Amid Another Report of Rampant Abuse on Rikers, It’s Time to Hold City Jails Accountable

Sam McCann Senior Writer
Apr 27, 2023

This week, the federal monitor in charge of overseeing conditions on Rikers Island issued its latest report, describing a facility in dangerous disarray. In its filing, the monitor, which is charged with reporting on conditions in New York City jails, wrote that correctional officers (COs) corralled incarcerated people in close quarters before dousing them with a chemical spray as part of a “disorganized search operation.” When some of the corralled people fled the spray, COs resorted to violence, including placing one person in a chokehold causing him to land on his head, before he was then shoved head-first into a door. Another incarcerated person suffered a seizure and was left unattended for a “substantial period of time.”

The report is nothing new: Rikers is subject to federal oversight because of widespread abuse that occurred more than a decade ago and has continued unabated. In 2011, New York City public defenders filed a lawsuit following an accumulation of horrific physical abuse their clients were subjected to at the hands of COs. The lawsuit catalogs gruesome injuries COs inflicted on incarcerated people during beatings: lost vision and hearing, a spinal fracture, a collapsed lung, fractured ribs, and fractured facial bones that required surgery. As part of a consent decree, the city agreed to allow federal oversight to improve conditions.

Eight years on, it’s clear little has changed in terms of physical abuse in New York City jails. In fact, this month the monitoring team wrote that “conditions are demonstrably worse” than they were when they arrived in 2015. The federal monitor, Steve Martin, and the monitoring team have dutifully reported on the exact sort of behavior that led to their appointment in the first place. This week’s report sounds as though it was ripped straight from the 2011 lawsuit and is consistent with the hellish conditions that have led to 35 deaths in NYC jails since 2021.

Since 2021, many COs have stopped showing up to work, and those that do report have often perpetuated a cycle of abuse and neglect that has seen people held amid waste in crammed conditions. Multiple people in Department of Correction (DOC) custody have died after not receiving medical treatment, and incarcerated people miss thousands of appointments on Rikers every month, largely because COs do not escort them.

Physical abuse runs rampant, too. So far in 2023, the use of force rates are double what they were when the federal monitor began reporting on city jails. The Legal Aid Society also reports that incidents resulting in the most serious injuries have tripled since 2016. And those are just the incidents we know about: COs have covered up other incidents of violence and have lied about excessive force before.

A systematic lack of accountability enables these abuses, from medical neglect to use of force instances, to the latest violence reported by the federal monitor this week. It starts at the top: Mayor Eric Adams replaced reform-minded Vincent Schiraldi with former New York Police Officer Louis Molina as his DOC commissioner shortly after taking office. Among Molina’s first acts as commissioner was firing the department’s top investigator, Sarena Townsend, whom the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association, the influential CO union, viewed as too aggressive in her work examining abuse in city jails. Molina fired Townsend after she balked at his request to “get rid of” 2,000 cases against COs. He then went on to fire two other upper-level reform-minded officers, a move critics say was meant to coddle jail staff perpetrating the abuse. Then, earlier this month Manuel Hernandez, the DOC’s deputy investigation commissioner who was appointed by Molina, resigned over decisions he made to close serious cases without disciplining officers. The federal monitor found that under Hernandez’s leadership line investigators were facing pressure to be lenient in excessive force cases.

These decisions have yielded a culture of impunity where officers rarely face discipline. In the time since Hernandez was appointed in May 2022, the percentage of officers actually referred for discipline dropped by more than half that of previous years, from 7 percent to 3 percent. The situation is not set to improve, either. DOC recently diminished its requirements for new COs, shortening the time spent training in the academy from six months to just three.

Rather than deploying a batch of under-trained jail staff into a culture that permits shocking abuse and leads to dozens of deaths a year, the city has a responsibility to reckon with that culture, particularly as it plans to open smaller jails across the city by 2027 as part of its commitment to close Rikers. Failing to do so means simply transferring dysfunction from one jail facility to four new ones.

However, the current administration has made it clear that it has no intention of holding COs to account for abuse, frequently allowing misconduct to go unchallenged. In that case, the judge responsible for federal oversight of Rikers must step in: Rikers needs to be taken over by a court-appointed expert, also known as a federal receiver.

“The abuse on Rikers is long past due for a reckoning. New York city leaders have a responsibility to confront the culture that perpetuates misconduct, but they have not only allowed it to continue but have enshrined it with foot dragging and by marginalizing reformers,” said Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of Vera’s Greater Justice New York program. “Given their abdication of their responsibility, federal receivership is a necessary step to avoid yet more abuse and death in city jails.”

While federal intervention would help address the culture of impunity that pervades city jails, the central problem underlying jail abuse is overcrowding, and decarceration is the cornerstone of any shift away from a large and inhumane jail system. The city’s reliance on pretrial incarceration neither benefits public safety nor promotes justice for New Yorkers. The simplest solution, which the city has a responsibility to pursue, remains reducing the jail population and investing in programs that support safe and sustainable decarceration, like supportive housing programs, mental health services, and substance use treatment. That requires addressing policing and prosecution approaches in the city that fuel bloated jail populations and relieving the backlog of cases that sees many people detained pretrial on Rikers for months or even years. The average length of detention on Rikers in 2022 was 115 days, a staggering four times the national average.

Decarceration also means not giving into fearmongering that blames bail reform for real public safety concerns. There is no evidence that bail reform has affected crime rates, despite a coordinated misinformation campaign insisting otherwise. Jailing more people who are presumed innocent does nothing but subject them to abuse in city jails before they even get to have their day in court.

It’s clear that New York’s jails are in a humanitarian crisis driven by a culture that inflicts massive harm. The city has a clear path to ending this horror, and every day not following it costs lives.