By Bill Parry
The de Blasio administration is defending its reforms at Rikers Island and other city jails following a scathing analysis by city Comptroller Scott Stringer.
In his report, Stringer said the culture of violence is worsening, with taxpayers spending more money on fewer inmates.
“There is definitely something wrong with this picture. The jail population in New York City is the lowest in 31 years, but the rate of violent incidents is accelerating at an alarming pace,” Stringer said. “At the same time, the Department of Correction is pouring huge amounts of money into this problem, but we aren’t seeing any real results or improvements. We need to find ways to protect both guards and inmates, while at the same time making sure that the substantial resources being spent on this problem aren’t simply wasted.”
The report shows the annual cost per inmate in city jails has increased 17 percent in 2015, the largest year-to-year percentage rise in the last three decades, to $112,665 per inmate. At the same time, assaults committed by inmates on staff rose 46 percent, while incidents of force by uniformed employees on inmates increased 27 percent, the analysis said.
“With costs per inmate that are twice as high as many other cities, it is clear the situation at New York City jails is completely out of hand,” Stringer concluded.
City Hall pointed out that both cost and violence have indeed been rising steadily since 2008, before de Blasio and Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte’s tenures. Use of force with serious injuries declined 3.4 percent while use of force with no injuries increased, reflecting Ponte’s emphasis on de-escalation training and better response protocols, City Hall officials said.
“Meaningful reform takes time, and we are confident the commissioner is creating safer and more supportive jails for our staff and inmates alike—even as DOC grapples with an increasingly difficult population,” de Blasio spokeswoman Monica Klein said.
While the inmate population is the lowest in three decades, officials said the percentage of inmates with a mental health diagnosis has been on the rise for years, to 41 percent in 2015 compared to 38 percent the year before. The percentage of DOC inmates with gang affiliations has also risen, to 11.8 percent from 8.2 percent the year before.
Meanwhile, court papers filed by Public Advocate Letitia James revealed that 116 allegations of sexual abuse at Rikers Island were not reported to the NYPD last year. Of those, 61 were allegedly abuse by jail staffers.
There were also 28 separate incidents of rape reported at the jail last year. The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees health care on Rikers Island, alerted the Department of Correction to the allegations, but the DOC passed along only two misdemeanor sex assaults to the NYPD, according to court papers.
“I have petitioned the Board of Correction to begin formal rule-making to better protect inmates from sexual violence, and they must start tackling this problem with the urgency it deserves,” James said.
An official said the DOC follows NYPD procedures in investigating sexual allegations and reports all such allegations to the NYPD. A DOC spokesman said Ponte has “zero tolerance for any sexual harassment or violence” against staff or inmates. The DOC is also working to comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, enacted by Congress to address the problem of sexual abuse of people in the custody of U.S. correctional agencies.
As far as staff-on-inmate allegations, City Hall said there is a protocol. These cases are sent to the Department of Investigations, which determines whether or not to report the allegations to the NYPD.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr