Incidents of force used by city correction officers against inmates hit a record high in March as the coronavirus crisis gripped New York, the latest report by the federal monitor overseeing the lockups found. 

Jailers over rely on heavily armed emergency response “probe” teams, pepper spray and “hyper-confrontational staff behaviors,” the report released Friday said. 

City jails recorded 710 force incidents in March as New York went on lockdown — the highest monthly tally since the federal monitor, Steve Martin, issued his first report on Rikers Island and other Department of Correction facilities in May 2016. 

“Too often, staff select approaches which escalate and exacerbate the problem rather than solve it, which increases both the likelihood that force will be used and the potential for harm,” Martin’s report said. 

As the department released hundreds of detainees to reduce COVID risks, the use-of-force number fell significantly, to a little less than 400 a month in April through June, according to the report. 

That marks the first such drop since Martin and his team began to record the incidents in 2016. By way of comparison, the average tally neared 600 a month in the last six months of 2019. 

The recent decline comes as the average daily inmate population decreased from 5,625 in January to 3,949 in June 2020, according to the 296-page report, required as part of the settlement between the city and the feds in the so-called Nunez case

Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann speaks during public meeting in Lower Manhattan, July 9, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann called the latest report a “major milestone.” 

“After years of consistent effort, including a complete overhaul of the investigations process that was implemented during the pandemic, we have been rated in compliance with our obligation to conduct timely use of force investigations,” she said in a statement to THE CITY, noting the report cited the successful closure of over 80% of backlogged probes. 

In August, the city and the federal monitor entered into a remedial agreement aimed at addressing some of the longstanding issues that have not been tackled despite years of oversight. 

A Push and Pepper Spray

Still, the report notes several disturbing incidents where jail staff allegedly escalated seemingly minor disputes into all-out brawls. 

One incident unfolded when detainees in a TV room were ordered to lock-in to their cells at about 7:30 p.m. 

But they refused, “complaining about the heat in their cells” the day before and noting they were allowed to stay in the common area later, the report said. 

Correction officers called for the department’s probe team, which “immediately forced a confrontation with the otherwise passive residents of the housing unit,” according to the report. 

One inmate ran off and officers chased him while other detainees watched, the monitor said. Ultimately, everyone was gathered in a vestibule where officers began to cuff them. 

But there weren’t enough plastic flex cuffs, so officers employed pepper spray and other force to secure everyone, said the report, which did not include the name of the facility or the date of the incident. 

One incident sparked ‘a chain reaction of multiple uses of force and people being taken to the floor.’

Another heat-related standoff escalated when an assistant deputy warden pushed an inmate, sparking “a chain reaction of multiple uses of force and people being taken to the floor,” according to the report.

Multiple officers were caught on video using “prohibited holds and aggressive tactics, in addition to the overly close positioning of a canine,” the monitor said. 

As the inmates were escorted to another area, officers excessively bent and twisted their wrists and elevated their arms, the report said. 

“One probe team officer raised and slammed a resident to the floor, while another dragged a person in restraints across the floor as a captain sprayed him at point blank range in the face,” the monitor said. 

Call for More Hiring

The on-site supervisor at the time, and in several other similar incidents cited by the monitor, failed to de-escalate the situation, the report said. 

“The most richly staffed jail in the country is effectively unmanaged, because neither rank-and-file staff nor managers are held accountable for their misconduct,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project, counsel for the plaintiffs in the Nunez case.

The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

The monitor has suggested hiring additional assistant deputy wardens to improve supervision. 

But out of the 10 people hired during the latest monitoring period, one was promoted despite a checkered work history and “at least two” others had been recently disciplined, the report said. 

“These findings raise serious concerns about a developing pattern of questionable promotion decisions,” the monitor said.  

The promotions were made “despite feedback” from the monitoring team, which indicated it is “losing confidence that the department has adequate procedures in place to screen staff for promotion and that appropriate judgment is being utilized.”

‘Culture of Disorder’ 

The report encompassed what could be the final two months of the federal monitor’s oversight of Horizon Juvenile Center. The Bronx facility, which primarily houses 16 and 17-year-olds, is now run by the Administration for Children’s Services instead of corrections officials, under the state’s Raise the Age law.  

The monitor saw “few if any improvements” in behavior by Administration for Children’s Services staff after a review of incidents captured on video. 

The Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Though limited, raw data showed an “encouraging” drop in attacks by teens and staff in the first two months of 2020. Still, Martin’s report concluded: “The culture of disorder at [Horizon] must be transformed.” 

A review of footage showed that staff from the city’s child welfare agency continued to use a “variety of unsafe practices” — including “poor staff arm placement near/around youth’s necks,” and “hyper-confrontational conduct.” 

Negotiations are now underway over the possibility of continued federal oversight of the facility, with a meeting between the lawsuit’s parties scheduled for Nov. 2. 

“The Monitoring Team is anxious to resolve these matters,” said the report.