Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped Vincent Schiraldi to run the city’s troubled jails Wednesday — and the criminal justice reformer is getting a head start on making his case to stay on when the next mayor takes over.
Schiraldi, 62, the co-director of the Columbia University Justice Lab, said he’d consider remaining in place as Correction Department commissioner beyond Dec. 31, de Blasio’s last day in office.
“I’d be open to” staying on the job, Schiraldi told THE CITY. “I can go back to Columbia if the [new] mayor decides they don’t want me. I may hate the job.”
Schiraldi formerly served as head of the city’s Probation Department from 2010 to 2014 during the Bloomberg administration. In the intervening years, he’s been an outspoken advocate from reducing the number of people in jail and on parole.
“Vinny’s a big-picture guy,” said Martin Horn, who led the Correction Department during the Bloomberg administration.
“He’s interested in the broad policy issues about the use of confinement and reducing incarceration,” added Horn, who now advises correction departments throughout the country.
During a brief interview, Schiraldi said he wants to focus on reducing violence at Rikers Island and other city-run jails.
“Nobody is at their best at work when they don’t feel safe,” he said. “Violence and safety are the number one issue.”
He also wants to boost the number of programs for detainees to both keep them busy while locked up and help them upon release.
All programs and visits have been cancelled since the pandemic hit last spring. Schiraldi said he’d confer with the city’s health experts about opening up when he takes over next month.
‘Disorder and Chaos’
Schiraldi was a finalist for the top jail job in 2017 but de Blasio chose Cynthia Brann, who announced her resignation Tuesday. Brann had spent more than 20 years working for Maine’s Department of Corrections before coming to the city.
Her tenure in New York has been plagued by a steady increase in the number of use-of-force cases by officers against inmates, according to multiple reports by a federal monitor overseeing the department.
Steve Martin, the federal monitor, said the department suffers from a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” in a scathing report released Tuesday. The use-of-force rate against inmates hit a five-year high over the last six months of 2020, amid the pandemic, according to Martin’s 11th dispatch.
The department also has a backlog of 1,445 officer disciplinary cases and chronic staffing shortages, the report said. The lack of available officers got so bad earlier this month jail officials locked down the largest facility on Rikers Island, as THE CITY reported.
A day after the report’s release, criminal justice reform advocates protested de Blasio’s plan to add 400 new Correction officers.
Martin noted it would be difficult for a new commissioner to overhaul a department that has failed to meet basic reform requirements.
“The upcoming leadership changes at the highest level of the department will impact the agency for many months,” the report said.
“Although expected, there is no question that these transitions will only further
disrupt the department’s work and their ability to focus on or advance the various initiatives required for progress,” the monitor’s dispatch said.
Schiraldi also comes on as the de Blasio administration seeks to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement.
But some inmate advocates — including the sister of Layleen Polanco, whose 2019 death at Rikers spurred reforms — argue the changes don’t go far enough.
They point out that the designated cells are merely different-looking cages with fencing, instead of a closed-up room.
Inmates in so-called punitive segregation would get a minimum of 10-hours outside of their cell each day under the proposed “risk management accountability system,” with a three-tiered “progression model.”
Detainees would also receive a minimum of five hours of programming and be allowed to socialize with one other inmate in an infirmary area on Rikers Island. But the proposed new rules, which must be approved by the city’s Board of Correction, don’t put a limit on how many days an inmate could spend in punitive segregation.
Schiraldi said he wasn’t looking to upend the proposal already in motion.
“I don’t want to pretend I can come in and make a new plan,” he said. “I want to do so in a way that’s safe. I’ve seen systems that pull out without preparing properly and it’s not a safe site.”
‘An Inspirational Leader’
His appointment was hailed by his old boss, Liz Glazer, who last year stepped down as head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice. Schiraldi served as her senior advisor there from March 2014 to September 2015.
“He’s an inspirational leader and has a lot of ideas,” she said. “He can bring a great perspective and energy to the department.”
But Schiraldi’s odds of staying on after de Blasio leaves office are slim — but not hopeless, said Michael Jacobson, who ran the Probation Department under Mayor David Dinkins and the Department of Correction during the Giuliani administration.
“Anyone who takes that job has to assume they will not be kept on,” Jacobson added. “But there’s always a few.”