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NYC’s Rikers more violent than jails, prisons elsewhere in US, Correction Department testifies

Testimony came during a City Council hearing on a bill to ban solitary confinement at Rikers Island


New York’s Rikers Island prison complex is pictured in an undated file photo. On Wednesday, a Department of Correction expert testified that New York City jails are much more violent than similar facilities around the country during a hearing on a solitary confinement ban. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK - New York City jails are much more violent than similar facilities around the country, said a jail expert hired by the Department of Correction who testified at a City Council hearing on a bill to ban solitary confinement at Rikers Island and other city lockups.

Detainees and staff at Rikers Island and other city jails are assaulted at a rate 10 times higher than than at Los Angeles county jails and the New York state prison system, said James Austin, a criminologist who is working with the Correction Department to develop a plan to reduce the jails’ spiraling violence.

“This is such an excessive rate of violence, it’s unheard of in any correction system I know of,” Austin told the City Council on Wednesday.

“At this rate, there will be 6,000 serious assaults [in New York City jails] this year and 500 slashings and stabbings,” Austin said. “I can say that there is no other jail or prison system in the country that is even close to experiencing this level of violence on a daily basis. This is a crisis that this city needs to deal with immediately.”

Austin testified in a hearing on a bill to ban solitary confinement that has broad support in the City Council but is opposed by Mayor Adams, the Correction Department and the correction officers’ unions.

While New York’s jail population has declined from about 11,000 in 2015 to about 5,800 today — a drop of about 38% — the length of time detainees spend jailed awaiting trial has nearly doubled, from 58 days to 108 days, Austin said.

“We do have a big problem with people staying in the jails for excessive periods of time in pre-trial detention,” said the consultant.

People arrested in New York wait three to four times longer than the national average to be tried — and a greater percentage of those awaiting trial behind bars is charged with violent crimes than in 2015, Austin said.

“The criminal courts need to help us,” said Austin.

Most violence in city jails is carried out by a small percentage of the population — mostly men under 30, gang affiliated, and incarcerated for a year or more, Austin said.

But, he said, only 130 of the jails’ 5,800 detainees are in restrictive housing. “The rest are in general population and they shouldn’t be in general population because of what they’ve done,” he said.

Austin said Rikers officials need more options to separate violent detainees from the rest of the jail population. “Clearly the challenge is to expand and modify, not reduce, the capacity of the restrictive housing program,” he said.

Austin did not address other possible causes for the rise in violence, such as the decline in living conditions that has caused turmoil in the jails and the staffing problems and absentee issues that have led to unstaffed posts and understaffed units.

Under the City Council’s bill, detainees would not be placed alone in a cell for more than more than eight hours a day, excluding sleep. When there is an incident, the detainee can only be separated from other detainees for up to four hours, with regular staff checks, not the current six-hour period that exists.

After an incident, the bill requires the Department of Correction to hold a hearing and be represented by a lawyer before placing a detainee in restrictive housing.

The bill also bars the department from putting a detainee in restrictive housing for more than 60 days in a 12-month period. After 15 days, the placement has to be reviewed to see if the person is still a threat.

Correction Commissioner Louis Molina testified during the hearing that enacting the bill would have “grave consequences for the jail system.”

Molina seemed to object most to the requirement that detainees who act out be given a hearing before being placed in restrictive housing, suggesting it would delay the process seven to 10 days.

“The department would have no ability to separate perpetrators of violent acts prior to a hearing, so all staff and detainees would be forced to share space with them knowing they had just committed a violent offense,” Molina said. “Our hands would be tied.”