Staffing Crisis Press Conference
EOC, Rikers Island
September 7, 2021
Commissioner Schiraldi Talking Points
I want to thank everyone for taking the time to come out today.
I had hoped to start out today with some good news, but unfortunately, I have the worst kind of news to deliver. An individual in custody passed away at the Anna M. Kross Center this morning.
Family notification has not yet been made so we are not releasing his name at this time. A full investigation is underway, and we will be releasing more details.
The increase in individuals passing away in our facilities is one of the issues I plan to discuss today.
We want to give you a clear understanding of exactly what is driving the current conditions in our facilities and what we are doing to address it.
Since March 2020, this agency has been plagued with several different hardships.
From COVID, to the loss of some of our Members of Service, to the death of people in our care, to assaults on staff, it has been an extremely challenging and emotional time.
We want to offer our condolences to the families of our 13 staff who died of COVID during the pandemic. We also want to reiterate our deepest condolences to the families of all the people with loved ones who have passed away in DOC custody in recent months. Going forward, we will continue to proactively notify media of deaths in custody.
Any death of staff and any death in custody is a tragedy and we take these types of events very seriously.
These tragic events have been taking place within the much larger context of our staffing shortages.
Staff are the heart and soul of our operations.
We cannot improve safety until we are fully staffed.
When staff do not show up to work, every aspect of our operations suffer, so do the employees who pick up the slack and people in custody.
Officers have been assaulted and some of the needs of people in our custody are not being met as a result.
The best way to reduce violence in jails is to have people supervising and actively involved in delivering services and programing, and this can only happen if people come to work in adequate numbers.
We are hiring 200 more officers which will make a total of 600 new officers in our jails to help improve conditions. They will start 3-4 months of training October 1st.
We are also actively recruiting for reinstatement, uniformed staff who left service with the Department in good standing within the last four years. They will start training on October 1 as well but will only require two weeks of training so they will be available to help with our staffing issues sooner.
We are doing all that we can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all those who work and live in our facilities, while nearly1/3 of our uniformed staff is unavailable to work with people who are incarcerated in Rikers Island on a given day.
Some have called for hiring thousands of more officers, but this is not a case of under-hiring. On January 1st, 2014, we had 11,000 inmates and 9,000 uniformed staff.
Today we have 6,000 incarcerated people and 8,400 uniformed staff. That means that, in 2014, we had more incarcerated people than staff, today, we have the opposite.
So, while it’s true that we have lost some staff, we’ve had a 46% decline in inmates and only a 7% decline in staff. The problem isn’t inadequate staffing, it’s people not coming to work.
I want to be careful not to paint with too broad a brush at this moment. Some staff came to work every day during the pandemic, and some got COVID and returned to work as soon as they were better. These people are heroes and shouldn’t have to suffer by working triples while others feign illness.
Some people are truly sick or injured. These people should listen to their doctors until their health improves and they are able to return to work.
Finally, some people are not sick and are taking advantage of the generous, unlimited sick leave policy that is granted to uniformed staff members in New York City because of the difficult jobs they work and because we generally trust them not to abuse it.
It’s reasonable to ask how we know that people are abusing this and other policies to keep them out of work or from working with incarcerated people. Or how many are really sick and how many aren’t. While there is no way to have an exact count, here are a few disturbing indicators.
The notion of “banging in” – not coming to work even though they are able to do so – is so common that people are sharing their vacation experiences while out sick on social media. Just yesterday, a social media post was posted on-line calling for a department-wide “bang-in” day. I don’t believe it was terribly effective, but it gives you an example of how public the notion of feigning illness or AWOLing has become.
Our 19% sick rate is more than 6 times higher than NYPD’s (3%) and 3 times higher than FDNY’s (6%).
There were nearly two-and-a-half times as many people out sick on the Fourth of July (486) as on the fourth of June (203).
