Federal Monitor: Jails Teeming With 'Disorder and Chaos'

By: 
RICHARD KHAVKINE | The Chief Leader

A “pervasive high level of disorder and chaos” is plaguing city jails, according to a Federal watchdog. 

In a status report addressed to a U.S. District Judge, Steve Martin, the monitor charged with cataloging the Department of Correction’s efforts to mitigate what for decades has been one of the nation’s most stubbornly violent jail systems, said conditions inside “have further deteriorated in the past few months, with a steady increase in serious use of force incidents, a disturbing rise in the level of security lapses and unchecked breaches and failures of basic security protocols.”

He also cited “instances of inadequate supervision” made worse because of “staffing challenges.”

 

‘Compromised Safety’

Noting “at least” four inmate suicides since December and inmates who were left to languish in intake areas without food or medical care, Mr. Martin said the worsening conditions were tied to spikes in “excessive and unchecked staff absences” that began in April. Those “crisis-level” increases in absenteeism have obliged officers to work unreasonable overtime in the form of double and triple shifts, “further compromising the safety of the Facilities.”

“This state of seriously compromised safety has spiraled to a point at which, on a daily basis, there is a manifest risk of serious harm to both detainees and staff, which in turn generates high levels of fear among both groups, with each accusing the other of exacerbating already challenging conditions,” Mr. Martin’s 10-page letter noted. “Turmoil is the inevitable outcome of such a volatile state of affairs.”

He said a failure to hold officers accountable in a timely manner was also contributing to the poor state of the jail system, stating that more than 1,800 staff-misconduct cases were awaiting full resolution. 

COBA: Report a PR Stunt

The president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, Benny Boscio Jr., rebutted the monitor’s findings, calling them a public-relations stunt shedding little light on the endemic problems faced daily by officers. 

“The fact remains that officers are out sick because they continue to be forced to work under hostile and inhumane working conditions where they are forced to work twenty-five hours or more without meals and rest and are brutally assaulted by inmates with impunity,” the union leader said in a statement. 

Mr. Boscio suggested, as he has to DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, that Mr. Martin do a triple tour without break to find out why Correction Officers “aren’t physically able to report to work the next day.”

“The Monitor shows how little he understands about the staffing crisis or how to solve it by referring to sick and injured officers as a potential ‘job action’ that ‘must be  addressed appropriately,’ ” the union leader said. 

 

DOC: 'Clearing Backlog'

In a statement, Mr. Schiraldi, who instituted a new sick-leave policy at the beginning of August that according to the DOC has dramatically cut absences, said the department was committed to tackling the monitor’s concerns but addressed only the discipline aspect he had raised.  

“We have worked diligently to clear a backlog of pending investigations and impose formal discipline or other corrective action when warranted,” he said in a statement. “Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, we have resolved more cases than ever before in the last year and a half and are actively discussing the Monitor’s recommendations with our partners at the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings and the City Law Department.”

Mr. Martin said that for the time being, city and DOC officials were best placed to address the issues he raised, particularly chronic absenteeism. Among the options to “limit potential abuses,” he wrote, is to implement protocols to verify the status of officers who call out sick and to impose “immediate corrective action on AWOL staff.” 

On Their Case Early

Since soon after his June 1 appointment, Commissioner Schiraldi began chiding officers he said were taking advantage of the coronavirus and the DOC’s unlimited allocation of sick days. The new sick-leave policy requires correction officers to be evaluated by hospital staff within 24 hours of calling out or be subject to disciplinary proceedings. 

The department said that since its introduction, there has been a significant reduction in first-day sick call-outs compared to July. 

Unions representing jail officers, however, pledged to collectively challenge the new protocols, which they have called unworkable and unjust. 

“As COBA and the multitude of litigations, grievances and improper practices it’s filed detail—fix the inhumane working conditions and you will fix the staffing crisis,” Mr. Boscio wrote in his response to Mr. Martin’s letter.