Department of Correction brass haven’t been able to implement reforms at Rikers Island because inmates are too violent and there’s not enough space to house them safely with the jail complex’s looming closure, according to internal documents.
DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi wrote five “variance request” letters last week asking the NYC Board of Correction for temporary reprieve from changes meant to make the notorious lockup friendlier to inmates.
In one of the letters about the use of restraints, Schiraldi says unshackled inmates can’t watch TV together without “the serious risk of violence” due to “infrastructure limitations in the current punitive segregation housing areas.”
DOC closed the dormitory style Eric M. Taylor Center last year as part of its effort to close Rikers by 2027.
In another letter titled “Separation Status Housing” Schiraldi says the units, which have replaced recently-banned solitary confinement, are necessary to deter inmates from hiding contraband.
“Although it is utilized sparingly, separation status is vital to the department’s efforts to remove contraband from circulation in our facilities,” Schiraldi writes.
Without the threat of putting inmates in isolation, correction officers likely wouldn’t have recovered 496 banned items this year including 230 weapons like metal shanks and 200 drug stashes including magazines soaked in fentanyl, according to Schiraldi and union sources.
“We’re dealing with a more violent inmate today, that’s just a fact. We have to have the means to separate violent inmates,” said Benny Boscio, head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.
The conditions at Rikers have gotten so dire that an inmate recently tried to hang himself in front of lawmakers who were touring the facility this week and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a five-point emergency plan to control the chaos.
Boscio decried the lack of consequences with new reforms like ending solitary confinement.
“They’ve taken away all our tools and now we have total mayhem. This has caused the jails to be more unsafe and allowed the gangs to organize more,” he said.
Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams testified before a recent City Council oversight hearing on Rikers that the “explosion of gang-related violence” is a “major driver of violent crime” in the lockup. Adams said DOC should stop housing inmates by gang affiliation — also a demand of the union.
Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaigns director for the advocacy group VOCAL-NY, noted that Correction officials have requested variances on city laws and minimum standards for years.
“It undermines the actual intent of the law just to allow the DOC to get a variances to not follow the minimum standards,” Encalada-Malinowski told The Post.
He said that minimum standards for isolation and separating adult inmates from teenagers “were put in place to prevent people from dying.”
However, Layleen Polanco, 27, was found dead in solitary confinement in her Rikers cell in 2019 after getting into a fight with a fellow inmate.
In terms of contraband, Encalada-Malinowski charged that jail officials should crack down on correction officers, not inmates, who bring the banned items on to the island.
Criminal justice advocate Khalil Cumberbatch, who did two stints at Rikers in the 2000s for a robbery conviction, blamed the “humanitarian crisis” on the island on an alleged sickout by correction officers and neglect by de Blasio.
“The issue is the work shortage and the officers outright not reporting to work,” Cumberbatch said.
“I think the commissioner is doing a bit of what we see the mayor doing, which is to kick the can down the road saying while these reforms are important I can’t do them right now,” Cumberbatch said.
A DOC spokesman commented by saying the commissioners letters speak for themselves.