new york city

De Blasio Finally Acts As Deaths Pile Up at Rikers Island

Nurses protesting against jail conditions at the entrance to the Rikers Island correctional facility. Photo: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

After 24-year-old Esias Johnson died in his cell at Rikers Island last week — the tenth inmate to die this year in the city’s notorious island jail — Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new five-point plan to address the crisis, blaming it in large part on droves of correction officers who haven’t been showing up to work.

On Tuesday, de Blasio threatened to suspend for 30 days without pay correction officers who call out of work without a reason. Gothamist reports that last month, the daily average of COs calling out sick was 1,416, which is almost double the daily average from August 2020; the daily average of AWOL officers last month was 93, almost triple the rate a year ago. De Blasio added in a speech Tuesday that he would visit the prison scheduled to close in 2027 “at some point.” (The day he made the announcement, one in five Rikers staffers were out “sick.”) He has not set foot on the island in over four years.

The threat was not empty: On Wednesday, around 20 correction officers were suspended when they went AWOL, according to the New York Daily News.

De Blasio’s plan includes shifting NYPD officers to operate courts so that Department of Correction staff can be on-duty at Rikers and speeding intake to reduce crowding in the notoriously packed jail, with a goal of “moving people through the intake process in 24 hours or fewer.” De Blasio also called on Governor Kathy Hochul to sign the Less Is More Act, which would limit incarceration for technical and non-criminal parole violations. City data shows that the majority of detainees in Rikers, and the city’s jail system at large, are being held as they await trial.

Conditions at Rikers have deteriorated further during the pandemic, which has killed at least three inmates. Despite efforts to spruce up the jail prior to a visit by lawmakers on Monday, State Senator Jessica Ramos told The City she saw dead cockroaches, fecal matter, and rotting food during the tour. “I can’t begin to tell you the deplorable conditions,” she said. “There are at least one dozen men per cell.” Ramos, along with Assemblymember Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, claimed the group “witnessed someone trying to commit suicide” in a punitive segregation unit. Jail records show that five of the ten deaths in Rikers this year were suicides.

Responding to the announcement, the president of the union for DOC employees, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, called de Blasio a “modern-day dictator” and demanded that he resign immediately. The union has recently requested that the city hire more COs and has called the common practice of triple shifts unsustainable. The DOC has already hired 600 new officers who will go into service in October to help manage the contradicting crises of understaffing and absenteeism.

On Monday, days after Johnson was found dead in his cell, the family of a detainee who died in June, 42-year-old Robert Jackson, alleged in a legal filing that he would not have died if the guard observing him had not left his post 15 hours before his body was found. The officer, who is reportedly facing disciplinary charges, had been working for 20 straight hours, according to their union.

De Blasio Finally Acts As Deaths Pile Up at Rikers Island