Staff at DOC are required to work overtime when we need them to. Some staff do so, and relieve their colleagues, which is great, that’s what we want them to do. I thank them for that.
Others work single shifts while their colleagues work triples. Sometimes, when we ask people in preferred posts to work doubles to relieve others who are working triples, those who have just completed single shifts with no sign of illness, suddenly say they are sick. Several times, for example, we have taken busses to our court pens to get the entire cadre of uniformed staff there to come to Rikers to relieve their fellow officers as they were getting ready to go into triples. On some occasions, none of them got on the bus.
We are seeing this over and over again.
However, we believe that this does not represent a majority of our staff.
A majority of our staff are hardworking people who do the right thing every day.
These are our heroes who are working triples while others don’t come to work or refuse to relieve them.
When we instituted a new policy of requiring all staff to go to Mt. Sinai – a high quality health care provider – before they could be considered out sick, we quickly saw a reduction of the number of people calling out sick overall by about 2/3. So, on August 1, 299 uniformed staff called in sick, we instituted that new policy, and, by August 5, 64 people called in sick. The number of people calling in sick in August dropped to an overall average of 109.
But…our AWOL numbers, the number of times people did not come to work and did not call us, went up to 2,795 in August alone.
So now we will focus on encouraging people to come to work and disciplining them when they AWOL or otherwise misuse our sick leave policies.
This is what we are doing to get people to come back to work, so we can be properly staffed, do an effective job of fixing the units, programming people and getting people properly trained to work with populations like young adults, people with mental illness and consistently post them to those positions.
When we do this, violence will go down and people will want to work on units they don’t want to work on now because violence is so high.
We have to interrupt this cycle at many points, all at once, and the points that I am focusing on now are sick leave, AWOLs and hiring more staff while at the same time, working assiduously to increase programming and design the kinds of living units that any of us would want if our son or daughter either worked here or was incarcerated here.
We cannot discipline our way out of this, but it would be irresponsible not to hold people accountable. I cannot look the Mayor or City Council or New York City residents in the eye and ask them to spend more money hiring more and more staff while nearly 1/3 of my staff are unavailable to work on a given day.
In conclusion, I have two different asks today.
First, if you work for the Department of Correction and are able bodied and out sick or AWOLing or contemplating AWOLing, please come back to work.
We need you to get in here and help your fellow officers in uniform and to help restore the department’s reputation and provide decent care for those incarcerated in our facilities.
I again must give a sincere thanks to our officers who show up each day despite being asked to work extra shifts. Every day they put their lives on the line and we appreciate all that they do for this city.
My second ask is if you are a judge or a district attorney or a defense attorney and you are working on a case of somebody who is in Rikers Island right now, please expedite those cases.
We had 50 percent higher length of stay pretrial prior to the pandemic than jails in the rest of New York State and, since the pandemic it went up by 30 percent.
I know that it is a difficult time for everyone and that things are starting to reopen, but we need you to focus on expediting those cases of people in here and people who are appropriate for alternatives of incarceration such as supervised release.
We need your help because the fewer people we have in here, the better we are going to run this place. New York City, which once had nearly 22,000 people in DOC’s jails in the mid-1990s, has shown that it can have both lower incarceration rates and less crime. As the number of people in our jails declined from nearly 22,000 in the mid-1990s to below 6,000 pre-pandemic, crime in the city, including violent crime and homicides, also plummeted to historic lows.
I think of the work ahead of us here at DOC like buying a new house. Some places, you go in, and you think “all I need to do is some patching and painting in the kids’ rooms and living room and it’s good to go.” And other places are a gut-reno. DOC is the latter, it needs watershed reforms before it’s in the kind of shape that city residents and staff can be proud of, and incarcerated and their families can feel safe in.
I was a reformer – a gut reno guy - not a paint and patch guy.
I’m here to rebuild, so that we have a solid foundation to stand on. And I truly believe we can get there, if we work together as a team.