City pledges crackdown on Rikers Island in bid to avert jails' federal takeover
The proposal pledges a harder line on evaluating COs who have been out for lengthy periods and those who are on medical monitoring
By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — City officials pledged a crackdown on sick leave abuse by Rikers Island guards and other uniformed Department of Correction employees as part of a wide-ranging plan to address the chaos and security problems at the island’s jails and avert a federal takeover of New York’s troubled correction system.
The 23-page plan filed Tuesday comes in response to an order from Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain three weeks ago in which she called reports of chronic dysfunction at the island jail complex “very disturbing.”
With a tone of urgency that has been missing for months, the city’s proposal pledges a harder line on evaluating officers who have been out for lengthy periods and those who are on medical monitoring, which prevents them from working directly with people in custody.
Every officer out more than 30 days will be checked to determine whether they should be directed to return to work, be removed from the jobs on the basis of their medical conditions, or be referred for discipline or criminal investigation, the filing states.
The Correction Department also pledged to bring in more doctors to check officers and appoint another staffing czar with prior correction experience.
“The department shall immediately refer any cases of staff abuse of sick time or restricted status to the (city) Department of Investigation for further investigation when the conduct of staff appears to be criminal in nature,” the plan states.
The department also plans to assign more jobs in the jails according to officers’ skills rather than seniority. Assignment to “mandatory posts,” which are inside jails, will be emphasized. An electronic scanning system will make sure the mandatory posts are staffed.
The city also promises to move away from the “awarded post” system under which more experienced officers are assigned to jobs that don’t involved dealing with people in custody. Those jobs would go to officers with special skills, and would be left vacant during staff shortages.
The city also promises to speed up case processing for people in jail more than a year and cut down on the number of officers assigned to civilian jobs.
Steve Martin, the federal monitor, offered a qualified endorsement of the proposal, which will be the subject of a hearing May 24 before Judge Swain.
Martin wrote that the Adams administration still has a chance to avoid a federal takeover, and described its plan as a “well-informed effort.”
“The practical reality is that reformation of this Department cannot occur in mere months given the level of dysfunction, mismanagement, and decrepit physical plants that exist,” Martin wrote.
Former DOC Comissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who backs a federal takeover, said the devil is in the details. “There are a lot of ways that current laws, the union contracts and (legal) precedent in OATH ( Office of Administrative Trial and Hearings disciplinary cases) will serve to slow it down,” he said.
“I truly hope that this is successful,” Schiraldi said. “But if it’s not, I hope the city can do what elected officials did in Chicago by agreeing to a transitional receiver with extraordinary powers to cut through the red tape. I think it’s warranted here.”
The filing came as advocates held a silent vigil Monday in memory of the 20 people who have died in the jails since January 2021, including four this year. The protesters marched from City Hall to St. Andrew’s Plaza, where Manhattan’s federal courthouses are located.
“Who is going to be held accountable for my son, for the rest of the sons?” said Lezandre Khadu, the mother of Stephen Khadu, who died Sept, 22 of viral meningitis. “They’re all human beings. They’re all my sons.”
Swain presides over a class action lawsuit, known as the Nunez case, that resulted in the appointment of a federal monitor overseeing the jails. The Justice Department agreed to the monitor’s appointment six years ago, but has become increasingly frustrated by the Department of Correction’s inability to stem the chaos.
On April 19, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams threatened to seek a federal receiver who would run the jails. Such a move would wrest control of the jails from Mayor Adams and city government.
Adams and DOC Commissioner Louis Molina have insisted they can fix Rikers on their own. Adams said in a statement Tuesday that Martin’s response shows the city has made progress on Rikers’ problems, and that Molina’s actions “have had a positive impact, and distinguish this effort from previous failed attempts.”
The monitor has repeatedly written in scathing reports that the city has failed to address Rikers’ long-festering problems.
The Legal Aid Society, which has represented many Rikers inmates in court, linked the city’s plan to Tuesday’s contempt ruling in a lawsuit involving jail detainees’ missed medical appointments. “[T]his Administration’s inability to staff and manage its jails puts lives in danger every single day. We have yet to see the swift, decisive action necessary to abate this harm,” the Society said in a statement.
Also Tuesday, Molina named Ronald Brereton, a 33-year veteran of the state prison system, as his new deputy commissioner in charge of security operations. The federal monitor has said repeatedly the system lacks expertise from outside the Correction Department. Brereton’s resume indicates he has deep correction experience.
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