Rikers Island Getting Hundreds More NYC Jail Officers Amid Staffing Disputes

This story is the product of a collaboration between New York Focus and THE CITY.

In March, Greg Williams testified before the City Council about his experience being incarcerated on Rikers Island. He recalled observing groups of correction officers hanging out with one another for long periods, talking and “basically doing nothing.”

But when it came time for them to transport him to video visits, the officers would often show up late, cutting his time short, he said. “I can tell you from my time there…how much time and money is wasted in that agency,” Williams told the Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice.

The city’s jails employ five correction officers for every three incarcerated people — a ratio seven times higher than the national average. Some 7,575 correction officers oversee approximately 4,389 detainees, as of July 9.

Yet the city recently passed a 2022 budget that provided for an additional 400 correction officers.

Advocates for incarcerated people had pressed the de Blasio administration to decrease the correction department budget — the largest of any jail agency in the country — by 10%. Instead, the budget was increased by $27 million over the budget passed by the Council last year, coming in at $1.18 billion, records show.

Criminal justice reform advocates protest in Manhattan against the hiring of new correction officers for city jails, May 12, 2021.

Criminal justice reform advocates protest in Manhattan against the hiring of new correction officers for city jails, May 12, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Correction officials and the union representing correction officers point to shortages of available officers amid illness and attrition, as well as an increase in programs for detainees, as among the reasons to hire more staff.

But jail experts, including a federal monitor overseeing the department and advocates for incarcerated people, say staff shortages are due to mismanagement — and that having too many officers exacerbates violence. They contend the city should conduct an independent analysis of its current staff and how they are deployed.

“There are a lot of officers who are on the payroll at certain jails who aren’t actually working there,” said Martin Horn, who ran the Correction Department during the Bloomberg administration.

Almost all officers prefer duties where they have little or no contact with inmates, Horn said, including transportation, perimeter security and working the visitation unit. Officers favored by supervisors often snag roles as record-keepers and receptionists for wardens or deputy wardens, he added.

Those jobs could be handled by civilians who earn less than correction officers, jail experts say.

Sick Days and AWOLs Up

Over the past year, the department has struggled to keep jails fully open and maintain basic services for detainees due to lack of available staff. Some correction officers have been forced to work double and even triple shifts.

In May, the lack of available officers got so bad city jail officials put a Rikers facility housing seriously mental ill detainees on lockdown because there were not enough available officers. Some 1,200 correction officers called out sick that day, and another 700 or so were on medically restricted duty for various health reasons.

On Friday, the number of officers out sick was up to 1,367, according to the department.

Correction officers have unlimited sick leave but must provide medical proof while they are out. Jail officials are looking to boost a unit that checks up on injured and sick officers to make sure they are actually home recuperating.

Last week, recently appointed DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi slammed officers who appear to be skipping work.

“We have 1,400 people on any day calling in sick and 5,000 people not coming to work and not calling, AWOLing [absent without official leave],” Schiraldi told NY1. “Those people should be ashamed of themselves, and they need to get back to work and support the heroes that came in every day.”

Former probation department commissioner Vincent Schiraldi is set to head the Department of Correction.

Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi
Courtesy of the Mayor’s Office

Sarita Daftary, co-director of Freedom Agenda, an Urban Justice Center project that advocates for decarceration, argued that the high AWOL rate makes it “harder for [the officers] who do show up for work — and of course, dangerous for the incarcerated people who aren’t getting to their court dates, to visits, to medical, to commissary, aren’t getting mail, and all other kinds of human rights abuses.”

Steve Martin, the federal monitor overseeing the correction department, found in a report published in May that mismanagement of the DOC’s staff “has a direct impact on the department’s ability to reduce the level of violence” within the facility.

Overstaffing has led officers to respond to incidents in larger groups than necessary, increasing the chance that they use excessive force, said the report. Overall, the review found the department suffers from a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos,” with the use-of-force rate against inmates hitting a five-year high.

A DOC spokesperson defended the additional hires.

“Running the city’s jail system is a 24/7 operation, requiring multiple shifts and different housing arrangements with various staffing needs,” said the spokesperson, Shayla Mulzac. “We are also currently experiencing staffing issues due to the pandemic, our antiquated facilities… and attrition.”

While the budget allocated $1.18 billion to the DOC, that figure could climb significantly higher. DOC spent $100 million over its budget last year, and kept more than 1,000 uniformed officers on staff than it had initially projected.

“Given the department’s active headcount remained higher than what was funded due to aggressive attrition assumptions and staffing issues associated with closing facilities, DOC required additional funding in” the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Mulzac said.

Court Crunch Hurts

During a May City Council budget hearing, lawmakers questioned DOC officials about the need to hire 400 more officers in light of the monitor’s critiques. “I feel validated and vindicated by what the federal monitor is saying because I’ve been saying it for 10 years,” said Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Queens), chair of the finance committee.

DOC officials justified the hires by pointing to spikes in officers calling out sick during the pandemic. In one day in April, they said, roughly 1,875 officers were out on leave. The city’s antiquated jails also need more staff than modern facilities because their design blocks sight lines, officials said.

Former DOC Chief Hazel Jennings pointed to a third reason: a pandemic-induced slowdown in the courts has meant that people are staying in jail longer before their trials. Approximately 989 people have spent more than 600 days incarcerated, Jennings said.

Councilmember Keith Powers chairs a criminal justice committee hearing.

Councilmember Keith Powers (D-Manhattan)
John McCarten/New York City Council

Keith Powers, chair of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, pointed out that the class of new officers being trained won’t be able to work for at least six months, by which time pandemic-related problems should be resolved. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” replied then-DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann.

The union representing city jail officers says that adding 400 officers, likely by this fall, is the least the department can do to address what it describes as a staffing crisis that has forced some of its members to sleep in their cars between shifts.

‘Officers are Suffering’

The last class of 408 correction officers started Feb. 11, 2019, according to the department. The department has lost over 1,000…

Read More: Rikers Island Getting Hundreds More NYC Jail Officers Amid Staffing Disputes