Rikers Island

Rikers Monitor Warns of ‘Pervasive Disorder and Chaos' and Calls for Outside Help

Four Democratic congressional members from New York called conditions at the jail “deplorable and nothing short of a humanitarian crisis" -- and that was before the latest death, the 11th so far this year at the facility

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The federal monitor overseeing New York City's troubled Rikers Island jail complex told a judge that nothing is being done to deal with the "pervasive disorder and chaos" at the jail, and he is recommending the appointment of an external manager to oversee security operations.

Two people have died at the jail in the last three days, and 11 this year, deepening what members of Congress have called a "humanitarian crisis."

Steve Martin, a Texas attorney with decades of experience as a corrections consultant, wrote Judge Laura Swain on Thursday that something had to be done given what he said was the Department of Correction's failure to act.

"The Department has, thus far, failed to effectively address the unsafe conditions that are posing an imminent risk of harm to those in custody and Department Staff. This includes violence among incarcerated people, violence at the hands of Staff and violence toward Staff, in addition to a disturbing rise in self-harming behavior," Martin wrote.

"Unfortunately, the conditions in the jails have significantly deteriorated in the past few months, revealing a troubling and accelerated pace of mismanagement of the security operations in the jails," he added later in his letter.

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.

Swain will hold a hearing Friday morning to review Martin's letter, and his recommendation for an external security operations manager for the jail.

Martin's letter comes shortly after the death of 34-year-old Stephen Khadu, who passed shortly before 11 a.m. Wednesday at Lincoln Hospital, the Department of Correction at Rikers' Vernon C. Bain Center said Wednesday. The cause of death is under investigation by the medical examiner.

Officials said the individual appeared to be in medical distress and medical emergency protocols were activated, though no other details on the case were immediately released pending the completion of a full investigation.

"I am devasted to see that we have yet another death in custody, and determined to stop this heartbreaking trend," DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said in a statement. "We are doing all we can to remedy the unprecedented crisis we are experiencing in our jails. My thoughts and prayers are with the individual’s loved ones."

While it was previously reported that 12 people have died in DOC custody this year, the department clarified on Wednesday that one of those individuals, Cario Tomas, had been granted compassionate release by the court, and was not in DOC custody when he died.

It was just a few days ago, on Sunday night, that Rikers reported another in-custody death. In that case, DOC officials said the person was "not feeling well" on Sunday night and was sent to the jail's medical clinic, where CPR was administered. A cause of death remains under investigation in that case as well.

Wednesday's developments come a day after four Democratic members of Congress demanded Rikers' immediate closure because of that Sunday night death, which at the time was the 10th this year.

Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerry Nadler, Jamaal Bowman and Nydia Velázquez called conditions at the jail “deplorable and nothing short of a humanitarian crisis," in a letter Tuesday to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

In their letter, the House members said the jail has failed to provide inmates with basic services and protection against the spread of COVID-19, and lawmakers on a recent visit to the facility found conditions that were “life-threatening and horrific.”

They reported overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food. State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas said inmates told her they felt like they were being treated like slaves and animals.

It was not immediately clear from the letter whether the four House members were calling for all inmates, including those being held for violent crimes, to be immediately released or for some to be transferred to other facilities.

Asked about Rikers on Wednesday, before the latest death was announced, de Blasio said the intake process has been a critical issue and he pledged to end triple shifts in October. The city will reward the vast majority of corrections officers who kept showing up despite the challenges and give bonuses to officers for triple shifts they continue to work.

"We're going to be very tough on people who went AWOL," the mayor added.

He pledged on Friday to visit the facility in the coming week, but stopped short of sharing a specific date.

Both de Blasio and Hochul have announced plans to try to improve conditions at Rikers Island, where longstanding troubles were exacerbated amid the pandemic.

Hochul's press secretary, Hazel Crampton-Hays, said the governor “took swift action to release hundreds of people incarcerated in Rikers and improve justice and safety,” and promised further steps.

At least five of the inmates who have died at Rikers Island this year died in suspected suicides. Officials have said deteriorating conditions at the jail came amid a slowdown in court proceedings, leaving more inmates incarcerated while awaiting trial, and chronic staff shortages.

At one point this summer, more than one-third of the city’s jail guards were on sick leave or medically unfit to work with inmates. Some guards missed shifts without any explanation.

A day after Mayor de Blasio announced an emergency plan to improve conditions at Rikers Island, protesters called for the jail to be closed entirely.

The DOC said it “is tirelessly working to continue improving conditions on Rikers, including releasing eligible people under the Less is More Act, increasing accountability for absent staffers, expediting intake to create more space, and using emergency contracting to secure quick repairs and deep cleaning.”

Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, representing the jail guards, dismissed the letter from the Congress members.

“Closing Rikers is a talking point and not a reality right now. We have 6,000 inmates. There are no new jails built yet," he said. "Where are they going to go?”

He encouraged members of Congress concerned about Rikers to use their power to expedite building new jails, plans for which have been met with community opposition. Skelly said those jails won’t open until 2027 at the earliest and combined, they would have a maximum capacity of 3,300 inmates.

Officers on Rikers Island are lodging complaints after being made to work triple tours — 24 straight hours without a break — with no access to food or water. NBC New York's Sarah Wallace reports.

Judge Swain appointed Martin as federal monitor in 2015 as part of a settlement between the city and the U.S. Justice Department arising from a lawsuit over civil rights violations against juvenile detainees.

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