Rikers Island, which is home to New York City's main jail complex, is allegedly too dangerous to implement prison reforms as the area has fallen into chaos amid the coronavirus pandemic, with inmates becoming extremely violent and the growing lack of space.
Last week, United States Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi wrote five "variance request" letters. In the documents, the official requested the New York City Board of Correction for a temporary reprieve from reforms that aimed to make the facility better for prisoners.
Rikers Island Jail Complex
Schiraldi argued in one of the letters that unshackled inmates were unable to watch television together in the same cell due to the "serious risk of violence." The situation was brought about by "infrastructure limitations in the current punitive segregation housing areas."
Last year, the DOC shut down the dormitory-style Eric M. Taylor Center as part of its plans to close down Rikers Island by 2027. In a separate letter, Schiraldi said that the units, which replaced the recently banned solitary confinement, were necessary to discourage inmates from hiding contraband from guards, the New York Post reported.
Schiraldi argued that despite being used very rarely, separation status among inmates was vital to the department's efforts of preventing contraband from being circulated inside their facilities. If prisoners were not threatened with isolation, correction officers would most likely not have been able to recover all of the 496 banned items this year alone, 230 of which were weapons such as metal shanks, and 200 drug stashes.
Rikers Island has recently spiraled into chaos, recording a surge in inmate deaths, unguarded cell blocks, staggering staff shortages due to AWOL guards, and lack of food and medical care for detainees. The jail complex has suffered years of neglect, causing it to quickly spiral into turmoil during the coronavirus pandemic.
One jail watchdog called the situation in Rikers Island a "complete breakdown in the operation of the jails." Lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas, who is the director of the Prisoners' Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, the situation is one of the most dangerous that her office has seen in the last 50 years of monitoring city jails, FOX5 New York reported.
Shortage of Guards Due to AWOL Workers
On Wednesday, city officials moved to urge Rikers Island correction officers to go back to work amid the jail complex's staffing shortage due to AWOL workers. Investigators from the Department of Correction distributed suspension notices to about 20 AWOL officers' homes.
The documents argued that if the staff members were working at other establishments, such as Starbucks, they would not be able to keep their jobs if they didn't show up for work. The letters were sent the day after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said officers would be subject to 30-day suspensions without pay for violation of sick leave rules. The official's announcement was part of an emergency plan to address the staffing and conditions crisis in the jail complex.
"Folks, not showing up for work is unacceptable," de Blasio said on Tuesday. The mayor's administration has worked with the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association for months to address the staffing problems at Rikers Island, the New York Daily News reported.