Why Are Slashings Surging in City Jails? We Asked Four People With Inside Knowledge.
A detainee who was attacked on Rikers Island, a former jail mental health counselor, a former commissioner, and a juvenile detention manager: All weigh in on the crisis and what can be done.
The figures are grim: There were 477 stabbings and slashings in New York City jails last year. That’s up from 420 in 2021 and 121 in 2020, according to correction department records obtained by THE CITY.
There were just 40 in 2017.
Many of the victims and culprits are younger people locked up fighting over things like phone usage, food, and gang affiliation, according to Department of Correction records and several jail insiders.
During a year-end press conference last month, however, Mayor Eric Adams hailed the performance of Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina in his first year on the job.
“I cannot be more proud of what Commissioner Molina is doing,” Adams told reporters gathered in the City Hall rotunda.
He said Molina has increased searches for weapons and drug contraband, “resulting in over 5,000 weapons and over 1,300 items of drug contraband this year.”
The number of officers calling out sick is also down from pandemic highs but department records show there are still hundreds out on any given day.
Adams notably did not mention the 19 deaths behind bars in 2022, the highest rate in 25 years.
Nor did he mention the spike in slashings and stabbings.
In fact, the DOC media team declined to share the exact number of such assaults in 2022. The figures were obtained via a department source who requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the data.
To get at the root issues behind the numbers, THE CITY spoke separately to four people who are, or were, to varying degrees on the front lines:
- Alfredo Perez, a detainee whose hand was broken in an attack at Rikers last year,
- Anne Petraro, a former jail medical clinician,
- Mark Cranston, a former acting commissioner and current warden in New Jersey, and
- Earl Dunlap, the former judicially appointed receiver of the juvenile jail in Chicago.
They were each asked two fundamental questions: Why has there been a spike in slashings? And what needs to be done to curb the violence?
Here’s what they had to say.
A Lack of Order
Alfredo Perez served 31 days in Rikers last year.
Perez: I was in C-76 [aka the Eric M. Taylor Center] on Rikers. I wasn’t feeling well and sleeping most of the day. There was one officer in the bubble [security area]. She was by herself. There are supposed to be two officers, an A and B post. There was no B post officer.
It got out of hand. I was assaulted by a cane. I went to the infirmary. They didn’t put a splint on me. My hand was basically broken for three weeks before anything was done. The officer walked off the post. They were on a double and just left the inmates there by themselves.
My experience is that there’s a lack of staffing and authority.
In my case, before I was assaulted, they put a woman [guard] in a house by herself with 30 men. How can a woman stop something like that? There’s no control, there’s no order. Somebody has to maintain order. Somebody has to get these guys under control.
They send a lot of people to Rikers Island but if there’s no structure what do you think is going to happen? Excuse my language but it’s going to be a clusterf***. It’s going to be a mess. You’ve got officers who just don’t care. You can sit there and smoke in their face. Officers aren’t doing their job.
Mark Cranston spent 23 years working for the city’s Department of Correction and briefly served as acting jails commissioner when former Mayor Bill de Blasio first took office. He’s currently the warden of the Office of Adult Corrections and Youth Services for Middlesex County, New Jersey.
Cranston: I was deputy chief of staff for [former DOC Commissioner Martin] Horn when there were 40 [slashings] in 2017. There was an intense pressure on intelligence. There was a huge network of [Correction Department] gang intelligence officers that knew each jail, were assigned to those jails, knew who everybody was, and who didn’t like who. They were very proactive ahead of a lot of incidents, to figure out, even if there was a slashing, they’d stop the kind of retaliatory stuff.
Mental Health Needs
Earl Dunlap served as the transitional administrator of the Cook County Illinois Juvenile Temporary Detention Center from 2007 to 2015. While in charge there, he implemented a series of reforms including eliminating patronage jobs and boosting training for new officers.
Dunlap: Part of the issue for me is the overall system that the vast majority, if not all, correctional environments are facing. They may be facing a smaller population [than years ago], but they’re facing a much more complex population. And in most cases, those are issues associated with serious mental health problems.
