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Adams’ Ties to Lobbying Firm That Represents Jail Workers Raises Questions on Rikers Island Future

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams holds a mayoral campaign event at First Step Medical in Crotona, The Bronx, Oct. 15, 2021.
Eric Adams holds a mayoral campaign event at First Step Medical in Crotona, The Bronx, Oct. 15, 2021.
Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

For years, the union representing city correction officers has employed a lobbying firm, Pitta Bishop Del Giorno & Giblin, to advocate for its members in the halls of government — most recently demanding an end to grueling triple shifts on Rikers Island.

Principals in Pitta Bishop also run a law firm, Pitta LLP, that has worked as a campaign and legal consultant for Eric Adams, the Democratic nominee for mayor and favored candidate in Tuesday’s election.

Campaign finance filings show Adams’ campaign paid $179,000 to Pitta LLP for its services through late August.

The lobbyists’ dual role with Adams and the Correction Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) has some jail reform advocates concerned about the fate of plans to close Rikers Island by 2027 and replace it with four smaller, modern borough-based jails.

Also in the balance are proposals to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement at city jails and whether the reform-minded jails commissioner recently hired by Mayor Bill de Blasio would get to keep his job in an Adams administration.

Mayor Bill de Blasio tours Rikers Island with DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, Sept. 27, 2021.
Mayor Bill de Blasio tours Rikers Island with DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, Sept. 27, 2021.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Meanwhile, Rikers Island has been plagued by what a federal monitor calls “disorder and chaos,” with inmate deaths and self-harm incidents up, rampant absenteeism and low vaccination rates among correction officers, and troubling conditions at intake centers. Some elected officials are calling for everyone from the National Guard to President Joe Biden to intervene.

“If you don’t start off with a strong policy sense… then I think you’re more susceptible to whoever is going to tug at your coat or has a claim on you,” said Elizabeth Glazer, who headed the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under de Blasio and shepherded the close-Rikers blueprint.

“What is his connection to the union? And how does he weigh that against what the conditions are like for everybody inside?” she asked.

Evan Thies, a spokesperson for Adams’ campaign, cited the candidate’s history in law enforcement and called any suggestion he lacks a strong policy sense on criminal justice issues “incredibly insulting.”

‘There to Protect Us’

As Brooklyn borough president, Adams has urged the de Blasio administration to pare back its plan to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement.

Adams, a former NYPD captain, supports shutting down the jail complex on Rikers Island — but also said he wants to hear concerns raised by community groups in Chinatown and Mott Haven where two of the new jails are set to be built.

“We have to look at placing of the new jails and make sure the incoming Council persons agree with the locations,” he said during his Oct. 20 debate with Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa.

Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa face-off on Oct. 20, 2021, in the first of the two televised mayoral debates.
Eric Adams and Curtis Sliwa face-off on Oct. 20, 2021, in the first of the two televised mayoral debates.
Via NBCNewYork.com

Adams has also stressed that correction officers and their needs must be highlighted, at a time when the union is decrying a rising rate of assaults on officers.

He’s refused to say whether he’d keep in place Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who has feuded with the union and is a prime Pitta Bishop target for lobbying, records show.

“Everyone is talking about what is happening to the inmates,” Adams told NY1 political anchor Errol Louis. “But guess what? The correction officers didn’t do anything to end up in Rikers Island. They’re there to protect us.”

‘Eric Adams is Eric Adams’

Adams has long advocated on behalf of city correction officers — and against changes demanded by criminal justice reformers.

In 2018, he urged “reexamination” of a de Blasio policy eliminating solitary confinement for incarcerated people ages 21 and under — suggesting it should still be an option used with “violent offenders.”

Adams’ call, alongside then-COBA President Elias Husamudeen, came in the wake of an ambush of a correction officer by four detainees, all under 21 years old. The officer, Jean Souffrant, suffered bleeding on his brain and a fractured spine near his neck.

“We have to make jails safer for both corrections officers and non-violent offenders,” the borough president said at the time.

The news conference was unusual: Borough presidents have no direct power over how city jails are operated and rarely engage in corrections issues.

Adams continued to say during his campaign for mayor that he would end solitary confinement only for non-violent detainees in city jails.

Bill Farrell, a spokesperson for Pitta Bishop, said the firm “wasn’t bringing any agenda” to Adams. “Eric Adams is Eric Adams,” Farrell added.

Michael Skelly, a COBA spokesperson, declined to comment, aside for noting the union has launched a campaign for tougher punishments of detainees who sexuallly assault or harass officers.

Benny Boscio Jr., president of COBA, speaks at a rally for correction officer rights, at the entrance to Rikers Island, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021.
Benny Boscio Jr., president of COBA, speaks at a rally for correction officer rights, at the entrance to Rikers Island, Aug. 16, 2021.
Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

In June, the city Board of Correction approved new rules the de Blasio administration says will effectively end solitary confinement in city jails.

Research in the city jail system has shown that Black and Hispanic inmates are more likely than whites to be placed in solitary. A 2014 report by Dr. Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for the Correction Department, found that detainees sent to solitary were nearly seven times more likely to try to hurt or kill themselves.

