By Bill Parry
Since a series of reforms were implemented to change the culture of violence on Rikers Island last March, assaults on correction officers are down 20 percent and serious assaults on officers are down 44 percent compared to the same period last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters last week.
One unit on Rikers has gone 214 days without a single violent incident, while another unit has gone 118 days without an incident, “numbers never before seen in the history of Rikers Island,” de Blasio said Sept. 1 during a news conference on the island to announce further safety measures and technology upgrades.
“There’s nothing I’m going to say to you today that is popping any champagne bottles or declaring any mission accomplished,” he said. “We have so much more work to do. We’re only talking about a beginning, but it’s a beginning that we’re very proud of because it’s working.”
Taser guns will be used on Rikers Island beginning next month as part of new safety measures to protect staff de Blasio then announced. The Department of Correction has ordered 20 of the controversial weapons and they will only be provided to captains supervising the Emergency Services Units charged with responding to violent incidents at the jail.
“By strategically pre-deploying emergency response teams to multiple locations and equipping them with tasers, we’re making sure that our officers get critical support in urgent situations faster and more effectively,” de Blasio said.
Correction officers carry batons and pepper spray, but the taser guns “will be a crucial tool that officers can use to stop trends toward violence,” de Blasio said. But moments later he was defending himself from criticism about the stun gun’s risk for causing cardiac arrest, particularly when used repeatedly.
“Look, I am a progressive, I am a humanitarian, but the notion that advocates would not want us to first create a safe environment just makes no sense to me,” de Blasio said. “If we don’t have safety, nothing else is possible, and there is a culture of violence that goes back decades that has to be disrupted.”
New airport-style scanners will also be introduced to combat high levels of contraband, especially weapons and drugs smuggled into the prison complex. They will be placed in the visitor processing center and other key locations on Rikers Island and other city jails to screen both inmates and visitors.
“New scanners will filter out even more contraband from our facilities, keeping our staff, inmates and visitors safer than ever,” the mayor said.
In addition to the new technology upgrades, the ongoing federally mandated reforms on Rikers will be adding manpower. A new class of 700 recruits graduating in November will be the largest graduating class ever, with an additional 1,200 graduates joining the Department of Correction in the spring.
“Our reforms start and end with our officers — we seek to train, support and empower them,” DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte said. “Although we still have much more to do, the infusion of new officers into the ranks will, in time, help ease the burden of extra shifts. The deployment of emergency response teams to each jail will integrate these forces better into facilities’ security procedures. Tasers for emergency service supervisors and supersensitive scanners will help prevent violence.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr