Interviews & Profiles

Former NYC jails boss advocates for federal takeover of Rikers Island

Vincent Schiraldi: “If my son or daughter were incarcerated or worked at Rikers Island, I'd want a receivership.”

Vincent Schiraldi

Vincent Schiraldi Columbia Justice Lab

New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is attempting to stave off a possible federal takeover of Rikers Island, but the former commissioner of the city Department of Correction argued that such a takeover is needed to see real transformation of the embattled jails system.

Vincent Schiraldi, who served as correction commissioner for seven months under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, spoke in favor of a federal receivership even while he held the post and is still advocating for it today. He’s part of a forum next week examining other instances of corrections systems being handed over to federal receivers.

Currently a senior fellow at the Columbia Justice Lab and the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation, Schiraldi was appointed to lead the Department of Correction in May 2021. He entered the system with a reform mindset and attempted to crack down on absenteeism among officers. In doing so, he clashed with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which argued the city couldn’t discipline its way out of the crisis on Rikers Island. Though Schiraldi expressed interest in staying on with the new administration, Adams appointed Louis Molina, a former NYPD detective, to the post.

Last month, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams floated the possibility of placing Rikers under federal control, citing ongoing problems including the deaths of 16 people in city jails last year, chronic absenteeism among correction officers and an “extraordinary level of violence and disorder” in the jails. Four people on Rikers Island have died this year. The jails system has operated under the oversight of a federal monitor since 2015, but federal receivership could effectively hand over control of the system to a federal authority.

The Adams administration and the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association have pushed back on the idea of a federal receivership. Molina must submit to a federal judge a plan for how the department will solve the problems on Rikers by May 17.

Looking back on his time as commissioner, Schiraldi said the department took some steps in the right direction, including launching new models of units for young adults that gave people in detention more privileges and programming. And Schiraldi said Molina has taken positive steps of his own, including increasing searches for weapons in the facilities. But in a recent conversation with City & State, Schiraldi argued that the best way to efficiently and effectively tackle the challenges at Rikers Island was to turn over at least some power to a federal authority. These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

When you left the department at the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, which of the problems facing Rikers were you most concerned about? What was the biggest challenge Commissioner Louis Molina faced at the beginning of his tenure?

I want to emphasize that this has been decades in the making. It’s nothing that particularly Commissioner Molina or Mayor Adams has done. But for a long time, there have been very generous contracts and laws passed that benefit correctional officers – many of which I agree with, by the way. They should have good working conditions. They should have decent pay. They should even have generous sick leave. But over time, it’s just accumulated, both in terms of what is legally required and also what has become tradition – and therefore precedent – in a way that makes the place fairly ungoverned. Because of that, many of the things that reporters have reported on flow from the absence of sufficient staff coming to work – or when they come to work, (not) doing their job.

We hear a lot about the systemic problems at Rikers, but if we’re trying to pinpoint where in the system those failures are happening, it sounds like you’re saying that a lot of it comes from the culture in which correction officers operate?

There’s a temptation to just pin it on correctional officers, but I also think it’s the body politic – our elected officials who signed contracts, who passed laws that say you can't hire any supervisors outside the New York City Department of Correction. Yes, staff take advantage of that. But it shouldn’t be available to be taken advantage of. You give people unlimited sick leave and then wag your finger at them because they’re taking unlimited sick leave? You’re at least partly to blame for that.

You mentioned that absenteeism is one issue, but even when officers are coming to work, some aren’t doing their job. What stands in the way of the officers who are showing up doing their jobs correctly?

You used the word earlier, “pinpoint,” and I want to caution against pinpointing. I think in some respects, pinpointing is part of the problem. Everybody's like, “OK, let’s fix this problem.” It’s really the gestalt of all of these accumulated problems that is the problem, if you will. People have unlimited sick leave, so on any given day thousands of people don’t come to work. There’s been a tradition of allowing people – and I don’t know if this is a rule or a tradition, to be honest with you, because in my seven months it was hard to track down what was rules and what was just practice – but there’s been a tradition of allowing people to be on light duty for an unlimited period of time.

Light duty?

Yeah, you’re well enough to do something, but you’re not well enough to be a CO. So you’re typing, you’re driving, you’re in a bubble pushing buttons, but you can’t be in there (with inmates). On any given day, there were between 1,400 and 2,000 people out sick, and another 600 to 800 on light duty. So that’s 2,500 people, just to start the day, who are unavailable to do the thing you want them to do, which is be a CO. Then there were 5,000 occasions on which people AWOL’d in July and August. When I started looking into disciplining people for just not showing up, I was told that you had to discipline them six times for that before you could terminate them. And each of the preceding disciplines had to be fully completed. And then there’s a whole bunch of people who have matriculated away from their posts as correctional officers. They are literally typing and acting as a secretary, or driving someone, or baking bread, I kid you not. All these are things civilians can do. When you try to get them back and say, “typing is important, but I’m going to get somebody else to do that, you go be a CO,” they’d call in sick. It’s this maze of whack-a-mole, some of which is supported by laws, some of which is supported by precedent. It’s not like you couldn’t win any one of these fights, but you couldn’t win all of them quickly enough to save the next life. Somebody might die this week because there’s nobody on the post in their living unit. Four people died this year – for two of them, there was no correctional officer (there). One guy choked on an orange and there was no CO there to give first aid. And the inmates themselves took the guy to medical because there was no CO to do it.

