The Fortune Society agrees with the administration that terminating correction officers who are abusing the Department of Corrections’ overly generous sick leave policy is the right thing to do. The long-standing pattern of uniformed officers not reporting to work endangers their colleagues as well as the people in custody. This kind of rampant absenteeism would not be tolerated at any other city agency, let alone one that is responsible for our collective safety.
Although terminating those officers who refuse to come to work is a step in the right direction, it alone will not solve the ills that plague Rikers Island. We believe that Rikers needs to be closed, but until that can occur, immediate steps must be taken to make Rikers safe for the people who work there and who are incarcerated there, and that appropriate services are provided.
Much more is required to cure the dysfunction that has produced these dire conditions and allowed them to persist for so many years. The Department must formulate and share a plan to effectively manage staff and ensure that all posts requiring uniformed officers are staffed according to schedule, on a daily basis.
The department must create a system to track this information and report whether and which posts are staffed. As the Nunez monitor noted in a special report to the federal court last month, “the department cannot accurately identify where staff are assigned or their status at any given time.” It is impossible to imagine that the NYPD would be permitted to continue business as usual if leadership could not tell us how many officers were working a given shift, in a given precinct, on any given day.
Yet because Rikers is physically removed from the daily life of our city, such dysfunction can more easily persist, out of sight and out of mind. But it is not out of sight or mind for the people held in custody there (90% of whom are pending trial and presumed innocent), for their families, and for those of us who work with and support them.
The administration’s new proposal to expend our city resources on close to 600 additional correction officers would do nothing to remedy the crisis in staff management. As the Nunez monitor has noted, DOC spends 350% more per year to incarcerate a single person than the two other largest jail systems in the country, in Cook County, Illinois, and Los Angeles. And yet the violence at Rikers is seven times higher than it is in Los Angeles. This is not because there are too few officers on the DOC payroll.
We stand ready to partner with the administration on programmatic and policy solutions to improve conditions in our city jails. But any proposed solutions will only be effective if there is effective management of staff, if staff report to work, and if everyone—staff and people in custody—are safe.
JoAnne Page is CEO/president of The Fortune Society.