In March 2019, the city’s investigative agency found that the Department of Correction’s system to track violence behind bars was “unreliable” and significantly undercounted dangerous incidents.
The Department of Correction underreported the number of inmate fights by more than 1,000 over just one three-month period, according to a Department of Investigation (DOI) letter to then-jails commissioner Cynthia Brann.
In response, the DOI at the time recommended that jail officials make a number of changes including totally digitizing their record-keeping.
That never happened.
The DOI’s 11-page referral letter painted a picture of an outdated record-keeping system that relies on physical logbooks that are not shared publicly and can be difficult to track.
Those old-school books, where jail officers manually detail basic information about incidents and detainee checkups during each tour, remain the de facto record system behind bars, according to multiple Correction Department staffers.
In March 2021, former mayor Bill de Blasio said the Correction Department was relying more than ever on data and was working to modernize its record system.
But he was totally unaware of the use of the physical logbooks.
“I will check into what’s going on with logbooks, and if it’s something that can be computerized or done better, I think that’s a valid question,” he told THE CITY during one of his daily press conferences. “I think it’s a valid question. We’ll get you an answer back on that.”
Now, more than three years after the DOI nudge, a Correction spokesperson says the department is trying to bring city jails into the 21st century.
“We are committed to evidence-based management, which is why we have created a new Management, Analysis, and Planning unit that is focused on utilizing data and research to bring our jails into the 21st Century,” said DOC spokesperson Danielle DeSouza.
“Our goal is to use this information to enhance operations, reduce violence and make our jails safer for everyone,” she added, noting the department adopted “certain recommendations” in the DOI referral letter.
Federal Takeover Threat
City jail officials may be running out of time.
Citing years of failed reforms, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams has threatened to push for the entire city Department of Correction to be put under a court-appointed receiver.
Correction Commissioner Louis Molina has promised to submit a new plan within three weeks and to make some immediate — unidentified — improvements.
“I don’t need to wait three weeks to take some actions,” Molina told federal judge Laura Taylor Swain during an April 26 hearing.
Immediate solutions are needed, experts say. Sixteen detainees died in New York City’s beleaguered jail system in 2021, the highest annual total in more than a decade. Three more people have died behind bars this year so far. City lockups are also facing a staffing crisis with more than 1,000 correction officers calling out sick on average each day, according to internal department records.
DeSouza said the department has adopted “certain recommendations … where appropriate.” That includes a new category that allows the department to capture “data on assaults on uniform staff without serious injury or use of force. Staff can now detail if an incident involves spitting, urine splashing, punching or kicking.
Mayor Eric Adams has argued his administration needs more time to turn around the scandal-scarred department. His proposed budget has earmarked funds to hire 578 new officers to replace staff expected to be fired for failing to show up to work or refusing to get the COVID vaccine.
The DOI letter also highlighted overwhelmed top staff at the DOC’s critical Central Operations Desk, where initial decisions about violent incidents are made.
‘You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know’
Criminal justice watchdogs and some union leaders have long argued city jail stats are unreliable. There have been multiple stories about how stabbings, slashings and officer abuses against detainees have not been logged in department records over the last decade.
Most recently, the New York Times wrote about a detainee who was paralyzed from the neck down and another who was put into a coma after officer beatings that were never internally recorded or made public.
“It’s unfortunate because you don’t know what you don’t know,” said Sarena Townsend, an acclaimed Correction Department investigator who was pushed out days after Molina took over.
The DOI’s 2019 report made 12 policy and procedural recommendations to reform the Correction Department’s record system.
Correction officials were reluctant to accept all the recommendations, citing everything from a lack of funds to rules already in place, according to DOC’s written response to the letter at the time. All told, the department denied six recommendations, partially accepted four and agreed to fully enact two.
Asked what, if anything, the DOI did to make sure jail officials followed through with making the changes, a DOI spokesperson cited inter-agency privacy regulations and also said enforcement comes from within the relevant agency or City Hall.
“DOI does not publicly discuss inter-agency discussions,” said spokesperson Diane Struzzi, noting that the department “generally [only] tracks and monitors all its recommendations” — not enforce them.
“The power of DOI’s recommendations is that they are publicly posted and tracked on DOI’s website and so City public officials, as well as the public, can see whether an agency has implemented or rejected a particular recommendation,” she added.
THE CITY obtained the letter and its recommendations in 2019 after filing a Freedom of Information Law request. Members of the public can track the recommendations — and progress of possible changes — at the DOI’s Policy and Procedure Recommendations portal.
Struzzi noted the DOI can commence a new probe if the department receives complaints that an issue remains despite the implementation of a recommendation.
“Enforcement of DOI’s recommendations comes from the relevant city agency and City Hall,” she said.
Former DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, whom Adams replaced right away, said the record keeping recommendations were never a primary focus.
“In my seven months in charge this was not on my radar,” he said, noting he was totally unfamiliar with the report.
“There were so many other urgent matters that were just staring me down in terms of absences, deaths, stabbings, unstaffed posts and people not getting to medical appointments.”
Issues with the outdated record keeping system, Schiraldi added, raise concerns about the internal records the department is now sharing with the federal monitor and court overseeing the case.
“It’s going to be difficult to know how reliable the information the court gets in the next six months,” he said, noting the federal monitor has complained about not getting updated data on the number of officers calling out sick. “It makes it a bit ripe for manipulation.”