Opinion: Rikers is richly staffed. Without a plan to rightsize, it will cost us dearly.

New York City currently employs more correction officers per incarcerated person than any other city.

Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

New York City spends more than $555,000 per person per year on incarceration – more than any other city in the nation by a wide margin, and the result of employing more correction officers per incarcerated person than virtually any other local jail system in this country. Even with high attrition rates over the last few years, current staffing levels translate to just over one officer for every person in detention, a ratio vastly above the national average of one officer per 3.6 people incarcerated. While the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association wants the public to believe the deadly crisis on Rikers Island is the result of “exhausted” officers, a federal monitor overseeing the facility has now established several times that DOC has “an extraordinary number of staff on its payroll” and needs better management, not more staff.

DOC officers are indeed overworked and stressed, but it has nothing to do with under- or overstaffing. Ongoing abuse of sick leave and antiquated staffing methods, including handwritten rosters, mean that too few officers show up to work. When they do, a shift-bidding process allows experienced COs to select posts involving no contact with the jail population, which often means there are either no staff, or only the least experienced staff, in the places where they are most needed – like housing units. Although absence rates have decreased, they remained nearly triple the rate of the NYPD and six times higher than the FDNY through the first four months of the last fiscal year. These issues are not the fault of individual COs; rather, they are further proof of the mismanagement that has plagued Rikers for years.

These problems will only become more evident as New York City moves closer to its commitment to replace Rikers Island with four borough-based jails by 2027. Smaller jails need fewer staff, and remaining COs will need retraining to leave the dysfunction of Rikers Island behind. While attrition may have reduced DOC’s personnel rolls temporarily, the city should not and cannot rely on attrition alone to bring DOC’s staffing to appropriate levels.

Yet, according to the Office of Management and Budget, DOC plans to continue staffing more COs than the incarcerated population through at least the end of fiscal year 2027, rather than rightsizing. These bloated staff projections mean that DOC’s budget includes salaries for thousands of unfilled posts, which the department has maintained while eliminating funding for services to support people in jail. Against the backdrop of New York City's decarceration plans, these projections become even more disproportionate, leading to a ratio of over two COs per incarcerated person in 2027. Yet to boost recruitment numbers, DOC has taken steps like waiving educational requirements and shortening training time. These actions are already making a difference: the department is anticipating a 500-recruit class of COs in October.

More correction officers with less training will not fix what ails Rikers. City leaders must proactively and intentionally implement a plan to rightsize DOC’s staff in preparation for the transition to a smaller, more humane borough-based jail system. Such a plan must ensure that COs who remain, as well as new recruits, have the skills to maintain safe, therapeutic borough-based facilities. Working in corrections is hard. COs need better training and better support, both for their safety and the safety of the people in their care.

That workforce plan also needs to ensure our city offers other professional opportunities to current and prospective COs. As City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams has rightly noted, New York has a dearth of well-paid careers for people without a college degree. Employment as a CO in a traumatizing jail is currently one of too few paths to the middle class for people without postsecondary education – but DOC should not be an unofficial jobs program. In addition, the fact that DOC’s CO workforce is majority Black and Hispanic, and roughly half female, underscores that we must make sure rightsizing the department does not further harm the same communities already most devastated by mass incarceration. The necessary reduction in CO posts must be offset by career transition services, retraining and opportunities in new agencies or sectors.

Everyone deserves to be safe – that includes COs, the people in New York City jails (most of whom are presumed innocent), and our communities. And true safety requires more than just jails. Right now, overspending on jails leaves less money for community-based services that deliver safety, like affordable housing, mental health treatment and jobs training. Rightsizing the DOC workforce in a thoughtful and gradual manner would allow us to support COs who remain at DOC, connect those departing DOC to new professional opportunities and invest city funds where they will increase both safety and justice for all New Yorkers. Attrition alone will not do this job. The city must act now.