NYC correction union leaders, detainee advocates dispute city claim that Rikers jail violence is declining

By: 
GRAHAM RAYMAN | NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Leaders of uniformed correction officers’ unions and advocates for detainees expressed surprise Thursday at the city correction commissioner’s claim that violence at Rikers Island jails has dropped in recent months.

“There is a persistent and quite horrific pattern of violence persisting in our jails,” Legal Aid lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas said at a hearing Thursday in Manhattan Federal Court.

“Class members [jail detainees] are being sprayed and being beaten on a daily basis,” Werlwas told Judge Laura Taylor Swain. “This is rendering even short stays very violent.”

“Jail violence is soaring, and has continued to soar even when the inmate population was close to 3,000 inmates a year ago,” said Benny Boscio, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

At a media briefing Wednesday with Mayor de Blasio, Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said “early indicators” show violence and use of force data were “bending in the right direction” from July to November compared to the previous five months.

Schiraldi’s statement came a day after lawyers with Legal Aid Society said in a court filing, “Catastrophic levels of violence and abuse continue to harm class members on a daily basis as many core threats to safety ... have continued or worsened.”

There were 51 stabbings and slashings and 728 uses of force in September alone, the society said. The use of force rate by officers that month was three times higher than the average rate in 2016, the society said.

That the past five months — a period fractured with crises over absent staff, unmanned posts, frustrated and angry detainees and poor conditions – would suddenly turn in a positive direction struck observers as speculative at best.

“If there is one thing Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Schiraldi have consistently proven is that they will lie repeatedly about the real jail violence statistics in order to cement the Mayor’s legacy as he walks out the door,” said Boscio.

He called de Blasio and Schiraldi “completely delusional.”

Schiraldi “may be finding a small niche of some improvement, but there’s no real change,” said Joseph Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens Association, which represents assistant deputy wardens and deputy wardens.

“I can tell you there’s no fix to the violence,” Russo said.

For example, an officer was brutally beaten by detainee Jonathan Guerrero, 20, in the George R. Vierno Center at about 8 a.m. on Nov. 22, video obtained by the Daily News shows. Guerrero has been held in Rikers since 2019 on robbery and assault charges.

The officer, correction sources said, was waiting for clearance to move Guerrero to intake when the inmate got mad and punched the officer several times. The officer dropped to the ground and suffered a broken nose and swelling in the assault.

A sheaf of incident reports obtained by The News spanning Wednesday into Thursday show one violent incident after another — a mess hall fight left an inmate with a gash, an inmate attacking an officer with a shoe, inmates jumped and beaten, officers forced to use physical force and pepper spray to end a melee.

Four straight years of mayor’s management report show a continuing upward trend in the major categories of violence and uses of force. Between fiscal 2020 and 2021 alone, violent incidents rose 22.5%, even as the population declined from roughly 5,800 to 4,900.

Stabbings and slashing have more than doubled from 96 in fiscal 2018 to 247 in fiscal 2021. But the number of detainees charged for crimes that took place in Rikers has plummeted from 1,126 in fiscal 2017 to 145 in fiscal 2021.

Schiraldi had said Wednesday the number of officers having to work triple shifts, the number absent without leave and the number of unstaffed posts have all declined significantly — resulting in the start of a decline in staff uses of force and violence in the jail population.

In the period from July to November, updated DOC figures released Thursday indicate, there was a 10% decline in uses of force, an 11% drop in assaults against staff and a 17% decline in fights between detainees over the previous five-month period. The jail population has also declined to 5,200 compared to just over 6,000 in September.

Steve Martin, a court-appointed monitor in a federal lawsuit aimed at reducing violence at Rikers, noted Wednesday that the Correction Department has been “working at breakneck pace” to fix the problems and security breaches had “decreased slightly.”