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Rikers Island, NYC jails plagued with bugs, mice, cleanliness violations, says federal court monitor

Overall, inspectors found just 73 of 200 living areas were clean enough to comply with court requirements

Rikers Island

FILE- This aerial photo shows Rikers Island, New York’s biggest lockup, June 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Seth Wenig/AP

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Rikers Island and other city lockups aren’t just violent — they’re also gross, says a new report on conditions at New York City’s jails.

Scars of past fires, a stubborn bug and rodent infestation in one jail and hundreds of violations for poor cleanliness are highlighted in a monitor’s report filed Thursday in Manhattan Federal Court that covers jail conditions between September and December.

The monitor found “thousands” of violations of court-ordered standards on sanitation, vermin, lighting and ventilations in the jails. The report by the Office of Compliance Consultants was filed in Benjamin v. City of New York , a long-running class action lawsuit focused on jail conditions.

“What’s most alarming is how long these violations have persisted, with DOC [city Department of Correction ] ignoring its obligations to maintain and repair the facilities,” said Lauren Stephens-Davidowitz , a staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society. “The result is a jail system rife with inhumane and unsafe living conditions.”

Correction spokesman Frank Dwyer called Stephens-Davidowitz’s statement a “broad and inaccurate generalization.” He noted the agency has hired a retired FDNY chief to run fire safety, and has tapped an outside cleaning contractor and exterminators.

“The department has upgraded ventilation/airflow and LED lighting in facilities, and has spent considerable effort to improve fire safety,” Dwyer said. The changes, he said, include removing fire sources like mop heads and electric outlets in housing areas. Also, Dwyer said, the department is repairing smoke detectors and fire sprinkler heads “that have been damaged by people in custody” he said.

Fire safety in the jails has been under scrutiny since the April 6 North Infirmary Command fire hospitalized 12 people, including the detainee who stared the fire who nearly died.

Records reviewed last summer by The News showed that in one jail, the West Facility, fire safety posts were often unstaffed.

In addition to an internal investigation, the April fire led to examinations by another federal monitor tracking violence and uses of force in the jails, and an inquiry by the city Board of Correction.

Inspection reports from other facilities in the system showed sprinklers sometimes obstructed by room partitions, a fire pump out of service, paint on sprinkler heads, and a fire hose in poor condition. Monthly and annual inspections were done on a sporadic basis for years, the report said.

The monitor also found issues with DOC’s internal fire inspection reports. “The inspection reports are not only incomplete and generally unsigned by the person undertaking the inspection, all are missing a commanding officer’s signature,” the report said.

Fires at Rikers and other jails are often caused by people in custody, Dwyer said. Also, he noted, detainees damage fire safety equipment every day..

Visible fire damage remains in spots throughout the jail system, the report found. Residue from past blazes including soot and burn marks were observed roughly 80 times in the four months covered by the report.

“Such remnants of smaller fires have been evident for years yet the Fire Safety Unit failed to carry out required inspections,” the report states.

The report discloses there were 34 fires at Rikers Island’s Robert N. Davoren Center in just a five-day period between Oct. 8 and Oct. 12.

The Davoren Center is also where the infestation of roaches, flies, gnats and mice has persisted through two consecutive reporting periods — roughly the six months ending in December, the monitor found.

Hundreds of instances of dirty walls, windows, floors and ceilings along with mildew were found in each of the jails, including the Enhanced Supervised Housing Unit for men in the Rose M. Singer Center, which is only eight months old.

Overall, inspectors found just 73 of 200 living areas were clean enough to comply with court requirements, the report said. Fifty living areas failed every inspection in the period. Just 16% of vacant cells were clean to standards.

Inspectors also found broken cleaning machines and a lack of cleaning products despite a well-stocked central storehouse, demonstrating procedures weren’t being followed “at any command level,” the report said.

City lawyers Chlarens Orsland and John Doody acknowledged problems in a response dated Feb. 7 but wrote the Correction Department is taking steps to deal with them.

“As we have often noted, the buildings on Rikers Island are not new, with one having been built in the 1930’s (North Infirmary Command), and decades of use have contributed to the problem,” Orsland and Doody wrote.

The city’s lawyers admitted better accountability was needed in each jail. “Under its new management team, DOC believes that it has implemented robust measures to significantly improve environmental conditions in the jails,” they wrote.

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