Jurisprudence

The Real Reason Behind the Crisis at Rikers Island

Protests hold up a large banner that says, "Less Is More" in front of the sign for Rikers Island.
A protest outside the entrance to the Rikers Island jail in the Queens borough of New York City on Sept. 13. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Twelve people have died so far this year in NYC’s jail system. Just last week, Stephen Khadu, 24, died while being held at the Vernon C. Bain prison barge, a dystopic multistory boat docked north of Rikers Island. Eleven others died in the same jail system, five of whom died by suicide, a sign that conditions at the jail have devolved horrifically.

Many of the news stories about the crisis at Rikers Island supported the same narrative: The catalyst for the jail’s spiraling conditions is a staff shortage. The mayor, Department of Correction, and multiple news outlets have described a “staffing crisis” stemming from sick calls from officers either concerned with COVID-19 or feigning ill-health out of fears for violent conditions on the island.

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But there is one major problem with this narrative: The jail has a higher staffing ratio than it had six years ago, nine years ago, and 30 years ago, even factoring in people taking vacation days, people calling in sick, and guards medically restricted from handling incarcerated people. Rikers has a dramatically higher staffing ratio than any other jail across the country—even on days when roughly 2,000 people are unavailable to work.

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That staff absenteeism is escalating problems in the jail is not disputed: The jail has had hundreds of unmanned posts in the past few weeks, and correction officers have not been escorting people to appointments, leading to thousands of missed medical appointments, court appointments, visits, and recreation. COs have reportedly been working double or triple shifts.

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A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Correction said the jail has 7,230 correction officers on staff as of Tuesday, and records show the jail holding 6,088 people on Sept. 17. With reports of 1,367 officers calling in sick and another 700 “medically restricted” from working with the incarcerated population, that leaves about 5,163 correction officers. That’s a 0.8 to 1 ratio of officers to incarcerated people, dramatically higher than the national average, which is 0.23 to 1. (Using the federal monitor’s estimate of sick calls from last July, which counted all uniformed staff and not just COs, I found the ratio was even higher, at nearly 1:1.)

By comparison: The corrections department had about 11,000 uniformed employees in 1990 handling a population of about 20,000 incarcerated people, according to data from the city’s Independent Budget Office. Even on the days in 2020 and 2021 with the most sick calls, the ratio of guards available to work to incarcerated people was at or near a 30-year peak.

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So can an unprecedented crisis on Rikers Island be caused by a staffing ratio that is relatively high? There are a number of factors: An extraordinarily mismanaged department of corrections, a whiplash increase in the jail’s population within just a year, and prolonged stays in intake rooms designed for short stays, a result of the pandemic.

Overstaffing at Rikers is dangerous. In a letter to a federal judge last August, the federal monitor, Steven Martin, acknowledged “staffing problems” but attributed it to mismanagement and not understaffing. The jail has been under a consent decree since 2015 due to excessive use of force. In another report published last May, Martin wrote that corrections staff had been complaining since 2020 about understaffing due to sick calls, something that confounded the monitor, who saw the ratio of guards to incarcerated people was already staggeringly high.

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The problem is counterintuitive. Rising violence and other problems at the jail suggests understaffing. But staff were always available: They were either not being deployed because of a convoluted management system or were unwilling to do the work required, Martin noted. Having too much staff increased distrust and reduced delivery of services. “The presence of an abundance of Staff appear to diffuse Staff’s sense of responsibility and leads them to believe that ‘someone else will handle the problem’—creating the classic ‘bystander effect’ in which Staff do not uphold standards of conduct nor call out the improper or misuse of force when they see it,” he wrote.

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Five of the deaths on Rikers this year were suicides. But the monitor was clear that even in some situations when an in-progress suicide was witnessed, no guards intervened.

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The mismanagement gets worse. Staff shifts are organized on index cards, the monitor found.  The arcane and tedious system hinders officials’ ability to shift around its abundant staff to empty posts. “The process of making substitutions when an assigned person does not report to work, as expected, is both convoluted and disorganized,” the monitor wrote in an August letter to judge Laura Swain. Guards are working triple shifts not because there’s no one else available, but because the process for shifting personnel when guards are AWOL is byzantine.

Against this backdrop, the jail population swelled from 3,800 to 6,000 between spring of 2020 to September 2021. To mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the city took a set of then-unprecedented steps to reduce the population, providing  hotels for recently released people to socially isolate.

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Then homicides spiked. Former Gov. Andrew Cuomo clawed back a nascent bail reform law in response to selective tabloid headlines and rising hysteria about a crime wave. The reforms, which limited the ability of judges to set bail, helped bring the jail population to a nearly 40-year low. But once rolled back, judges set bail more frequently, and the population surpassed pre-pandemic levels.

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The rapid population increase created a bottleneck in spaces only designed to hold people for 24 hours. According to advocates and politicians who toured the jail, the incarcerated stopped receiving food, showers, or medicine in these crowded intake areas. Violent incidents in these areas were 170 percent higher this past August than in August of 2020, according to a report a federal monitor sent to a judge last week.

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To make matters worse, people set to leave Rikers for state prison couldn’t get out. More than 900 people have languished in jail for over 600 days as of May 2021, DOC officials said.* “We are a detention facility; it was never designed to operate as a prison,” explained one DOC executive staff member during a May City Council hearing.

Aside from being inaccurate, the narrative that the crisis at Rikers is caused by understaffing has also led to confounding proposals that could make the crisis worse. Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed increasing available staff, and the DOC is set to hire 600 new corrections officers over the next six months. It’s an expensive proposition. It costs $438,000 to lock up one person for a year on Rikers, the highest per person cost in the nation. About $379,000 of that is estimated to be personnel costs.

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Advocates say that money could be better spent on programs and services to reduce the jail population. But the hyperfocus on staffing numbers has removed some of the onus from people with power to decarcerate the island: judges, district attorneys, and prosecutors, who continue to send people to jail with high bail they can’t pay.

There are some signs of glacial progress. After initially refusing to release people on short sentences under a work program, de Blasio agreed to release seven, a fraction of those eligible. Gov. Kathy Hochul, to her credit, signed “Less Is More” legislation and fast-tracked the release of some people held on technical parole violations.

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Still, people keep flooding into the jail. In recent weeks, several public defenders representing clients have taken to Twitter to bemoan the fact that high bail is consistently requested by district attorneys and accommodated by judges.

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Meanwhile, the crisis at the jail continues unabated. The reports from advocates and politicians visiting the island are shocking: people languishing for days without food or water, without medical attention for serious injuries, crammed into tiny spaces and defecating into plastic bags. Even for a notoriously horrific jail, where officers have created fight clubs and savagely beat people in custody, and where multiple high profile in-custody deaths have happened, many are describing conditions that are without precedent.

Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service, described overflowing toilets with 25 people packed into intake cells and shower stalls, unable to contact their lawyers or loved ones.

“I have been coming to this jail since 2008. This is unlike anything that has ever happened here,” she said.

Correction, Sept. 29, 2021: This article originally misstated that data about how many people had been at the jail for more than 600 days was from May 2010. It was from May 2021.

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