Caving to weeks of pressure from lawmakers and advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Rikers Monday afternoon, but left the details of what he saw inside the troubled facilities mostly unsaid.
"What I saw is work that needs to be done," de Blasio told reporters shortly after a two-hour visit which did not include members of the media and was focused on initiatives the administration has put in place in recent days in an effort to improve conditions.
For months now, the Department of Correction has been struggling to respond to staffing shortages along with a growing jail population that have created conditions some describe as a humanitarian crisis.
Detainees and their families have said they're lacking access to basic things like food and water and medical attention. Detainees also report they've been held in intake facilities for days in crowded cells designed to only fit a handful of people.
So far this year, 12 people have died while in the custody of the Department of Correction, five of them by suicide.
While some are supporting the release of inmates to alleviate conditions, others, like Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, don't think that's the solution.
"My position would be the people that are in Rikers Island worked awfully hard to get in there, and I’m worried about the people in New York City on the streets," Shea said in an interview on "Mornings On 1" Tuesday.
"My position would be the people that are in there deserve to stay in there," he added.
"My position would be the people that are in Rikers Island worked awfully hard to get in there, and I’m worried about the people in New York City on the streets," said @NYPDShea. "My position would be the people that are in there deserve to stay in there." pic.twitter.com/g8gOX9Itk4— Spectrum News NY1 (@NY1) September 28, 2021
The mayor toured the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC) and Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) alongside Department of Correction officials.
The two locations are key to his plan to alleviate crowding conditions on the island, but if things have in fact improved, the mayor declined to give much detail how.
“What I saw was intake facilities that had been now spaced out, cleaned up. We got a lot more work to do,” de Blasio said.
Officials said, as of this week, intake time has been decreased to an average of 10 hours, but de Blasio would not say if he saw what advocates and lawmakers reported seeing as recently as last week: crowded cells, a lack of running water, overflowing toilets and detainees lacking medical attention.
"Guys, I’m trying to explain to you the whole thing upsets me. I’m not gonna bring it down to one thing, the whole situation must be profoundly changed. We need to get off Rikers island,” he said.
The press was not allowed to accompany the mayor on his trip, his first to the complex since 2017. During his visit, de Blasio admitted he did not speak with any detainees or rank and file correction officers while he toured the jail.
“I did not, and I want to be very straightforward about that. My mission today was to talk about the work, to ask the experts what is needed next, what investments we have to make quickly and urgently,” de Blasio said.
The main goal for now, according to the mayor, is to decrease intake time, bring down the jail population and end triple shifts by correction officers.
For months, thousands of officers have been failing to report for duty or calling out sick.
“The union has exacerbated this crisis. The union has acted in a incredibly irresponsible manner so today was not about speaking to the union. Yoday was not about talking to individual offices. Today was about the work we have to do and that’s what I focused on,” de Blasio said.
That comment drew the ire of Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio, who for weeks has called on the mayor to visit and tour the facilities alongside correction officers.
"He did not see one thing he needed to see,” Boscio said. "This is about correction officers and inmates, we’re not being treated fairly. You haven’t been here in four years and this isn’t about correction officers?"
The union has said the city should hire more correction officers and although the city has agreed to bring in an extra 600 officers next month, Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said the issue is not a lack of officers but rather some officers' outright refusal to report for duty.
"There are now more correction officers than there are incarcerated people," Schiraldi said. "So, it's not really just a staffing problem, it's a staff coming to work problem, because a third of them are unavailable to work on any given day."
The mayor emphasized the only way to fix conditions on Rikers is to ultimately close the troubled jail facility, but that plan is five years away and contingent on bringing down the jail population, which may happen long after de Blasio’s term is over.