For years, New York City officials have presided over shortcuts and blunders that have led to chaos in one of America’s most expensive jail complexes.
The leaders of the New York City Department of Correction had already lost control over Rikers Island this fall when they went in search of one small measure of relief.
They needed 19 correction officers whom they had posted at the Queens criminal courthouse to fill in at the massive jail complex, where staffing was short, slashings and stabbings were up and detainees had gained control over some housing units. It was Columbus Day, a holiday, and the workload at the Queens courthouse was comparatively light.
But when the bus to Rikers arrived at the courthouse, many of the guards refused to board it. Instead, according to interviews, they claimed the onset of sudden illness. Seven of them dialed 911, complaining of chest pain, leg injuries, lightheadedness and palpitations. One produced a cane as proof of disability. More than a dozen officers left in ambulances. Rikers remained understaffed.
The Columbus Day episode underscores how easy New York City’s leaders have made it for jail guards to sidestep assignments they do not want, even as Rikers Island has been gripped by its worst crisis since it reeled from the crack epidemic in the early ’90s.
The powerful correction officers’ union has said that hiring more guards would solve the problems. But records and interviews show that there is no staffing shortage in the jail system. In fact, on days this year when guard posts in volatile Rikers housing units went unfilled, hundreds of other correction officers were stationed elsewhere in less dangerous positions, including as secretaries, laundry room supervisors and even bakers.
The groundwork for the violence and disorder on Rikers was laid over the years by successive mayoral administrations, which allowed power to shift to lower-level wardens and the guards’ union and then to incarcerated gang members themselves. As a result, guards have been posted throughout the system in wasteful and capricious ways, generous benefits like sick leave have been abused and detainees have had the run of entire housing areas.
A New York Times investigation — drawing on confidential memos and other internal city documents, hundreds of pages of public records and interviews with more than five dozen city officials, correction employees, detainees and their lawyers — has found official missteps going back decades.
For years, mayors and correction commissioners have allowed jail managers to place the least experienced officers in charge of detainee dorms and cells, posts that are critical for keeping order but viewed by many as the least desirable assignments in the system. The managers, who base staffing decisions on seniority, department custom and office politics, have also filled the jobs with guards who have fallen out of favor with administrators, reinforcing the idea that they are punishment posts to be avoided.
When those guards in the housing units have fallen ill, gotten injured or been barred from contact with incarcerated people for other reasons, other rules adopted by city leaders have made finding replacements unusually difficult.
Every mayoral administration since John Lindsay’s in the 1970s has signed union contracts granting unlimited sick leave to guards and the city’s other uniformed workers. And records and interviews suggest that abusing it can carry few consequences: It can take more than a year for the department to bring discipline charges against an officer who is caught abusing sick leave.
When they have been told that such policies could lead to dangerous breakdowns, city leaders have not acted on the warnings. As recently as February 2018, the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top criminal justice adviser presented the first deputy mayor, Dean Fuleihan, with a memo that stated that high rates of absenteeism among guards might be driving a rise in jail violence — and recommended steps to stabilize staffing and reduce violent incidents. The de Blasio administration took none of them, and the memo has not been made public.
And when conditions have spiraled out of control on Rikers in recent years, jail managers have favored quick fixes over deeper policy changes. Under scrutiny in 2014 amid reports of brutality by guards, the managers concentrated members of the Bloods gang in some units, the Crips in others, and still other gangs in other areas, hoping the practice would cut down on fights among rival groups. It did not work. Not only did incidents where guards used force rise, but some gangs were positioned to take over housing areas when the pandemic swept through and caused staffing problems.
The mismanagement over the years has left the people charged with running the jail system feeling powerless.
In an interview, the correction commissioner, Vincent N. Schiraldi, said the department is mired in profound problems and cannot easily be fixed. And he recounted an extraordinary admission he had made recently to other local officials: He could not ensure the safety of the people in his agency’s custody.