Now, why? The why is because somebody in their wisdom some years ago decided that they were going to close the vast majority of mental health and psychiatric hospitals, or settings for patients in need of mental health services, and go to a more community-based service.
Activists are very effective at tearing something down. The problem is that they are not at all effective at putting it back together again. In other words, we had a push to make a change. The change is made, but there’s nothing put in its place. So a lot of environments, including Rikers to a certain degree, are receiving many more complex [cases], seriously, with a history of disturbed and people with serious mental health problems in that environment.
Note: In the 2022 fiscal year, 50% of the jail population was diagnosed with some kind of mental health issue, and 16% was diagnosed with a serious mental health problem, according to the most recent Mayor’s Management Report.
Anne Petraro worked as a mental health counselor on Rikers Island from 2008 until 2018.
Petraro: There definitely are mental health issues, because [other inmates] manipulate the mentally ill to do things for them. So they’ll get the weapons from them or hold the weapons for them. Because no one’s going to suspect the schizophrenic. They befriend and use the less functioning inmates to carry out things for them.
When a correction officer comes into search they will check them and not the mentally ill inmate. It’s the culture in the jail: ‘How am I going to get what I need?’
But they do also make weapons from things like their pants. I think the way they manage the gangs and the rivalries needs to be worked out.
Dunlap: Another consideration is just the physical plant itself. Rikers is not necessarily what one would consider a state-of-the-art correctional environment. It’s old. It’s antiquated. It doesn’t promote any level of efficiency, in terms of how you deal with the jail population.
For me, the bottom line is that Rikers is just an open hole by which to push money down the hole that does the city and the community absolutely no good whatsoever. They’re just taking good money and chasing it after bad so to speak. And that’s the way it’s been for a long period of time. That environment, that physical plant, needs to be eliminated.
Note: Adams has called the ambitious plan to shut down Rikers and open four smaller, modern, borough-based detention facilities into question, citing a steady increase in the jail population. But City Hall is officially moving ahead with the project.
Cranston: It’s security equipment. I mean, clearly, I don’t know what the status at the DOC is in regards to body scanners and other things that they have the ability to obtain now. I don’t know where they are with that.
Perez: They are not using the X-ray body scan machines correctly. They don’t care. At the end of the day a lot of these officers aren’t worried and don’t want to fix the problems. They just let people in. For them it’s too much work. I’ve seen it plenty of times. They just make you walk through it [while it’s turned] off. They don’t even turn them on. It’s so bad an inmate can pull out anything, drugs or whatever, and they just look and stand there. That’s corrections for you.
Note: For years, city Department of Correction officials said they could reduce violence behind bars if only state lawmakers allowed them to use airport-like body scanners to search for hidden weapons on inmates and visitors. The full-body scanning devices went into use in 2019 after state law was changed to allow their use. Violence has only risen.
Dunlap: I think one of the one of the critical elements of running a correctional environment, no matter at what level — and some would argue, the single-most important factor in operations of those facilities, and the welfare of the population and the welfare of the staff — is a sound classification system.
Where, at the point of entry, they know who it is that they’re dealing with, what the problems may be, and what the person’s capability of acting out are. And where can that particular person be best served in that environment, whether it’s unit A or unit C, or whatever the case may be.
Perez: If I was in charge of things, one thing for sure is not let these gang members be in control. [The officers] need to be in control. They tend to make houses all one [gang] and it’s causing segregation and that needs to stop. It trickles out to the streets. We have to put our foot down. Rikers Island needs to close. We have to find better housing and better ways to assist the incarcerated people.
When I was attacked, it was basically gang members. They wanted control of the house. The YGz [gang].
I asked a correction officer if he was there to improve the department or if he was just there for 9 to 5. He’s like, ‘I’m just here for 9 to 5.’ That’s the problem. They are not there to improve the system. They are just there to collect a check. But if you’re there, why not try to help people?
(Interviews were lightly edited for length and clarity.)