More Corrections Officers Won’t Make the Crisis on Rikers Disappear

Sam McCann Senior Writer
May 04, 2022

New York City spent more than $30,000 to hold Herman Diaz on Rikers Island for just 20 days this past winter. The Department of Correction (DOC) was supposed to use that money to keep Diaz safe, with 86 percent of its annual $2.6 billion budget allocated to staff, the overwhelming majority of whom are correction officers (COs) paid to meet that basic obligation.

Diaz choked to death on March 18 while eating an orange. COs should have been patrolling his floor, but there were none to be found.

“I want to know how long did it take for anyone with DOC to get to my brother to help him?” Eddie Diaz, Herman’s older brother, told the New York Daily News. “Why wasn’t a CO there?”

A March report by the federal monitor assigned to Rikers offers a damning answer to that question. While not about Diaz, the report examines the conditions that have led to the death of 18 people at the jail complex since the start of last year. It finds that chronic absenteeism is at the heart of many of the notorious facility’s problems and that pouring more money into the same broken system is no way out.

“The Department is trapped in a state of persistent dysfunctionality, where even the first step to improve practice is undercut by the absence of elementary skills and the convolution of basic correctional practices and systems,” the Nunez Independent Monitor reported.

Among its findings:

  • Thirty percent of the DOC workforce is absent on any given day. Nearly one-third of COs are either not showing up to work or not available to work with incarcerated people. Some days, nearly half the staff is missing.
  • DOC’s staffing structure is archaic and ineffective. DOC is unable to track where COs are assigned or to effectively monitor which housing areas are understaffed—like Diaz’s floor, for instance. Rather than using a workload analysis to optimize staff deployment, DOC assigns staff on an arbitrary basis. The last time the department recalculated its shift relief factor—the metric that identifies how many staff are needed for a post to be adequately covered—was between seven and 30 years ago.
  • DOC is mismanaged. The monitor writes that supervisors suffer from “a lack of expertise and skills, limitations in their numbers compared with the line of staff they oversee, and illogical deployment practices.”
  • DOC is not cooperating with the federal monitor. DOC has a history of noncompliance that continues today with periodic, yet incomplete, responsiveness to monitor requests. The report notes that DOC failed to provide staffing data to the monitor, as well as information about safety and security initiatives. It also interfered with the monitor's communications with DOC staff.

In the face of the deadly conditions that persist on Rikers Island, policymakers may be tempted to hire more COs as a quick fix. DOC and the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association have used the steady, tragic stream of in-custody deaths as a cudgel to demand thousands more officers. They insist that more funding—and more COs—is enough to stem the pervasive violence and dysfunction that has gripped Rikers.

But according to the monitor, those conditions have nothing to do with a lack of money and everything to do with catastrophic mismanagement throughout DOC. New York spends more on jails than any other city in the country. DOC’s budget is more than $1 billion higher than the nation’s largest jail system, and the city spends more than 350 percent more per incarcerated person than Los Angeles or Cook County, Illinois. But DOC is simply failing to compel staff to show up and lacks the structure to effectively deploy those who do.

Fortunately, the city has a host of data-backed solutions to make everyone safer—including the people held on Rikers and those who work there. Every dollar the city spends on an extraneous CO is a dollar that could be spent on supportive housing, which is not only proven to reduce incarceration, but is also wildly popular among city residents. It could go instead to mental health services or substance use treatment, both of which decrease crime rates. It could be spent on alleviating the “hellish” physical conditions in intake on Rikers. Or it could provide medical care at a time when thousands of incarcerated people in the city are being denied treatment.

"Supporting people while they are with their families and communities is a more effective way to promote safety than sinking funds into our bloated jail system,” says Jullian Harris-Calvin, director of Vera’s Greater Justice New York program. “Our city leaders need to think critically about why we spend more than $550,000 annually to keep someone behind bars when supportive housing, for example, costs only $42,000 and helps break the cycles of poverty and trauma that destabilize communities in the first place."

Offloading public safety to overcrowded, deadly jails is tired thinking that is doomed to fail and harm thousands of New Yorkers in the process. That is particularly true when the jail in question is on Rikers, its systems are badly broken, and more effective tools to build public safety can be implemented.