So what do we do about this maze of whack-a-mole?

I know it’s a new administration, they want to succeed, they want to do it themselves. And I understand that instinct, I had it myself. But when I was commissioner, I said we need receivership. Not because I’m inadequate or Mayor de Blasio is inadequate – or the current commissioner and mayor are inadequate – but this maze of rules and obstacles needs federal court intervention. Because people are dying, and they’re getting stabbed and slashed. This is really an emergency right now. And I can’t emphasize that strongly enough.

Why is a federal receivership the solution that’s needed right now? What could a receivership do that the city can’t do on its own?

Having laid out that problem – the maze of laws and contracts and precedents – federal receivers don’t have to obey those. They don’t have to obey the contract, they don’t have to obey the laws, they don’t have to obey the precedents – if it can be shown that those laws and precedents and contracts are obstructing the ability to run (a) constitutional jail, which is what the essence of a consent decree is. The (receiver) can’t just run wild. They have to show that a particular law or a particular contract they’re about to abrogate is directly impacting the running of a safe facility. But the groundwork has been pretty well laid for that.

What kind of precedent is there for receiverships successfully transforming jail and prison systems?

There are two receiverships we look to when we’re thinking about this. There’s a receiver in California, not for the whole prison system but for the health care (system) in prisons. And then in Cook County, Chicago, the juvenile detention facility was similarly under litigation for a lot of years, and they created the equivalent of a receivership called a transitional administrator. The county acceded to it. They didn’t fight it in court. In California, plaintiffs actually had to win in court. But in Cook County – I think in part because they thought they’d lose, but in part because they saw how terrible the conditions were – they agreed to it. That’s what we’re kind of hoping Mayor Adams does, which is to not fight a receivership. So that temporarily, somebody can come in and help cut through some of this red tape that’s obstructing the ability to fix this place. And then the mayor gets control back again.

Do you think Adams is likely to accede if a receivership is ordered? Molina is right now trying to make the case that a receivership isn’t necessary yet.

I toured Rikers with Mayor Adams when he was still a candidate. And I met with him separately, again, when he was still a candidate. I think he really does care about what’s going on in there. I think he cares both about what’s happening to the people who are incarcerated there and the people who work there. This summer scares me. Because what happened last summer was a lot of people took vacation, which is absolutely going to happen again this summer. And then the remaining people were stretched so thin that they started calling in sick. The more you think that if you go into work today you might have to work a triple, the more likely you are to call in sick. If that starts happening – I hope it doesn’t – I’m fearful that a lot more violence will occur, there will be a lot more unstaffed posts, and people may come to harm, including die. The mayor seems like a very serious man. I don’t think he’s kidding when he says he cares about this. I think if he starts to stare down a lot of violence and a lot of deaths that could be prevented, that may have an impact on him.

What outcomes have the receiverships in California and Illinois had that suggest to you that a receivership in New York would lead to positive change?

Health care conditions improved dramatically in California. The receiver has worked closely with the state. It sounds like a hostile takeover, but you really can work closely with the elected government because what you want to do is return this to the government as soon as possible. They’ve returned about half of the prisons in California to state control. The (temporary administrator) in Cook County, which was for a juvenile detention facility, is over. When it existed, conditions improved dramatically – so much so that they ended the temporary administrator. It was indeed temporary.

In the event of a receivership in New York City, what sort of authority would the commissioner and the department retain? Or is it a complete handover?

You can do it either way. And I think those two other receiverships are good examples. In Cook County, the receiver was the administrator, there was no more department head. He took over completely. In California, the department head still exists alongside the receiver. The receiver has control over health care, the secretary – as it’s called in California – has control over everything else and is gradually getting (control of) health care back.

Molina is trying to make the case that a receivership isn’t needed yet, and he said that other commissioners have “not had the will to really use the full power of the office.” Do you know what he’s referring to? Is there more the department can do?

There’s always more. If Commissioner Molina can do it, more power to him. When I was there, I wanted the standard to be, if my son or daughter were incarcerated here, or my son or daughter worked here, what would I want done? If my son or daughter were incarcerated or worked at Rikers Island, I’d want a receivership. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it maybe, possibly, (on your own). But there are so many obstacles in the way that even if you can do it, it may take longer than is acceptable given the level of violence and danger that’s going on. I don’t want to disparage the mayor, or the current commissioner. They’re fine people. I think I was a fine person. It’s not about that. I wanted receivership when I was there, so I’m not saying anything about the current commissioner that I wasn’t saying about myself. The obstacles are too formidable, and the dangers too present, to be able to dribble out the ball.