Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Rikers Island on Monday for the first time in four years, though critics said he took a “sugar-coated” tour that didn’t include speaking with any detainees or correction officers.
De Blasio had been slammed for not visiting the island at all during his second term — especially recently, as massive staff shortages and a series of deaths have highlighted a growing health and safety crisis for all who are held or work there.
Speaking to reporters after his Monday afternoon visit to the Otis Bantum Correctional Center and Eric M. Taylor Center on the island, the mayor said he saw work being done to improve conditions — yet conceded had not talked to any inmates or correction officers.
“I did not, and I want to be very straightforward about that,” he said. “My mission today was to talk about the work being done, what’s needed next. To ask the experts, what is the additional next steps? What investments we have to make quickly and urgently.”
He declined to elaborate on what he saw, saying he was more concerned with the fixes being made.
To improve conditions at the troubled jail complex, the city will have to continue to reduce the detainee population, speed-up intake, work on staffing issues and improve health care, the mayor said.
“All these things need to happen immediately,” he said. “Fewer inmates, a faster intake, a better, more secure healthcare situation, and getting back to work the folks who have not been working.”
De Blasio also touted his administration’s embattled borough-based jails plan, saying the only real solution is to shut down Rikers and replace it with smaller facilities across the city.
“I’ve put the plan in place to get us the hell out of here,” he said. “It’s a place that is structurally broken, but within that we can make a lot of improvements in the short-term.”
‘This Is a Disgrace’
Last week, de Blasio announced some fixes for the island, including speeding-up intake and moving 100 NYPD officers there to escort detainees to court hearings, which should free-up correction officers.
The city also threatened to sue the union and suspend correction officers who skipped work or went absent without official leave. Up to 1,800 correction officers a day have been calling in sick, city officials say.
“If we have fewer people incarcerated here, if we have more staff coming to work, if we have help from places like the New York Police Department, then we’ll be able to, bit by bit, gradually reduce triples,” Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said, referring to the unhealthy practice of officers working triple shifts to cover for absences.
“And then, we’ll start to improve even further, because we’ll start to be able to create the kind of environment we want for everyone who’s here.”
Outside of the jail, Benny Boscio, Jr., president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, called the mayor’s visit “sugar-coated” — and said all detainees were cleared out before he came.
“Took him four years to get here and this is a disgrace, because they gave him a watered-down, sugar-coated tour today,” he said, noting that when legislators recently visited there were “wall-to-wall inmates, everywhere.”
De Blasio said later in an interview on NY1 that speaking with people detained or working on the island “was not part of the mission.”
‘It’s Hot as Hell’
When other elected officials visited, including City Council members and State Senate and Assembly members, they reported inhumane conditions. Some said they saw one man attempt suicide.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), who toured the facility separately on Monday, told THE CITY what stood out the most was the temperature.
“The infrastructure of Rikers Island… it’s a beautiful fall day: It’s hot as hell in that place,” he said.
“And I can only imagine what it would be like on a hot summer day,” he said. “So I think these are the types of things we have to address. There’s a lot of loss of hope. It’s very depressing to be on Rikers Island.”
Councilmembers Joe Borelli (R-S.I.) and Bob Holden (D-Queens) toured Rikers on Thursday, calling it “nightmarish.”
“What we saw yesterday was criminal and should be investigated by federal authorities,” they wrote in a joint statement.
Darren Mack, co-director of the prison-reform nonprofit Freedom Agenda, said de Blasio’s visit was “a little too late” following the deaths of 12 detainees this year. Five of them took their own lives.
“He should have been there when the first, or second, or third died,” said Mack. “It was like out of sight, out of mind until the crisis has been exacerbated to unprecedented levels.”
De Blasio’s visit followed a call by local members of Congress for President Joe Biden to “stabilize the current crisis” at Rikers.
One state lawmaker recently asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to bring the National Guard in to help at the complex, while the federal monitor charged with overseeing city jails last week decried the system’s “pervasive disorder and chaos.”