The New York City Department of Correction unveiled a plan for reforming Rikers Island on Wednesday that could help it maintain control of the jail system under threat of a federal takeover.
The 23-page plan, submitted to a federal monitor appointed following a 2015 class action lawsuit that accused the DOC and its officers of rampant abuse of power, lays out guidelines for reforming the staffing structure, improving security and tamping down on officer absenteeism, among other initiatives. It comes nearly a month after the federal monitor in the case, Steve Martin, warned that a federal receivership was looming.
In a letter to U.S. Southern District Judge Laura Taylor Swain on Wednesday, Martin suggested that the plan may be sufficient enough to stave off a federal takeover – “if they commit, utilize, and dedicate aggressive, vigorous, and creative strategies to the problems facing the agency.” Martin said he and his team will meet with DOC Commissioner Louis Molina and department brass this week to determine a course of action, but again warned that “if there is evidence that this momentum and commitment are not being sustained” his team would “entertain more extraordinary remedies.” The monumental task falls squarely on Molina’s shoulders, the former Las Vegas jails chief who was appointed in January by Mayor Eric Adams.
But while Martin stated that the plan offers harm reduction solutions for “right now,” it does not circumvent the fact that “there are any ready-made quick or easy solutions that can ameliorate the poly-centric problems facing the agency.”
Former DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who has advocated for a federal takeover, echoed the monitor’s concern that “achieving a plan like this will be a tall order given the systemic structural problems built up over decades,” he told City & State. “I sincerely hope the city can achieve these aspirational goals, but if they cannot, I hope that, in fairly short order, they can agree with the plaintiffs that the department should be taken over by a federal receiver."
Adams highlighted what he said is a “positive impact” made under Molina thus far, noting “we have seen reductions in use of force and assaults on staff, increased searches for weapons and contraband, and fewer officers out on sick leave,” he said in a statement. “But we must go much further. As the plan makes clear, with the proposed time, we have a strategy to aggressively untangle the dysfunction that has plagued the island and set it on a path of real and enduring reform.”
The plan outlines a timeline for delivering more details on the various areas of concern, such as staff absences, along with the responsibilities of newly created positions. Much of the report charges various department heads with devising their own courses of action to achieve compliance and sets deadlines for doing so.
Among the specific priorities outlined in the plan, the DOC said it will prioritize staffing in units that have the highest security risk. New cell doors and perforated metal window coverings will also be installed in all units that house young adults at the Robert N. Davoren Complex. A new Staffing Manager will help monitor and deploy officers to the high-risk areas, according to the report.
The report also laid out a strategy to reorganize the leadership structure within the jail system. Commanding officers must now report to Molina, who will appoint a Senior Deputy Commissioner to oversee the: Deputy Commissioner of Security; Deputy Commissioner of Classification, Custody Management, and Facility Operations; and Deputy Commissioner of Administration. In addition, the DOC said it will launch a “full scale recruitment campaign” for the newly created positions. The candidate vetting process will be “refined and improved,” the report states.
In an effort to speed up case processing, the DOC said it will create a monthly list of inmates who have been at the jail for a year or more, along with those who have records of violence during their stays.
The plan details a strategy for enhanced staff accountability and an expedited officer discipline process, including resolving investigations of officer misconduct within 30 days and hiring more than a dozen staffers to the agency’s Trials Division.
While conditions in the jail remain “severe and potentially life-threatening,” Martin’s letter to the judge noted there have been some recent improvements, including an uptick in contraband confiscations and a decline in slashings and stabbings, both of which have contributed to an increased feeling of safety among staff and inmates. “The actions are critically needed and the fact that the Department has taken them reflects real measurable progress toward achieving a reduction in harm,” Martin wrote.
The DOC has also cracked down on abuse of sick leave among correction officers, Martin wrote. The letter notes that the number of officers on sick leave has dropped from 2,500 at the end of last year to 1,100, “still far too high.” Nearly 100 staffers have also been suspended this year for abusing the sick leave policy.
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association said through a spokesperson that it “is “currently reviewing the Department's proposed action plan and will release a more detailed response following a thorough assessment.”
The federal monitoring team and the DOC are scheduled to appear before a judge next Tuesday.
With reporting by Annie McDonough