“We are wasting money here,” said Mr. Schiraldi, the jail system’s second leader in the past four years. He will be replaced in January by Louis Molina, who was chosen by the new mayor, Eric Adams.
“We pay so many people to not do the job we want or need them to do. We pay them to stay home sick, we pay them to be bakers instead of correction officers or administrative assistants instead of correction officers,” Mr. Schiraldi said. “We run a terribly, terribly inefficient system.”
The failures are especially stark given the vast sums the city has spent on the Correction Department. At an annual cost to taxpayers of more than $400,000 per inmate — more than six times the average in the nation’s other biggest cities — New York has operated a jail complex that has broken down in fundamental ways, leaving some detainees to roam unsupervised and others to go without food or basic health care.
The fallout has occurred largely out of sight, on an island in the East River that most New Yorkers never visit or even think about.
It can be measured in loss of life — more than 16 men have died in the jail system this year — and in the thousands of injuries inflicted on other detainees, who, by September, had been slashed, stabbed, beaten or otherwise harmed at a pace of 38 per day for more than 270 days straight. Most of the detainees at Rikers have never committed violent acts in jail, and more than half suffer from mental illness or other serious ailments.
It can also be gauged by the rising number of assaults — more than 2,000 this year — endured by jail guards. Some officers responded by lashing out at incarcerated people. Others were accused of joining them in criminal acts. In May, seven officers were charged with taking bribes to smuggle drugs, scalpels and cellphones into the jails.
Still others have simply walked off the job. In interviews, current and former officers recounted the fear and exhaustion they felt while working consecutive shifts in hostile conditions, describing calls for backup that went unanswered and sudden fights that they were unable to control.
A spokesman for Mr. de Blasio’s office defended the mayor’s handling of Rikers, saying the administration took several steps during the pandemic to cut down on absenteeism and improve conditions for detainees.
Understand the Crisis at Rikers Island
Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s main jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.
- What to Know: Rikers has long been characterized by dysfunction and violence, but recently the situation has spun out of control.
- Inside Rikers: With staffing shortages and the basic functions of the jail disrupted, detainees had free rein inside the complex.
- A Deadly Year for N.Y.C. Jails: There have been 15 deaths in New York City’s jail system in 2021, including several people incarcerated at Rikers.
- Oversight Failure: The city’s Board of Correction is meant to serve as an independent check on the jail system. Its inaction has been conspicuous.
“We have opened investigations, disciplined staff and implemented an executive order which instituted an aggressive 30-day suspension policy for sick abuse,” said the spokesman, Mitch Schwartz. He added: “It takes patience, creativity and investment to fundamentally shift a broken system.”
A spokesman for the correction officers’ union did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Union leaders have denied that any policies they pushed for over the years were to blame for the chaos on Rikers Island today. They pointed instead to policy changes, such as limits on the use of solitary confinement, that they say strip guards of the tools they need to keep order.
“Officers are getting hurt and injured at a degree that they haven’t gotten hurt and injured before,” said Elias Husamudeen, who was president of the officers’ union until June 2020. “No one wants to come back because they literally don’t feel safe.”
History of bad decisions
From the moment city leaders started building the complex 90 years ago, the history of the jail system has been rife with bad decisions.
City officials designed cells without adequate ventilation, chose not to install heating or cooling systems and failed to maintain sinks and showers, leading to a lawsuit over inhumane conditions there in the 1970s.
They allowed guards to employ violent tactics as the jail population swelled during the crack epidemic, spawning a culture of brutality. The incidents of excessive force continued in the 2010s, when a federal monitor was appointed to end the abusive treatment of teenage detainees.
Under Mr. de Blasio, who declined to be interviewed for this article, the city unveiled an ambitious plan to replace the complex with smaller neighborhood jails. But his administration also took steps that his critics say weakened oversight, pushing out aggressive watchdogs from the city Department of Investigation, the Board of Correction — a jail oversight panel — and the department’s own internal monitor.
