In perhaps his most strongly worded report to date, the federal monitor for Rikers Island raised serious questions about the Department of Correction’s ability to manage the city’s jails safely and effectively, after five serious and life-altering incidents took place in just the past two weeks on the notorious jail complex.
The report was issued late Friday on the eve of a holiday weekend, and is the most serious criticism of the department since the Adams administration took over 17 months ago.
It states: "There is significant cause for concern about the imminent risk of harm to people in custody and concomitant practice failures by the Department. Not only are the incidents summarized above disturbing because of the unsafe practices utilized and severity of physical harm—including death—involved, but they also cast serious doubt on the Department’s compliance with a basic tenet of reform, which is to accurately record incidents so that underlying problems can be identified and resolved."
Those events include the last week’s death of Rubu Zhao after a “self harm incident,” where he jumped from the top floor of his housing unit and landed on the bottom floor. The monitoring team was notified 33 hours after the incident took place, learning about it through the media.
The report also highlights a use-of-force incident between correction staff and a detainee, during which the detainee ended up hospitalized and paralyzed. It refers to another incident involving a violent inmate assault where the victim was left alone and naked in a pen for at least three hours. That detainee was eventually hospitalized with internal bleeding and required intubation.
It also describes another use-of-force incident when an 80-year-old detainee, with possible cognitive impairment and serious health issues, was left restrained and alone in a pen for four hours. The individual was then hospitalized the following day. The department did not notify the monitor of this incident, and that detainee has since been compassionately released.
The monitor says there was also another time that a detainee was sent to the hospital and put on life support, and the monitor was not notified. According to the report, the department says the detainee suffered a heart attack and “does not suspect that any foul play occurred.” The monitor questioned that conclusion given the limited information available about this incident. The report says the detainee is not likely to survive.
In all of these incidents, according to the report, the correction department was not transparent with the monitoring team. In fact, prior to the report’s release Friday, the report states Correction Commissioner Louis Molina appeared to suggest to the monitor not to even disclose these incidents because it would “fuel the flames of those who believe that we cannot govern ourselves.”
The report concludes: "The issues raised in this Special Report raise profound uncertainties and significant questions about whether the Commissioner and agency officials are capable of managing such serious incidents, have the requisite objectivity and transparency necessary to address such incidents and advance the reforms, and are capable of engaging in effective collaboration with the Monitoring Team.”
The Rikers monitorship is part of a years-long lawsuit between the city, the Legal Aid Society and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District. Recently, the Legal Aid Society has requested the court consider a federal takeover of Rikers Island, arguing the city has not improved conditions there. The judge in the case has not been receptive to that idea so far.
In response to this report, Mary Lynne Werlwas, Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, released the following statement: “We are continuing to analyze this horrific report. Unfortunately, the violence and danger that the Monitor describes is the predictable result of the City's lack of control over its jails and its unwillingness to take strong measures to make the jails safer. The weak, narrow ‘Action Plan’ that the City touts as its path forward cannot and has not worked, and will continue to result in catastrophe.”
A statement from Correction Commissioner Louis Molina read, "Over the last 18 months, we have dramatically reduced violence, eliminated rampant absenteeism, improved critical aspects of our training, infused outside correctional expertise into our ranks, significantly improved court production, and made Rikers Island safer for every person in our custody and every single officer. Simply put, the Department of Correction is in a much better place today than it was during the last administration. We have brought this organization back from the brink of collapse and we will not be deterred in continuing our good work."