LEYLA DOSS, HOST: At the beginning of the pandemic last April, New York City reduced its jail population by 30% to try and curb the spread of COVID-19. At 3,809 inmates, it was the lowest daily jail population since the 1940s.
But even as the number of incarcerated people has gone down, the rate of violence inside city jails has gone up. As Katie Anastas reports, while the pandemic has brought new stress to both inmates and officers, there are also longstanding problems within the Department of Corrections.
KATIE ANASTAS, BYLINE: In the last year, fights and assaults in city jails have increased by a quarter. That includes fighting among incarcerated people and assaults on correctional officers. Darren Mack isn’t surprised. Two decades ago, he was arrested for his connection to a robbery. He was charged and sent to Rikers Island.
DARREN MACK: That’s just the culture of Rikers. You know? The culture of Rikers is about violence.
ANASTAS: Now, Mack is an advocate for incarcerated people. He says correctional officers are “hyper-confrontational.”
MACK: Instead of having, like, two, or four, or six jail staff responding to an incident, they have 10 to 20 jail staff responding to an incident.
ANASTAS: And the problems aren’t just at Rikers. Last month, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer put the Department of Corrections on his agency watch list for the fourth year in a row.
With fewer people being taken to city jails, the Department of Corrections now employs about 1 and a half correctional officers per incarcerated person. But the average rate for federal prisons is one officer per 9.3 incarcerated people.
So with more officers guarding fewer inmates, shouldn’t there be fewer fights? Jeff Mellow, who studies jail violence at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says not necessarily.
JEFF MELLOW: So much of the research over the last 20 years indicates that that is not necessarily correct. Jails and prisons are these really complex systems.
ANASTAS: Mellow says that complexity comes from a mix of things. Like the way a jail is designed. Newer jails often have more open-plan designs, making it easier for officers and inmates to see each other. But older jails are often designed differently. Inmates are in cells and might only see officers a few times a day when they make their rounds, which can make it harder for officers to maintain authority. The pandemic has also led to more stress.
Plus, as total admissions have fallen, the percentage of the jail population with a mental health diagnosis has gone up. A decade ago, a third of the population suffered from mental illness. This year, it’s more than half.
All of this can be hard on jail staff, too. Benny Boscio worked as a correctional officer for two decades. He’s president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association. Here he is testifying last week before the City Council.
BENNY BOSCIO: This committee has heard our cries for help every time we come before you, and every time we testify before you, we highlight the horrible conditions our officers are subjected to.
ANASTAS: Boscio says dangerous working conditions and long hours mean correctional officers call in sick. More than 10% of the department’s 9,000 officers call in sick every day. Those staff shortages mean long hours for those left on duty. Long hours lead to stress. Stress leads to more violence.
BOSCIO: Nearly every week we visit correction officers who are being treated at a hospital for the injuries they sustained from an inmate assault.
ANASTAS: Officers share similar thoughts on the union’s Facebook page. One called a recent triple shift the worst experience she’s had in her five years on the job. And she thinks more people are going to quit. More than 15% of department’s officers have resigned over the last two years.
When asked about the increase in violence and reported staffing problems, the Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment.
But at last week’s City Council meeting, a spokesperson said the department is dedicated to continued reform.
Katie Anastas, Columbia Radio News.