Addressing the problems on Rikers Island will be among the most pressing concerns facing Mr. Adams as he takes office as mayor this weekend. He has sent mixed messages about how he intends to go about it, saying he will pursue his predecessor’s plan to close the jail complex while promising to enact other crime-fighting measures that would make doing so difficult. He has also courted leaders of the correction officers’ union who have fiercely opposed the plan. “Rikers Island has been a national embarrassment, and we have ignored it,” Mr. Adams said at a news conference this month. “We must have changes on Rikers Island.”
Any changes will come too late for detainees like Brandon Rodriguez.
At 25, Mr. Rodriguez, who had struggled with bipolar disorder, was about to train for a new job at FedEx when he was accused of choking a woman in a domestic dispute on Staten Island.
He had not been on Rikers a week before his eye socket was broken by another detainee in a fight. When he refused to leave his cell the next day, guards in riot gear dragged him to a shower cell across the building and locked him inside.
The officer assigned to guard him was on his third consecutive eight-hour shift when Mr. Rodriguez took off his shirt, knotted one end around the showerhead and the other around his neck and hanged himself — the eighth inmate to die this year amid the turmoil in the jail complex.
His mother, Tamara Carter, said she learned the news through Facebook; nobody from the jail called her. Since then, she has thought about what she might say to city leaders if given the chance.
“I hope that one day me and the mayor can sit face to face, and I’d say, ‘How can you let this happen?’” Ms. Carter said in an interview, her voice rising in anger. “Not just to my son, but all the deaths in 2021?”
Where the guards are
On paper, there is no reason the correction officer who was guarding Mr. Rodriguez should have been working 24 hours straight.
New York operates the best-staffed jail system in the nation, employing more guards per detainee than any other major American lockup. So many officers are on the city payroll that, on days in September when as many as 2,000 of them missed work — more than the total number of guards employed by the jails in Indianapolis and Jacksonville combined — there were still about 5,800 who reported for duty.
With so many correction officers on hand, it can be difficult to track what all of them are doing on a given day, according to Mr. Schiraldi and others. Even as the pandemic raged and concerns about staffing shortages spilled into public view, there was little transparency about who was posted where, and why.
But interviews and internal city records obtained by The Times reveal a system that uses uniformed officers in ways that other jail agencies do not.
Guards act as drivers for wardens. Guards answer phones and file papers for administrators. Guards supervise lawn-mowing crews. Guards oversee tailor shops. Guards help run a bakery.
An internal staffing report shows that of the more than 8,900 sworn officers on the department’s payroll in February, about 850 were stationed at the department’s Queens headquarters, at its training academy or in other positions requiring little or no contact with detainees.
Nearly 750 guards were assigned to daily posts at the Manhattan Detention Complex during a period in which the Lower Manhattan jail was holding, on average, just 16 people a day. (The mayor’s spokesman, Mr. Schwartz, said the staffing report figures, which appeared in a memo on absence rates from the commanding officer of the Correction Department’s Health Management Division, were not accurate; he said there were 370 guards posted at the Manhattan jail that month.)
Of the 5,400 officers assigned to the eight jailhouses on Rikers Island, 685 were posted at the Rose M. Singer Center, a minimum security facility that was housing about 235 women and transgender people.
Other staffing records obtained by The Times suggest that even when guards were assigned to some of the most volatile jailhouses on Rikers, many of them were working in jobs that had nothing to do with guarding detainees in housing areas.
On a day in late October when at least 16 officers at the George R. Vierno Center had to work back-to-back shifts on the floors of detainee housing units, the same jail had five guards working as warden secretaries, two guards in the mailroom and one guard each in the counsel room, storehouse and tool crib. There was no indication in the records that any of them were reassigned to relieve the officers guarding detainees.
Some correction officers prefer to work rotating shifts in the less desirable housing unit positions because of the opportunities for overtime pay. But more often, guards vie for less dangerous and more stable jobs in other parts of the jail system. And typically those assignments come down to seniority and whether they have relationships with the right people, according to interviews with five current and former correction officers and other officials.
As a result, the most challenging and dangerous jobs in the system often fall to the officers with the least experience.