Medical experts also cite research that shows that extreme isolation behind bars causes long-term health issues, especially for teens and young adults. Inmate advocates contend that solitary confinement can be replaced by larger holding areas where the detainees are given intensive counselling and provided with added mental health care.

‘Stop the Bottleneck’

On Sept. 13, Adams visited Rikers Island, where 13 detainees have died so far this year, and more than a thousand officers calling out sick each day amid skyrocketing violence. Overall, 14 people have died in city jails in 2021.

Adams called for a series of changes, most supported by COBA, to address what many are calling a humanitarian crisis.

Among his proposals are more funds for the prosecutor’s office located at Rikers Island to expedite criminal cases against inmates — particularly cases of assault and sexual assault against inmates and officers. Adams also wants to make sure detainees make court dates at a time when staffing shortages lead to missed hearings.

“What we need to do is stop the bottleneck,” he said during the Oct. 20 debate. “Let’s get them to court.”

He has also proposed “emergency build-out of off-site secure facilities that include support for inmates who are dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues.”

In addition, he’s suggested the Correction Department end housing gangs by affiliation and ban on forced triple-shifts for corrections officers. COBA is pressing lawmakers to make triple shifts illegal and has long argued against housing units made up of all the same gang.

Rikers Punitive Segregation
A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.
Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Still, Thies says that the mayoral frontrunner isn’t always in lockstep with the union.

He notes that Adams backs big initiatives vehemently opposed by the union — including the borough jails plan, a vaccine mandate for all city workers and last year’s repeal of 50-a, the state law that shielded law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records from the public.

Adams also supports the recently signed “Less is More” Act, which bars parole officers from automatically tossing people on parole back into jail if they violate curfew or fail to notify their parole officers of a change in employment.

“Eric has consistently called for measures to improve the horrific conditions in our jails for years, including criminal justice reforms and additional mental health services that reduce unnecessary incarceration, investments that protect both inmates and correction officers, and the timely transition to community jails to allow for the closure of Rikers,” Thies said.

A Push to Dump Schiraldi

He declined to say whether Adams intended to keep Schiraldi in charge of the Department of Correction. After his appointment in May, Schiraldi, a criminal justice reformer, told THE CITY he’d like to stay when the next administration takes over.

But COBA and the union representing jail captains intensely dislike Schiraldi’s policies and will likely lobby the next mayor to install someone more in line with their demands, multiple jail insiders said.

COBA contends the city needs to hire 2,000 more officers to meet growing demands. Schiraldi has gotten City Hall to pay for 600 new officers but only around 130 have so far been hired and trained, according to multiple sources.

Vincent Schiraldi speaks at John Jay College in 2017.
Vincent Schiraldi speaks at John Jay College in 2017.
John Jay College/YouTube

Jail experts, including a federal monitor overseeing the department, maintain the current 7,500 staffing ratio compared to 5,496 detainees is the biggest in the country. Union officials note not all officers are on duty at the same time.

Jail experts contend that officers assigned to cushy posts outside of housing facilities should be brought back into those areas while other people can tackle clerical or administrative work.

COBA President Benny Boscio Jr. was transferred during the Bloomberg administration to Bronx Criminal Court before he took the helm of the union, according to Martin Horn, who served as Correction Commissioner then.

COBA is also upset Schiraldi has ordered all officers who call out sick to be examined by a city contracted doctor at Mt. Sinai hospital in Manhattan, according to multiple jail insiders.

By all accounts, the move has helped reduce the number of officers calling out sick and the number of officers forced to work triple shifts has gone down, the jail insiders said.

The union is also challenging Schiraldi’s move to automatically suspend officers who are out for 30 days or longer without permission.

As for the broader jail closure, Jonathan Lippman, the former state chief judge who chaired the independent commission that pushed the city to create new jails to replace Rikers Island, believes Adams is dedicated to the plan.

“He understands the disaster that Rikers is,” Lippman said. “And I think he has the vision, credibility and know-how to make sure this happens.”

“I’m very upbeat about the prospect of Eric Adams becoming mayor,” he added, noting he has talked to him multiple times about the closure plan and is not worried about his ties to Pitta Bishop.

Some jail veterans believe Adams’ ties to COBA will help the Correction Department.

“The good news is you can’t be at war with your workforce, so I don’t think Adams will,” said Horn, though he added the candidate’s Pitta Bishop connection “certainly clouds the picture.”

Six-Figure Payments

Adams’ ties to the firm run deep.

His campaign put Pitta LLP on a regular monthly retainer in July 2018, paying the firm $179,000 through Aug. 23, according to city Campaign Finance Board records.

The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents approximately 7,500 officers, is one of the Pitta Bishop’s biggest clients. The firm represents 94 clients and took in $4.9 million in compensation as of the latest filings of 2020, according to a state report.

The Correction Captains’ Association is also a client as well as the union representing NYPD detectives.

Vincent Pitta, the founding and managing partner of Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLC, is a “friend” of former President Donald Trump, according to a report in Politico.

He used that connection to lobby on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for “Infrastructure; pension reform; general labor issues; public housing; [and taxation],” public filings show.

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