Despite ‘Significant Red Flags’

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A view of buildings at the Rikers Island penitentiary complex where IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn is being held in New York on May 17, 2011. The grand jury deciding whether or not to send IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn to trial has until May 20th to decide. In the meantime, Strauss-Kahn, accused of attempting to rape a hotel maid, remains incarcerated without bail because a judge deemed him liable to attempt escape to France, which does not extradite citizens to the United States.  AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
Photo: EMMANUEL DUNAND/2011 AFP

In the last year there have been many disturbing reports on the “deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers Island, and the latest exposes the heart of the problem. The city’s Department of Investigation reviewed the applications of 153 correction officers hired by New York City jails in the last year. According to a report released Thursday, 35 percent “presented significant red flags that should have either precluded their hiring outright or required further follow-up.” All were hired despite having gang affiliations, criminal records, psychological problems, and relationships with current inmates. Only five are no longer working in city jails.

The probe found that the Department of Correction has had no recruitment strategy for the past six years, the application process is not computerized, and investigators are undertrained. The hiring process involves no meaningful background check or credit report, no screening for gang affiliations, and applicants are asked to show their social media accounts on their own phones. Candidates are supposed to be rated from 1 to 5, but multiple officials, including the deputy commissioner in charge of hiring, were unable to tell investigators if 1 or 5 was the high score. The report found 90 percent of applicants were given a 3.

Thus, people with questionable backgrounds had no problem getting hired. Per the AP:

The probe found 79 hired officers admitted having friends or family members who were inmates - including one with nine relatives who had done time in Rikers. Ten new hires had been arrested more than once, and another 12 had been rejected by the significantly higher standards of the New York Police Department, including six for psychological reasons and one who failed a drug test.

Mark Peters, the Department of Investigation commissioner, told the New York Times that they believe these issues are rampant throughout the department. “There is no reason to think that the problems in this class were unique, and indeed there’s considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest they are not,” he said. Peters added that hiring practices may be the most significant hurdle to reforming Rikers Island “because all of the other problems that we’re trying to fix can’t get fully resolved until we solve this problem first.”

The officers reviewed by the probe were all hired before Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Jails Commissioner Joseph Ponte last spring. Following the investigation, the department has started screening applicants for gang membership, and Ponte said he would implement many other recommendations made in the report. “Improving staff recruitment, training and retention is a key part of my agenda of meaningful reform,” he said. “At the end of the day, our performance is only as strong as the men and women who fill the posts that keep our facilities operating 24/7.”