Officials have complained about the policy for years but have not been able to change it, foiled by the department’s layers of bureaucracy and a lack of backing from elected officials. The jails commissioner in 2010, Dora Schriro, argued at a City Council oversight hearing that year that staff should be redistributed with an eye toward having more experienced guards available to work with the most difficult populations of incarcerated people.
The staffing policies were singled out again in 2018 when Liz Glazer, then the leader of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, suggested similar changes. In memos to city leaders, Ms. Glazer also noted that about 20 percent of guards were not showing up for work and identified the unexpected absences as possibly contributing to jail violence. She also suggested creating a “violence czar” to oversee a systemwide effort to curb violent incidents at Rikers.
But nothing had changed by the time the pandemic arrived. Soon new recruits, junior officers and those who were not politically connected were buckling under grueling shifts and forced overtime — which the jails commissioner, Mr. Schiraldi, linked to many of the deaths on Rikers this year.
Like other officials before him, Mr. Schiraldi lamented a system he said he could not change.
“I don’t think society really cares, and that reflects itself in who we hire, who we keep and who we support, how much time and energy elected officials put into this,” Mr. Schiraldi said. “The department can’t fix this by itself.”
The union’s clout
For any Correction Department leader who has weighed changes to staffing policies over the years, a powerful consideration has loomed in the background: How would the union respond?
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has long been viewed as among the most formidable labor groups in New York, thanks in part to its former leader, Norman Seabrook, whose charisma, brash tactics and generosity with campaign donations molded the union into a political powerhouse.
It retained its clout even after Mr. Seabrook was imprisoned on federal corruption charges, and its current president, Benny Boscio Jr., criticized Mr. de Blasio for any suggestion that the union might have played a role in the Rikers Island crisis.
“They have been a force that has helped maintain the status quo,” said JoAnne Page, president of the Fortune Society, which aids the formerly incarcerated.
The union over the years has succeeded in limiting the city’s ability to replace guards with contractors or promote managers from outside union ranks. But few victories it has won have proven more consequential than the securing of the department’s sick leave policies. Under the group’s current contract, jail guards whose medical conditions are validated by a doctor and signed off on by the department’s health management office can call out sick for up to a year.
It is a benefit that correction officers and other members of the city’s uniformed services — police, fire and sanitation workers — have enjoyed at least since the 1970s, have celebrated over the years and have even used as a recruiting tool.
It has also been criticized for being easy to abuse. In 1992, an administrative judge hearing a case against four correction officers accused of excessively skipping work — one had missed 314 days over two and a half years — read the union contract and determined that the guards had been abiding by it. He added that the city should enact new rules if it wanted to punish other officers for similar behavior.
The policy was questioned again in 2004 by state auditors who found gaps in how the Correction Department was tracking officers who chronically called in sick.
And it was in the subtext when Mr. de Blasio’s administration sued the union in September, charging that it was engaging in an illegal job slowdown. (The city dropped the suit days later.)
Still, the policy has remained on the city’s books.
Sick leave has also been used as a bargaining chip, according to records and Mr. Schiraldi. In September, when the numbers of guards out sick had reached the highest points of the pandemic, the union delegate assigned to the Queens Criminal Courthouse sent a blunt offer in a letter to the commissioner’s office: Stop redeploying courthouse guards to Rikers, and she would ensure that all of them remained on the job — by delaying retirements for some and seeing to it that others returned from being out sick.
A month later, the Columbus Day revolt of some of the Queens courthouse guards took place. The incident remains under investigation.
Those officers who return to work from sick leave can still avoid being assigned to guard detainees, thanks to another policy embraced by union members. This one allows officers who are deemed by their doctors to be in need of light-duty assignments to remain in those posts indefinitely.
Concerned in 2016 that the policy was being abused, Angel Villalona, a top Correction Department administrator, urged then-Commissioner Joseph Ponte to curb it, even proposing a rule that would have limited the amount of time officers could spend in modified-duty posts. Mr. Ponte, who did not act on the proposal, said he did not recall receiving it.
