With Rikers in Crisis, Critics Wonder: Where Is Bill de Blasio?

Mayor Bill de Blasio has been all over New York City this summer, heralding the city’s recovery. He visited a pool in Brooklyn in a bright beach outfit. He attended a series of concerts in every borough. He rubbed elbows with celebrities at the Met Gala on Monday.

But in recent days he has faced withering criticism for not visiting Rikers Island, even as the notorious jail complex has spiraled into crisis. His last trip there was four years ago.

Ten people have died on Rikers this year, and staff shortages have led to a series of violent episodes and an unsanitary and chaotic living environment inside the jail, a federal monitor said this summer. As the jail has grown less safe, there have been growing calls for Mr. de Blasio to visit the complex and to move more aggressively to improve the dangerous conditions there.

Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat who has less than four months left in office, has pledged to close Rikers in the coming years and framed it as a key part of his progressive legacy. But he could end up leaving many of the challenges for the next mayor to fix.

“There has been a back-turning of this mayor on this issue,” said Tina Luongo, the attorney in charge of the criminal defense practice at the Legal Aid Society. “All he wants to tout is his legacy to close it in six years. His legacy is right here in what is happening on that island. And he has got to take responsibility.”

More than a dozen elected officials visited the jail on Monday and assailed deplorable conditions that several of them said during a subsequent news conference amounted to a humanitarian crisis. They called on Mr. de Blasio to grant the early release of some of those being held there, an action that the mayor has said he has no plans to take.

On Tuesday, Mr. de Blasio is expected to announce a new “Emergency Rikers Relief Plan” to make repairs and to move Department of Correction staff members from the courts to Rikers, according to a city official. The mayor will threaten to suspend correction officers who are not showing up to work for 30 days without pay. Mr. de Blasio will also call on state officials and the court system to do more to help.

After touring Rikers on Monday, Jumaane Williams, New York City’s public advocate, said that he planned to call the mayor, as well as Gov. Kathy C. Hochul, to tell them what he had seen. He said he feared that a catastrophe like the revolt at Attica prison in 1971 would soon take place at Rikers.

“We were all in danger in there,” he said.

Mr. Williams said in an interview that the mayor “needs to use some of his clemency powers” to get certain people out of the jail, that new corrections officers should be hired and that corrections officers who have been calling in sick or not showing up to work for thousands of shifts over the last year, needed to return to their jobs.

In interviews, detainees, jail staff and medical workers said that the situation at the jail complex worsened with each passing day.

Some jail houses that were once secured by up to four correction officers now have none, as nearly a third of the department’s roughly 8,400 uniformed staff are either out sick or otherwise not showing up for work. Gangs and other detainees have taken to managing the comings and goings of dozens of incarcerated people in their dorms, breaking up fights and administering medical care.

Mounds of trash line the hallways and staircases. Soap and cleaning products are often unavailable. Some units are without toilet paper; in others, worms inch out from drains. Many incarcerated people have not been outside in months and spend their hours in dormitories without programming and services. The timing of their meals — if they get them at all — is unpredictable, a public defender said. The barbershop is closed. The medical clinic is backed up, a staff member said.

Fear and tension run high.

“We have no minimum standards whatsoever, no medical services, no recreation, no religious services or law and library services,” Reginald Wiggins, 58, said. “We have not had an officer on this unit in three weeks. I am in fear of my life.”

In May, Mr. de Blasio named a new correction commissioner, Vincent Schiraldi, who is viewed as an experienced reformer, and the mayor pledged to hire more correction officers, though those hires are unlikely to bring relief to the system until next year. The fact that Mr. de Blasio has not visited Rikers since the summer of 2017 has infuriated advocates for incarcerated people.

Keith Powers, a City Council member who leads the criminal justice committee, goes to Rikers several times each year, he said, and called on Mr. de Blasio to visit.

“In a moment of crisis, that’s the time you want to show up to get a better handle on what the issues are,” he said. “It’s both important symbolically, but also structurally to understand the urgency of fixing the problem.”

Four years ago, Mr. de Blasio threw his support behind a proposal to close Rikers. An $8 billion plan produced two years later called for closing the complex by 2026 and building four new jails across the city, though that timeline could be in doubt.

Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor who is strongly favored to win the general election in November, supports closing Rikers, but has objected to the locations chosen for three of the new jail sites. Mr. Adams, a former police captain who is running on a law and order message, visited Rikers this month with Mr. Schiraldi and union leaders.

Mr. Adams released a plan for Rikers that includes moving mentally ill inmates and those addicted to drugs off the island and to ban correction officers from working triple shifts.

“Eric believes the situation at Rikers is now a full-blown crisis that must be addressed with immediate investments in personnel and resources, as well as new policies that protect inmates and officers alike — and that we cannot wait for new jails to solve this problem,” Evan Thies, an Adams spokesman, said in a statement.

Curtis Sliwa, the Republican nominee for mayor, held an event outside Gracie Mansion on Sunday to urge Mr. de Blasio to visit Rikers and to draw attention to correction officers who have been attacked by inmates. Mr. Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels, opposes closing Rikers and wants to build new facilities on the island.

More immediately, Mr. Sliwa wants to hire 2,000 additional correction officers and to remove emotionally disturbed people from the island. He said he was held on Rikers in the 1980s and saw the conditions for himself.

“It’s falling apart, and it’s not fair to the inmates or the correction officers,” Mr. Sliwa said in an interview. “The doors are broken, and anarchy rules.”

Three inmates have died over the last month including Esias Johnson, a 24-year-old man who was being held on $1 bail and whose family said he struggled with mental illness, and Brandon Rodriguez, a 25-year-old man who used a shirt to hang himself. After their deaths, the Legal Aid Society said the correction department had shown that it could not keep people safe and called on Mr. de Blasio to reduce the number of inmates.

The vast majority of those being held at Rikers, as well as those in other city jails, are awaiting trial. There are currently close to 6,000 people in custody in the city’s jails; more than three-quarters of them have yet to be tried, and are presumed innocent.

But Mr. de Blasio said recently that he had no plans to release inmates from jail early after criticism over a similar move last year during the height of the pandemic. Mr. de Blasio denied a report in The New York Post that his administration was considering releasing 180 inmates, and his police commissioner, Dermot Shea, said he was against any early releases.

Mr. de Blasio said it was possible that people inside his administration were examining the idea, but he said he did not support it.

“There are people constantly looking at different alternatives and assessing them, but if they haven’t been approved, they literally haven’t been approved and it isn’t happening,” he said.

Since mass absenteeism and mismanagement plunged the city’s jail system further into crisis this summer, leaving entire jail houses unsecure, detainees said they had witnessed the creation of more weapons, including some fashioned out of aluminum taken from ceiling fixtures.

“We did not come into jail to die,” said Victor Raimo, 51, who has two months left to serve on a six-month sentence, and is worried about his safety. “This is criminal what’s happening here. There’s no care, custody and control. We need help.”

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