Tablets for all detainees. Car service rides home and back for officers working triple shifts. And fixing hundreds of broken cell doors in the jail housing young adults.
Those are some of the key elements of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi’s “comprehensive post-pandemic recovery” #NewDayDOC plan announced Friday.
“It’s a really complicated, layered bunch of stuff,” Schiraldi told THE CITY shortly after the plan was released.
Using a baseball reference, he said the plan includes “a bunch of singles,” meaning common sense ideas aimed to improve safety of staff and detainees.
Schiraldi, 62, was appointed commissioner in May and has indicated he’d like to remain in the post when the new mayoral administration comes on board in less than six months.
He’s cognizant that the call for tablets for detainees will likely draw the most attention. Schiraldi said the pandemic showed the devices are necessary to help inmates maintain a connection to their loved ones and attorneys.
All inmates should have the digital devices by October. People in the state prison system already have tablets but that system, which was provided free-to-taxpayers by an outfit called Jpay, has been criticized as the company charges prisoners and their families for email “stamps” and other services.
Schiraldi’s plan was announced hours after the union representing rank-and-file city jail officers sued the Correction Department in Queens Supreme Court — arguing that it has imposed “inhumane conditions” on its members by making them work triple shifts, the Daily News reported.
In May, the lack of available officers got so bad city jail officials put a Rikers facility housing seriously mental ill detainees on lockdown because there were not enough staff, THE CITY reported.
Under the new plan, department officials will require all uniformed officers to work double shifts before anyone works a triple. The department will provide car service rides home and back for staff working triples as of July 24. They will also get catered meals.
Schiraldi also intends to “increase fair and swift accountability for AWOLS and unverified sick calls” to boost staff, reducing the need for triples and overtime.
Earlier this month, the number of officers out sick was up to 1,367, according to the department. By contrast, an average of 500 officers were out sick on any given day in 2019.
The new commissioner hopes that the number will begin to go down over the next several weeks.
“I don’t want to feed people on triples better,” he said. “I want them to not work triples. I don’t want to catch people and punish them. I want them to come to work and feel like it’s a decent place to work.”
The recently passed city budget increases for 400 additional correction officers. Some advocates for detainees say that additional numbers could spell more violence, while union officials argue higher numbers are needed to deal with outages.
‘Complicated as Hell’
Another component of the plan entails fixing the approximately 500 broken cell doors at the Robert N. Davoren Complex, the Rikers Island facility where young adults are housed. Violence in the area is nine times higher than at other city lockups, according to Steve Martin, the federal monitor overseeing the department.
Detainees have long jammed and broken the electronic locking doors as a way to avoid cell lockdowns.
“Jail doors are complicated as hell,” Schiraldi said. “They are a specialty item. The really good ones don’t fit in the space.”
Jail staff has been knocking down walls to make space for doors to fit while moving detainees out of those areas during the construction. Schiraldi expects 250 of the new doors to be installed by the end of the month.
He also seeks to streamline the officer disciplinary system by moving most lower severity use of force disciplinary cases back to the command level where supervisors will handle cases internally.
Hundreds of disciplinary cases are pending before the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Those cases often take months to snake their way through the system.
Some never make it to the finish line: Over the first six months of 2019, officers escaped possible discipline in 2,001 instances because probes dragged on past an 18-month statute of limitations, according to the federal monitor’s report covering that period.
Some officers repeatedly get minor punishments without ever facing serious consequences for multiple offenses, according to an analysis by THE CITY and Gothamist/WNYC published in April.
Another key proposal in Schiraldi’s plan includes changing how detainees are disciplined when they are involved in serious infractions. Those people will now be denied access to non-essential commissary items, like extra food.
Union officials have long argued that sort of punishment should be used to keep order in the jails. But inmate advocates have countered that those measures unfairly block detainees rights to basic services.
“I don’t think we have any perfect solutions,” said Schiraldi, who before becoming commissioner advocated for better treatment of people behind bars.
“It’s a way to hold people accountable in a way that doesn’t take away anything essential,” he added. “You really don’t need Ramen noodles to live.”
The department has previously levied $25 commissary fines against inmates for serious infractions. All told, the city Correction Department has levied nearly $1.2 million in inmate fines for infractions since 2015, THE CITY reported in February 2020.
That fine is set to be officially eliminated in November as part of a broader change to the solitary confinement rules by the city’s Board of Correction. Jail officials voluntarily got rid of the fine last week.
One inmate advocate who is frequently critical of the department welcomed the broader plan.
“I feel positive that they are working really hard to change around a system that’s just a disaster,” said Jennifer Parish, director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center Mental Health Project.
She added, “It seems like they are trying to focus on the common humanity of the people who work there and the people who are incarcerated.”