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City Jails Roiled by ‘Disorder and Chaos,’ Feds Say as Correction Boss Quits

Outgoing Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann speaks during board meeting in lower Manhattan, July 9, 2019.
Outgoing Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann speaks during board meeting in lower Manhattan, July 9, 2019.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The city Department of Correction suffers from a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos,” with the use-of-force rate against inmates hitting a five-year high, according to a new report from the federal monitor overseeing New York’s jails.

Hours before the scathing report’s release, Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann announced she will be resigning at the end of the month.

She’s leaving behind a department plagued with a backlog of 1,445 officer disciplinary cases and chronic staffing shortages, according to the report, which covers the last six months of 2020. Earlier this month, a spike in jail officers calling out sick forced the lockdown of the largest facility on Rikers Island.

The damning report marked federal monitor Steve Martin’s 11th dispatch since he was appointed in the summer of 2015 as part of a sweeping settlement tied to a class-action suit by a group of city inmates. His report revealed that many key statistics chronicling life behind bars are actually getting worse.

“The monitoring team remains very concerned about the overall state of reform within the department,” the 342-page report said. “While certain troubling use of force tactics have been curtailed (e.g., fewer improper head strikes), the pervasive level of disorder and chaos in the facilities is alarming.”

The report covers a period when jail officials battled the coronavirus, which at its peak spurred releases that brought the city’s jails population down to 3,990. The population has steadily increased since and is now higher than it was before COVID-19 hit last spring.

Staffed Up and Down

Some 8,100 correction officers oversee approximately 5,619 inmates.

Last Thursday THE CITY reported city jail officials put a Rikers Island facility housing seriously mental ill detainees on lockdown on May 2 because not enough officers were available. An estimated 1,200 correction officers called out sick and another 700 or so were on medically restricted duty, department records show.

The union representing correction officers contends more staff needs to be hired to prevent future lockdowns. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration says it plans to add 400 officers but hasn’t set a date for the academy class yet.

Martin, though, described the current staffing ratio as “highly unusual” and “one of the richest among the systems.”

“The department struggles to manage its large number of staff productively, to deploy them effectively, to supervise them responsibly, and to elevate the base level of skill of its staff,” the review said.

Persistent Violence

As for violence, the overall number of so-called use-of-force incidents rose to 648 in the month of December 2020, the report said.

By contrast, there were about 390 uses of force per month and 9,803 inmates when the federal monitor issued his first report in May 2016.

“The sheer volume of force is concerning given the underlying dynamics between staff and people in custody are negatively impacted by these incidents,” Martin wrote in the report.

More than half the incidents — or 1,623 of 3,076 — that occurred during the monitoring period had either “procedural errors or involved avoidable and/or problematic force,” the report read.

The Legal Aid Society said the report shows Correction Department leaders have been unable or unwilling to take the actions necessary to dismantle the culture of brutality and incompetence in the jails.

Martin — also known as the Nunez monitor, named for the lead plaintiff in the original class-action suit — blamed the new backlog of disciplinary cases on the Correction Department’s push to resolve old probes of alleged abuse.

A picture from the federal monitor’s report shows how a response team flooded an area to deal with two inmates.
A picture from the federal monitor’s report shows how a response team flooded an area to deal with two inmates.
Nunez Independent Monitor Report

“Not surprisingly, the efforts to eliminate the backlog of investigations has now resulted in a backlog of disciplinary cases that must be addressed,” the report said.

Martin recommended that jail officials work with the city’s administrative hearings agency “to devise various creative solutions.”

City correction officers are entitled to have their cases adjudicated by an independent administrative judge.

But the process frequently takes months and in 2019 officers escaped possible discipline in 2,001 instances because probes dragged on past an 18-month statute of limitation, according to an earlier federal monitoring report.

Gothamist/WNYC and THE CITY jointly revealed the new backlog of cases last month.

Identifying Problems Not Enough

Overall, Martin blamed top jail officials for failing to do more to reform the troubled agency.

“The issues plaguing the department are systemic and deep-seated and have been passed down and accepted by all levels of staff across the agency,” he said. “The changes that must occur require a granular focus on fundamental attitudes, correctional practices, and operations within the agency.”

Martin, an Austin, Texas, resident, said it’s “frustrating and disappointing that change has not yet been realized.”

He noted that reforms will not take effect “by tinkering around the edges — a wholesale change in the way staff approach individuals in custody is needed.”

Criminal justice reform advocates protest outside Washington Height’s Edgecombe Correctional Facility, calling out unsafe conditions in jails during the coronavirus outbreak, Feb. 8, 2021.
Criminal justice reform advocates outside Washington Height’s Edgecombe Correctional Facility, Feb. 8, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Just “identifying and articulating” what needs to be done and creating plans to make that happen is not enough, he said. The department, he added, is incapable of reforming itself “without some guidance.”

The report’s release comes after de Blasio, who vowed to reform the Correction Department when he first took office, said in March he couldn’t remember the last time he visited Rikers Island.

His last official visit was in June 2017, months before winning his second term.

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