Amid an escalating crisis on Rikers Island — in which ten people housed there have died over the course of the summer and staffing issues have caused some correction officers to call out sick saying they're being overworked on 24-hour triple shifts — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an emergency response to the facility, which includes sending in police.
"We're going to be bringing in additional help from a crucial sister agency, the NYPD, to help with certain discrete functions that will take pressure off the Department of Corrections," de Blasio said Tuesday.
City hall says a solution for the facility is within reach by expediting not only state transfers of inmates who could be housed elsewhere, as well as court cases for those simply accused who are waiting for their trials. The mayor's office also suggested supervised release for those at Rikers on technical violations, like being late for a parole hearing.
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But the mayor's plans drew immediate criticism from local lawmakers who visited the jail the day before.
"Adding further police to that environment is going to make it much more hostile. That is not the solution," said New York State Assemblywoman Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, who represents Queens.
Others said the proposals will take too long.
"We are on the 50th anniversary of Attica, we are days away from something like that happening here," said NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams.
The plan to include police officer merited an angry response from the correction officers union on Tuesday, as they called on the mayor to resign.
"The mayor is a modern-day dictator who is out to punish our members, who have been assaulted in record numbers because he refuses to keep them safe," the union said in a statement.
Their fury was stoked by accusations from city leaders — including the correction commissioner — that officers are faking their illnesses.
"We encourage people to come to work, we have to discipline them when they fake," said NYC Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi. That discipline includes 30 days without pay if officers can't prove they're sick.
"Anyone who is faking sickness is hurting their fellow officer and it needs to stop. We are very aggressive about that," de Blasio said.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards suggested that the mayor may be in over his head, and called on federal agencies to come help address the crisis.
"Perhaps the Department of Justice needs to step in. If the city can't handle its job, the federal government should step in," said Richards.
Just last week, a 24-year-old man has become one of the most recent inmates to die at the correctional facility this year. Authorities are investigating the death of Esias Johnson who was found unresponsive in his cell at the Anna M. Kross Center on Sept. 7 and pronounced dead at 9:45 a.m., the city's Department of Correction said.
According to Commissioner Schiraldi, Johnson had recently entered custody on Aug. 7 and he was being held on a fugitive arrest warrant and charged with menacing.
“The circumstances surrounding this death will receive a full investigation. We have been in touch with Esias Johnson’s next of kin, and extend our deepest condolences,” said Schiraldi.
Just last month, 25-year-old Brandon Rodriguez was also found dead in his cell at Rikers Island. He was arrested Aug. 4 on Staten Island. The Staten Island Advance reports that he was arrested following a domestic incident.
The Legal Aid Society issued a statement regarding Johnson’s death, which read in part: "He was a beloved son and brother. We mourn alongside his family, and we join their call for answers."
"The Department of Correction continues to demonstrate that it cannot house people safely. Mr. Johnson is at least the third person to die on Rikers in the last 30 days. Reducing the jail population is the only way to avoid further deaths and swift action is desperately needed," the statement continued."
Tiffany Cabán, the Democratic Nominee for NYC Council District 22, on Tuesday called for de Blasio to grant work release to people serving sentences in city jails in order to save lives.
"Doctors on Rikers Island, public defenders, families of those who died, formerly and currently incarcerated, elected officials, candidates – we are all raising the alarm, waving red flags, practically begging those with authority to hear us: simply being in custody is a potential death sentence," Cabán said in a statement.
At a news conference following Johnson's death, Schiraldi says the DOC has been plagued with many problems since the start of March 2020, from COVID-19 to assaults on staff. So far, 13 employees have died from the respiratory disease, he said.
"Any death of staff and any death of someone in custody is a tragedy and we take these types of events very seriously," Schiraldi told reporters.
"These tragic events have been taking place within the much larger context of our staffing shortages," he added. "We cannot improve safety until we're fully staffed. When staff don't show up to work, every aspect of our operation suffer. So do the employees who pick up the slack and the people in custody."
Schiraldi said that he plans to hire 200 more officers in addition to the previous 400 to improve conditions.
NBC New York has previously reported on those staff shortages. Officers on Rikers Island have lodged complaints for months after being made to work triple tours — 24 straight hours without a break — with no access to food or water.
In a scathing response to Schiraldi's statements, president of Correction Officers' Benevolent Association Benny Boscio Jr. says the DOC head is demonizing officers while inmate assaults on officers continue.
“The reality is that triple shifts are happening because in just one year, the inmate population has nearly doubled and Mayor de Blasio has refused to hire a single Correction Officer for nearly three years," Boscio said.