'Patently Unsafe': Latest Report Details Violence At NYC Jails

By Marco Poggio | July 10, 2023, 6:54 PM EDT ·

police in riot gear

A video showing confrontational officers played at a new recruit ceremony and posted publicly on May 19. (Court Documents)

New York jails are plagued by skyrocketing violence among inmates, and guards continue to use excessive force against them, according to the latest report by a court-mandated independent monitor released Monday.

The report, filed by a court-appointed independent monitor tasked with solving the rampant violence problems at the city's various jail facilities, found that the jails remain "patently unsafe," as the number of stabbings has gone up significantly and more people in custody are suffering serious injuries than in the past.

"The jails remain dangerous and unsafe, characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff," the report concluded. "The current state of affairs and rates of use of force, stabbings and slashings, fights, assaults on staff, and in-custody deaths remain extraordinarily high — they are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal."

According to the report, the New York City Department of Correction projects that there will be at least 346 stabbings and slashings this year — more than during the combined period from 2017 to 2019, when the jailed population was significantly higher. A record number of people died while in custody last year: 19.

Making references to security camera footage recorded inside the facilities, the report described a pattern of lawlessness in which jail staffers often cede control of jail housing units to gang members, which sets the stage for acts of violence where guards do not intervene, resulting in serious injuries.

"An abdication of staff control inevitably leads to negative outcomes," the report says.

In 2015, following a settlement in a class action brought four years earlier on behalf of current and future New York City inmates alleging that the Correction Department had engaged in a pattern of unnecessary and excessive force, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain for the Southern District of New York signed a consent judgment creating a roadmap for improving the conditions in the city's jails.

an inmate restrained on the ground by officers

Correction Department officers restraining an inmate during an incident on May 26. (Court Documents)

The judgment addressed Correction Department policies related to use of force, inmate discipline, and officer accountability and training. But even as the jail population has continued to decrease across New York City jails, in part because of a strong push by advocates, elected officials and the justice system to shift away from incarceration, violence has remained high.

In June 2022, Judge Taylor Swain ordered an "action plan" to come up with solutions. It required changes to housing practices so that incarcerated individuals are not housed predominately by gang affiliation, ordered the installation of new cell doors in all housing units that house young adults, and mandated improvements to staff supervision.

But Monday's report, eight years after the federal court ordered the monitoring of the jails, found that the use of force rate is "exponentially higher."

"There has been no meaningful relief for people in custody or staff from the violence and the unnecessary and excessive use of force," the report says. "Discrete areas of success and progress can be identified, but more frequent are failures to apply even the most basic correctional skills."

Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners' Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, said in a statement in response to the report that it makes clear that efforts to change the department's practices have failed.

"Continuing down the same path — promises of change, monitor's reports that lead nowhere, court orders that get ignored — will merely cause more injuries and death," Werlwas said.

Advocates have for years pushed for the federal court to take custodial control of the city jail, a move that city officials have tried to prevent. Werlwas said the report shows it is necessary.

"These are the reasons we have argued that receivership is necessary, and today the need for an independent authority over the jails is clearer than ever," she said.

The Legal Aid Society said it's planning to meet with city officials and the U.S. Attorney's Office over the next few weeks "to devise a solution to this decades-long failure."

The Corrections Department declined to comment.

Marc Bullaro, a former assistant deputy warden at Rikers Island, said the report and the others before it indicate a stark reality: the city has lost control of its jails.

"Gangs now are in control the jails, literally," he told Law360. "We cannot keep anybody safe. Whether it's the staff, or whether it's the those incarcerated."

an inmate being assaulted by fellow inmates

Inmates assaulting a fellow incarcerated person at the Rikers Island Jail Complex in New York City on May 12. (Court Documents)

Bullaro, who is now an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he agrees with prisoners' rights advocates who say the monitoring has failed to abate the violence at the jails, but thinks the receivership is not the solution.

Bullaro said the monitoring has placed correction officers under pressure, often with adverse results in terms of safety and morale.

Officers feel like they lack authority over the inmates, Bullaro said, in part because of what he described as "draconian" discipline measures use to punish their conduct. That persuades officers to relinquish control of aspects of inmate life — food, use of inmate phones and common areas with TVs, for instance — to inmates.

The void gets filled by gangs, which are the ultimate guarantors of services and protection inside the facilities. Inmates are encouraged to join them. But with gang affiliation come expectations to commit crimes, often including violent ones. That creates a vicious cycle where violence becomes uncontrolled, Bullaro said.

"The only thing that the Correction Department has left is that they're still holding the keys today," he said. "The violence has gone up every single year that the monitor has been here."

Kayla Mamelak, a spokesperson for the Office of Mayor Eric Adams, said in a statement commenting on the report that the city has taken steps to address the violence at city jails and acknowledged that there's more work to do.

"We take our obligation to keep people in our charge very seriously and remain committed to continued reform and working with the monitor," Mamelak said.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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