During the pandemic, the number of guards who were out sick or on the so-called medically modified status lists ballooned into the thousands, in part, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, because the department’s Health Management Division is so backed up with appointments that it can take months to verify that officers are suffering from ailments.
Soon after Mr. de Blasio took office in 2014, he found his Correction Department engulfed in a different sort of crisis, unrelated to staffing problems. Accounts of shocking brutality by guards had led to a federal investigation and civil rights suit that accused city officials of condoning abusive behavior.
Under pressure to reduce violence by both guards and the incarcerated, correction managers approached the problem in a way that handed over power to gang members.
For years, the jail system had rotated incarcerated people in and out of housing areas on a regular basis, seeking to prevent detainees from banding together and outmatching correction officers.
But the policy also meant that rival gang members were often housed together, leading to stabbings, slashings and fights that guards would have to break up, often using force.
So the wardens began gradually concentrating members of the same gangs in certain housing areas, reasoning that the practice would make their numbers look better. Soon, some units became known as “Blood houses” and others as belonging to the Crips and other gangs, such as the predominantly Dominican Trinitarios.
“They started putting the gangs together to quiet them, and in essence gave the gangs control,” said a former high-ranking jail official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “It had the side effect of creating powerhouse monopolies.”
It also did not work. Reports of guards using force remained steady or rose over the years — as did slashings and stabbings by detainees.
But it did position gangs to take over in some areas when the pandemic began and staffing shortages occurred throughout the jails.
The mayor’s spokesman, Mr. Schwartz, said the Correction Department “does its best to avoid concentrations of a single gang, though the detainee population itself is not always balanced by gang affiliation.”
“We have to make housing decisions based on the population we have,” he said.
This year, detainees in gang houses have managed the comings and goings of visitors to their units and even exercised veto power over who could be housed with them. They have controlled food distribution, meted out punishments for breaking rules and organized their own violent forms of entertainment.
Detainees in a unit that predominantly housed Trinitarios were running a fight club in the George R. Vierno Center this fall, with fighters squaring off in a cell as other incarcerated men cheered like spectators at a boxing match, according to security camera footage obtained by The Times, court records and an interview with a former detainee who said he participated in the fighting.
“I’m fighting to protect myself,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being injured or killed by the gang. “This guy has nothing against me, but we’re fighting to the death.”
The former detainee added that guards in the unit were aware of the fighting but did not intervene or report the injuries he said he sustained and witnessed during the fights.
In a news release issued weeks after the fight club audience was captured on video, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Schiraldi hailed a decrease in the number of violent incidents reported at the jails, casting the numbers as a sign of improvement.
Recalling their time at Rikers, former detainees said they doubted the conditions they saw there could ever get better.
Paul Little was 46 when he landed at Rikers in July, accused of stealing packages from other people’s doors. He said he was in an intake center waiting for a Covid test when he heard the shouts of other detainees protesting a lack of food. Suddenly, one of their cells was on fire, and guards ushered Mr. Little and others to a chapel. He had not been among the protesters, but a correction captain knocked him to the ground, turned him on his stomach and then was joined by two other guards, he said. One of them stomped on his leg and broke it, Mr. Little said.
Kameron Wallace, 23, was jailed at Rikers for more than three years on charges of fatally shooting a Bronx teenager in 2017. He described what it was like to try to sleep in his housing unit after the pandemic began. “The inmates run the jails, and there are no officers,” Mr. Wallace said. “The cells won’t even lock at night, so you really had to sleep with one eye open.” He was acquitted in October.
Jailed on a parole violation after he was arrested on a charge of riding his bicycle on a sidewalk, Anthony Lopez remembers the fear he felt after he entered the complex in August — the bleeding face of the detainee he saw beaten by several attackers and the sound that another man’s head made as it was kicked by a gang member in the jail.
“I don’t see how they can get it back,” said Mr. Lopez, 49. “I think it is too far gone.”
Graphics by Quoctrung Bui.