Rikers Island

Former Top NYPD Chief Brought On To Overhaul Rikers Mismanagement Amid Crisis at Jail

Eleven city jail inmates have died this year, more than in any of the past three years

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The NYC correction commissioner appointed a former top NYPD chief to advise him on operational changes at Rikers Island, according to a department memo obtained by NBC New York.

Raymond Spinella, the former NYPD chief of operations, has been appointed senior deputy commissioner of operations analysis at the department of correction.

“In this role, Spinella will be directly reporting to the Commissioner, and advising the executive staff on operational improvements within our agency,” said correction commissioner Vincent Schiraldi. “Mr. Spinella will oversee the following areas: health, management division, central operations desk, and the women off-Riikers Initiative."

Spinella will also oversee the elimination of triple tours at Rikers Island.

Eleven city jail inmates have died this year, more than in any of the past three years. There were seven deaths in 2020, three in 2019 and eight in 2018, according to the city’s Department of Correction. At least five deaths this year were suicides, the most since 2005. A city report last week showed sharply higher rates of violence, serious injuries to inmates and assaults on staff compared with previous years.

A federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, said on the emergency conference call Friday that the city’s jail system needs a “back to basics” overhaul he dubbed “Corrections 101” while overworked guards continue to leave doors unsecured, abandon posts and ignore signs of distress. He excoriated city officials for failing to present “not one” concrete solution to lingering security concerns.

In one recent incident, Martin said, officers failed to immediately respond as an inmate attempted to hang himself in their sight line some 6 feet away, and an officer walking directly in front of the cell did nothing. Eventually, the guards did notice the man, got him down and he survived, Martin said.

The monitor found use of force in intake areas increased 170% in August; 190 incidents were reported in 2021, versus 70 incidents in August 2020. There were 39 stabbings and slashings in August 2021, versus seven in August 2020.

Governor Kathy Hochul created a new initiative in an attempt to improve conditions at Rikers Correctional Center. Adam Kuperstein reports.

U.S. District Judge Laura Swain, overseeing a jail consent decree, said on an emergency conference call last month that the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex is “clearly in a state of danger and crisis." Swain also called the guards’ behavior “absolutely unacceptable."

“It is unacceptable to be willfully ignorant of self-harm behavior, to ignore self-harm behavior or signs of it. It needs to be communicated immediately,” Swain said during the three-hour call. “There is no good reason for anybody to think that that’s acceptable. And to the extent anybody misunderstands, that has to be communicated immediately.”

Uniformed personnel at the city’s jails has plummeted, from a staff of 10,862 in the 2017 fiscal year to 8,388 in 2021. The guard’s union says 7,600 of staff are correctional officers and the rest are in supervisory roles. At one point in the summer, one-third of guards were out sick or medically unfit to work with inmates, the city said. Additionally, an untold number of guards went AWOL.

The city, struggling to fill jail posts, said it is offering incentives, including extra overtime pay, and bringing in food trucks and providing late-night rides home for jail guards who work extra shifts. Since last week, it’s been cracking down on officers who don’t show up for work. City lawyer Kimberly Joyce said Friday that 55 jail guards have been suspended 30 days without pay for failing to report for duty.

A federal monitor has made recommendations to improve conditions at Rikers Island. NBC New York's Myles Miller reports.

Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a disaster emergency and signed an executive order expanding the use of virtual court appearances at Rikers, saying it would expedite hearings for inmates and lessen some of the burden on corrections officers at a facility in crisis. The order allows a court to have virtual appearances from any party or witness instead of requiring them to be in person for a range of different kinds of hearings, even allowing pleas and sentences to be virtual with defendant consent.

In announcing the order, Hochul said allowing more use of virtual appearances instead of requiring inmates to be physically transferred would make the legal process go faster for them. She said corrections officers would be able to focus more on supervision and safety without having to spend as much time on transporting detainees.

“Improving safety and justice at Rikers is about protecting human rights and human dignity," Hochul said in a statement. “No incarcerated person, no corrections officer, and no family member should have to endure the reality of Rikers as it exists today, and we must do everything in our power to prevent New Yorkers from languishing in Rikers awaiting their day in court."

Mayor Bill de Blasio toured Rikers Island amid an outcry over deteriorating conditions at the sprawling jail complex. Jessica Cunnington reports.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that Hochul “is right to recognize that Rikers Island is a humanitarian disaster. We applaud the governor for expanding access to remote hearings to limit the time New Yorkers spend on Rikers awaiting trial."

But she also said officials in the city and the legal system had to do more to get people out of the jail.

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