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City Jails Scrap Last Remnants of Pricey Consultant Plan as Deaths Mount

A fifth person this year died behind bars at Rikers Island on Wednesday morning — the first woman in three years — just hours after officials announced they were overhauling their last overhaul.

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Family and supporters people who died on Rikers Island rallied at City Hall, May 17, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

In 2018, the city Department of Correction began using a new detainee classification process created at great expense by consulting group McKinsey & Company. 

The de Blasio administration had paid the white-shoe firm $27.5 million to create the system that used an algorithm based on a host of factors — including age, possible gang affiliation, and any prior history in jail — to determine where to house people behind bars with the least risk for confrontation. 

On Tuesday, jail Commissioner Louis Molina announced that the pricey system — widely criticized for failing to reduce violence — will be formally scrapped after just four years as part of the department’s court-mandated overhaul plan

Meanwhile, just hours after that new plan was revealed, a 31-year-old woman died inside the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island of an apparent drug overdose, officials said. Mary Yehuda was initially revived after being given Narcan but passed away in Elmhurst Hospital shortly afterwards at 5:11 a.m., according to multiple jails sources. 

Yehuda, who was being held on $10,000 bail since February stemming from a robbery charge in The Bronx, was the fifth detainee to die in Department of Correction custody this year. 

“Ms. Yehuda’s passing fills us with sadness, every life here is precious,” DOC Commissioner Louis Molina said. “Our thoughts are with her family and loved ones.”

While 16 people died behind bars in 2021, Yehuda is the first woman to pass away at Rikers since Layleen Polanco. The 27-year-old transgender woman died inside a solitary-confinement cell on June 7, 2019, galvanizing the movement to stop the use of so-called punitive segregation in New York and beyond.

The latest fatality comes as the Adams administration faces the threat of a federal takeover of the city jail system rocked by mass absenteeism, a spike in violence and detainee self harm

The Inmate Dilemma

As for the new detainee classification system, jail officials have long struggled where to place new detainees to reduce the likelihood of fights. Top jail supervisors have traditionally tried to avoid creating housing units based on gang affiliation, according to current and former jail insiders. 

Units made up of just one gang tend to get along with each other but also have the ability to gang up on the officers in the area and are more likely to join forces to ignore basic orders, jail experts say. 

Housing units mixed with people from at least two different gangs as well as some people who are totally unaffiliated are considered the golden standard, according to criminologists

But other factors are also important such as a person’s prior criminal history, age, and possible previous record in jail. 

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

Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Shortly after former Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, his top deputy, Anthony Shorris, hired McKinsey to conduct a deep look into how the DOC decides where to place new detainees. McKinsey was also charged to evaluate other ways the department operated. 

After three years, the firm concluded that a new four-tiered system, known as the Housing Unit Balancer, or HUB, should be put in place. It replaced the three-tiered system put in place by former Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro. 

But violence continued to go up and the new classification program was widely panned by rank-and-file officers, jail union leaders told THE CITY. 

“There was a lot of disappointment with the McKinsey stuff,” said former Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi who was pushed out after Mayor Eric Adams took office. 

“It made the whole city sour,” he added, noting that it was spearheaded by Shorris, who later took a job with McKinsey after he left City Hall in 2017. 

Shorris and representatives for McKinsey did not respond to requests for comment. 

As a result of the poor outcomes of the McKinsey plan, Schiraldi hired James Austin, a veteran jail expert and academic who has worked with lockups throughout the country, to revamp how new detainees are labeled and where they should be put. That plan is the one Molina is now implementing. 

Jail officials did not immediately disclose how much Austin was paid. 

And Austin was no stranger to the city jail system. 

Schriro, the correction commissioner from 2009 to 2104, had also hired him to redo the classification system when she served during the end of the Bloomberg administration, jail records show. 

“It’s a revolving door of stupidity and poor decisions,” one high-ranking jail official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told THE CITY. 

“We changed from that system because it wasn’t working, now we are reverting back to it,” the jail insider said. 

A More Fluid System

The Austin system places people in three tiers based on their possible risk: low, medium or high. Under the new classification, people will also be re-evaluated every 60 or 90 days. 

The McKinsey system rarely allowed detainees to change their classification, according to multiple jail insiders. 

“You got your [risk assessment] score when you started and your score never got better,” Schiraldi. 

The Austin system, by contrast, incentivizes people to behave better because they can earn more recreation time or other perks when they are placed in a lower-risk category, Schiraldi added. 

The entrance to Rikers Island on Hazen Street in Queens, Jan. 21, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Over the years, the inmate classification system has been changed by almost every new jails commissioner. 

But it is not the only way the jail decides where to place detainees. 

When COVID first gripped the city in March 2020, detainees would sometimes refuse to let a new person into their unit, essentially rendering the system useless. In those cases, the detainees would frequently threaten to either beat up the new person or officers in the area and would physically block the entrance.

Also, Schiraldi said when he first took over as commissioner he discovered that department officials were using both the old Austin and newer McKinsey inmate classifications systems.

“Because it was just in there,” he said, referring to the department’s computer system. “It’s all automated.” 

Jail officials said the result was part of the chaos that has led to a massive spike in the number of stabbings and slashings among detainees and assaults on staff.

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