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Chaotic Inmate-Attack Rikers Training Drill Sends Nonprofit Staffer to ER

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The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.

Courtesy of the Department of Correction

A detainee in a work detail uniform came flying into an office area and began to violently attack a female correction officer on Rikers Island last November. 

Nearby staffers with the Osborne Association, a nonprofit that works with inmates, ran off to call for help and then with the assistance of another officer  kicked open a door leading to an exit, according to a jail official briefed on the Nov. 17 incident inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers. 

A “probe team” of armed correction officers came to the rescue, said the jail official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The probe team officers — known as turtles to inmates because of their body armor — pepper sprayed the alleged inmate attacker and pulled him off their frightened colleague.

Moments later, when an Osborne staffer came back to their work station in the area, they had an adverse reaction to the cloud of pepper spray hovering in the air. 

The employee was taken to Mt. Sinai Queens hospital in Astoria by ambulance and wasn’t able to return to work for about 10 days, according to Susan Gottesfeld, Osborne’s chief program officer and executive vice president. 

Later that same day, Osborne staffers got another shock: the attack  wasn’t a random act by an unhinged detainee. The entire assault was actually an unannounced training drill — with real pepper spray — and the inmate in a work detail uniform was really a dressed-up correction officer.

Nearly two months later, officials with the nonprofit are still seeking answers and an apology. 

“What was the point of the drill?” Gottsefeld asked. “We know it’s a jail and it’s dangerous. We accept that risk everyday. But correction staff creating unnecessary and terrifying situations? That’s not acceptable.” 

While that attack was fake, last year there were 419 inmate stabbings and slashings in city jails, the highest total in more than two decades. By contrast, there were 123 such assaults in 2020, jail records show. 

City jails also saw more than 7,000 use-of-force incidents by officers, including many to break up fights, records show. 

Wrong Kind of Training

Inmate advocates and reformers say the training drill sticks out as an example of the chaos and lack of oversight from jail supervisors. 

“Typically in any live drill scenario, pepper spray wouldn’t be used,” said Mark Cranston, a former acting Correction Department commissioner during the first year of the de Blasio administration in 2014. 

“It’s OK to surprise people, but there should be no physical interactions, especially when civilian staff is involved,” he added, noting that he wasn’t familiar with the November incident.  

Training exercises are also not supposed to take place near civilian staff, according to multiple former top jail officials. Instead, those employees are instructed about safety procedures in traditional classroom settings. 

Jail supervisors were trying to teach the officer in the office space area to keep the door to that location locked, according to a jail source familiar with what happened. But that should have been done by disciplining the officer and without any actual violence, the jail insider said. 

The mock hostage situation was not formally recorded in the department’s internal daily tracking system. No jail staff has been disciplined and it does not appear any probe has been launched into what happened, according to multiple jail sources. 

A Department of Correction spokesperson declined to comment. 

Former Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, a reform-minded de Blasio appointee who was overseeing the department at the time of the incident, said he instructed his head of programs to respond to concerns raised by the Osborne officials. 

Bad Drill Déjà Vu

It was not the first time staff from the Osborne Association got caught in the middle of a surprise training drill, according to the nonprofit: In 2018, a correction officer also dressed as an inmate pretended to attack another correction officer inside the Eric M. Taylor Center. A responding probe team used pepper spray to break up the fight. 

Afterward, former Chief of Department Hazel Jennings and department Deputy Commissioner Tim Farrell vowed to adjust how it operates those sorts of drills, according to Gottesfeld. 

They promised the organization that jail officials would inform them in advance of any future drills, Gottsefeld said. Osborne staffers would also not be asked to participate in any surprise training exercises and could leave the area before it happened, she added. 

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio tours Rikers Island with then-Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi (right) on Sept. 27, 2021.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The  Department of Correction’s disciplinary system is undergoing a years-long overhaul. The federal monitor overseeing the department requires all use of force incidents be reviewed. 

Earlier this month, as one of his first big moves, new jails Commissioner Louis Molina replaced Sarena Townsend, an acclaimed department investigator.

Townsend, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, on Thursday told the Daily News that Molina asked her to clear 1,000 cases over the next 100 days before she was ordered to resign. 

The incident also brings renewed attention to the broader calls to reform officer instruction. 

Currently, they are trained for five months inside a storefront in a strip mall in Queens as well as inside the George Motchan Center on Rikers. Jail experts and activists have long called for moving that to a more professional setting and extending the length of courses to at least eight months. 

The NYPD refused to share space when its new training headquarters in Whitestone was built during the Bloomberg administration. The Correction Department was eyeing a spot nearby that facility at the end of the de Blasio administration, according to a source.

‘Disorder and Chaos’ Continues

Meanwhile, an estimated 200 detainees on Rikers Island have been on a hunger strike since Friday to protest a COVID lockdown and other poor conditions. 

The inmates have refused Correction Department food but are eating items from the commissary, according to jail officials. 

On Tuesday, Molia asked the city Board of Correction, which oversees city jails, for more time to implement the highly-anticipated new system to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement. 

A so-called punitive segregation unit inside the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island.

Courtesy of the Department of Correction

“I can assure you that getting an implementation timeline in place is one of my top priorities,” Molina told the board Tuesday. “I have already started taking a hard look at various plans to see if there are ways to make them more efficient, more effective and more in keeping with the spirit of the [BOC] rules. I want to make sure that we explore all of our options.”

The city jail system has been roiled by what a federal monitor calls “disorder and chaos,” with inmate deaths and self-harm incidents up, rampant absenteeism and low vaccination rates among officers, and bleak conditions at intake centers.

Some elected officials have called for the National Guard and President Joe Biden to step in. Two men died at Rikers late last month, bringing the toll for 2021 up to 16, the highest total in years.

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