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Justice Delayed: City Jail Staff Shortage Keeps Detainees From Getting to Court

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A Department of Correction bus leaves Rikers Island, Sept. 13, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The staffing crisis at the city’s troubled jail system has become so dire that many detainees aren’t getting to court, according to multiple jail sources and public defender groups. 

Only 34 out of 52 people with scheduled proceedings at Queens Criminal Court on Tuesday had made it there from local lockups as of 3 p.m., Department of Correction records obtained by THE CITY show. 

Similar failures to transport detainees have plagued courthouses across the city in recent weeks, public defenders say. 

“It’s a tremendous problem and it’s getting worse day by day,” said Tim Rountree, attorney in charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Queens criminal trial office. 

Rountree said he got messages from three lawyers Tuesday asking if he knew why their clients weren’t brought to court. 

Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association, offered an explanation: “The jails are overwhelmed and understaffed.” 

He said he recently saw four packed Correction Department buses waiting outside a facility on Rikers Island. Staffers insider were too busy to get detainees off the buses, according to Russo. 

More than 1,000 correction officers have been calling out sick on any given day over the past several months, forcing others to work double and sometimes triple shifts. Deaths and self-harm incidents are up among detainees, spurring an emergency report filed last month by a federal monitor, who declared “disorder and chaos” are roiling city jails. 

Mayor Vows ‘Any Action Necessary’

The revelations of delayed justice came a day after a group of politicians visited the scandal-scarred island and decried conditions — with some officials saying they witnessed an attempted suicide. One politician asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to send in the National Guard to help on Rikers. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio responded Tuesday by unveiling a five-point “Emergency Rikers Relief” plan that calls for moving NYPD officers to courts to free up correction officers stationed there to go back to Rikers Island and other city jails. 

“New York City will take any action necessary to keep everyone safe throughout the justice system,” de Blasio said in a statement. “These reforms will do just that — both by taking immediate steps to put officers back on duty, and by making deeper reforms to reduce the number of incarcerated New Yorkers.” 

He also blamed the court system for the increased number of people behind bars. 

“We’ve got to get the larger criminal justice system up and running,” he told reporters, noting 1,500 people have been held for over a year waiting for their trials to start. 

The mayor said he plans to “toughen accountability for AWOL staffers” with automatic 30-day suspensions for people who don’t show up for work. City correction officers have “unlimited” sick leave and can stay out for as long as medically necessary. 

Jails boss Vincent Schiraldi

John Jay College/YouTube

City Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi recently began requiring all staff who call out sick to be checked by a city doctor. The move has reduced the number of absences and will soon be expanded to staff away on long-term sick leave, according to Schiraldi. 

Jail advocates slammed the mayor’s plan, arguing that the only way to ease the crisis is to free hundreds of people facing low-level offenses. 

“We know what fundamental change is really needed — we need a mayor who stands up to veiled race-baiting and outright lies from law enforcement,” said Darren Mack, co-director of Freedom Agenda, a group advocating for decarceration. 

The Legal Aid Society is calling for the immediate release of more than 250 people serving less than a year for low-level crimes. Officials should require them to serve the remainder of their short sentences on work release, according to the defender group.

“It is simply unconscionable and unworkable that significant and immediate steps to decarcerate Rikers Island and other local jails are not a fundamental part of this plan,” said Tina Luongo, who leads the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society

‘No End in Sight’

The staffing crunch means that jail officials are using the department’s centralized busing system to transport detainees around Rikers Island or to the hospital, instead of to court, according to Russo, who represents top jail supervisors. 

In the past, people being moved within the island or seeking medical help were transferred via vans at each of the 10 jails on the island, Russo said.

For some people locked up, the lack of transportation means they haven’t been able to testify before grand juries that may end up deciding to not allow the criminal case against them to move forward. 

“The system has been broken, but it has never been at this level where the courts are using the jail to warehouse people indefinitely,” said Yung-Mi Lee, legal director of Brooklyn Defender Services. 

Manhattan Criminal Court in Lower Manhattan

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Sometimes public defenders and judges are told detainees refused to come to court or to appear via video from a jail feed, according to Lee and other public defenders. But their clients later say they were never offered a ride, according to the public defenders. 

Detainees are also missing virtual court hearings because there aren’t enough officers to escort them to the areas with the video hookups, according to jail sources. 

“Those excuses being made...are just not accurate,” said Rountree. “It’s one thing to have a staffing shortage but it’s another thing to blame the nonproduction on a made-up story. That adds insult to injury.” 

“It’s a complete shutdown of the ability of the lawyers to communicate with clients,” he added. “There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.” 

In one instance, Martha Grieco, a defense attorney, said her client wasn’t produced for four court dates in June and once this month. 

“I wasn’t able to share the discovery [information] or a new offer that the DA made,” she said, noting the trial had to be delayed until she could meet her client at Rikers. 

A Correction Department spokesperson compiled the number of missed court dates over the past several months. But City Hall declined to make the figues public, according to a source familiar with the internal discussion. 

A spokesperson for de Blasio, said he hadn’t seen the data, but would check. 

Death and Disarray

In May, the shortage of correction officers was so severe that jail officials put a Rikers Island facility housing seriously mental ill detainees on lockdown. 

Some 1,200 correction officers called out sick that day and another 700 or so were on medically restricted duty for various health reasons, Correction Department records show. That forced some officers to work triple or quadruple shifts. 

On Monday, the family of a man who died in a Rikers Island cell a month later charged in a court filing that he would still be alive if the exhausted correction officer supervising him had not left his post 15 hours earlier.

Before leaving his post, the officer in the area had been working for over 20 hours without relief and begged to be replaced, union officials said.

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