Corrections officers call for better conditions on Rikers

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Jacob Kaye | Queens Eagle

Over 200 current and former correctional officers, Department of Corrections doctors and nurses, police officers and elected officials gathered at the entrance to Rikers Island on Monday to demand better working conditions inside the city’s notorious prison.

Standing in front of the Francis R. Buono Memorial Bridge, which leads to the city’s jail complex, representatives from the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association painted a grim picture of the working conditions they say their officers experience on a daily basis.

The allegations that correctional officers have been forced to work triple shifts with few to no breaks, are left in the lurch when in need of medical attention and have been sexually assaulted by incarcerated people are similar to those made in a recent lawsuit filed against the New York City Department of Correction.

“Triple shifts, 23 hours without a meal break, where does that happen?” said COBA President Benny Boscio.

“When the subways became too dangerous, the mayor sent in more police. When communities were experiencing upticks in shootings and gang violence, the mayor added more police officers to those precincts,” he added. “Yet for the past eight years, as our corrections officers endured more and more assaults, more and more sexual assaults, more and more stabbings and slashings and more and more gang violence, the mayor chose to reduce the number of corrections officers.”

Correctional officers have seen a decline in their ranks since the pandemic began. In July 2020, there were a little over 8,200 officers working for the DOC. A year later, there were 7,651 officers on staff, according to the union.

A DOC spokesperson said the agency currently has 8,800 uniformed staff members, but that 1,600 were on sick leave at the end of July, another 1,400 were medically monitored and unable to work with incarcerated people and 2,200 people didn’t show up for shifts last month.

DOC staff have unlimited sick leave, the spokesperson added.

The staffing shortage has left officers without relief from their shifts and makes it more difficult to go on a bathroom or meal break, they say.

“We are first responders,” said Herman Jiminian, the legislative chairman of COBA. “We are the forgotten agency of the city of New York and it's not fair that our members are subjected to work 24- to 32- hour shifts. Enough is enough.”

Newly appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi laid out a plan to address the officers complaints as well as to create better living conditions for incarcerated people last month.

Dubbed New Day DOC, the plan promises to end “triples as quickly as possible.” It also says the agency will provide a wellness center for officers, offer health care under a single provider as other city agencies do and launch a new class of recruits by fall of this year.

“We agree with many of the concerns raised here,” Schiraldi said in a statement to the Eagle. “We are deeply concerned about the safety of our staff, medical staff, and incarcerated people in our facilities and are working hard to improve conditions.”

“We have been taking extensive measures to encourage staff to return to work, to relieve those who have been heroically working extra shifts to compensate, and to make this an environment where any parent would feel like their own son or daughter was safe working or living here,” he added.

The officers were joined by a handful of legislators Monday, including Assembly member David Weprin, who chairs the Committee on correction.

“I support the correction officers not being forced to work double and triple shifts and I support the healthcare workers and doctors being able to do their job safely,” Weprin told the Eagle. “There shouldn't be double and triple shifts because it causes chaos and lack of sleep and also, doctors and nurses should be treated with respect and be able to do their job to support everyone involved, to treat incarcerated individuals, as well as correctional employees.”

City Councilmember Robert Holden laid the blame with the Mayor Bill de Blasio and suggested that, as a solution, incarcerated people should be locked up for longer hours and that the city should keep gang members apart, rather than housing them together.

“He lacks common sense, that's for sure,” Holden said. “Why would you brag that we're the only big city to eliminate punitive segregation or the most offensive, the most aggressive population, the youth who actually need some discipline. He eliminated it and he's proud of it.”

Chants of “bring back the box,” a reference to solitary confinement, broke out after Holden’s comments.

Kermit Card, a retired correctional officer who worked for the DOC for 20 years, said he came out to the rally to show support to his former colleagues and his son, who is currently a corrections officer.

“It’s an untenable situation,” Card said. “It’s dangerous for them and it’s dangerous for inmates… it’s insane.”

The officers rally comes as the city’s borough-based jail program is beginning to make headway.

Construction has begun on a parking garage and community facility that will be adjacent to the Kew Gardens jail facility, one of several smaller jail facilities being built to replace Rikers when it closes in 2027.

Additionally, the DOC has begun to transfer Rikers property over the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The first building, the James A. Thomas Center, was transferred at the end of July.