As prepared for delivery
Testimony before the
New York State Assembly
Committee on Correction
David I. Weprin, Chair
October 1, 2021
Good morning Chair Weprin and members of the Committee on Correction. Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on the conditions of our jails. I am pleased to be joined by members of my leadership team, Chief of Department, Kenneth Stukes; Chief of Staff, Dana Wax; First Deputy Commissioner, Stanley Richards; and Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters, Asim Rehman.
I want to begin by noting that over the last few weeks a number of legislators have come to witness, firsthand, the conditions of our jails. I’m truly grateful for those visits because the attention has helped us bring some awareness to the challenges we are facing, and that will undoubtedly help us make our jails better.
Today marks the beginning of my fifth month as Commissioner and with each day that passes, I become more and more impressed by the dedication of my staff, especially the officers who continue to come to work despite the incredible challenges we’re facing. As I said to the City Council a few weeks ago, these officers are heroes. Many of your colleagues saw the challenges they face on a daily basis. They are right out there on the front lines in a dynamic, intense environment and also caring for our most vulnerable citizens. I can’t say enough about how proud I am of the folks who have stuck it out through the pandemic and through our staffing crisis. I also want to repeat the promise I made to my staff that I am going to do everything I can to make it safer for them to come to work every day and go home to their families safe and sound.
Now more than ever, I am truly optimistic about our ability to continue to turn things around. While I am still not satisfied with where we are, some recent developments have shown that our plan is beginning to work and offers hope for the future. I will talk about our overall strategy and our New Day DOC plan in a few minutes but before I do, I just want to cover some of the recent changes we’ve seen since many of you and your colleagues in the Senate came to visit.
First, we have reopened a new intake facility featuring two clinics, which allows newly admitted individual to be evaluated and cleared for housing quickly, and our average intake time has gone down to well under 24 hours from the moment the judge sets bail. That enabled us to cease all new admissions at our prior intake facility where the conditions were truly unacceptable and where incarcerated people were waiting far too long for permanent housing. All of the individuals who had been held there awaiting placement are now in housing areas, and we have begun cleaning up that intake area so it can be used as it was supposed to be used, for short term movement into and out of our facilities or movement from one housing unit to another within our jails.
Regarding our clean up effort, I have heard some reporting that what we’re doing is hiding the problems or holding back on what people see or sugarcoating what’s going on. Let me tell you, we’re not coating anything with sugar we’re coating it with paint. We’re fixing this place up because it needs fixing. Anyone who listens to me for five minutes knows that I am frank, I’m not yet satisfied with where we are, and I’m not downplaying what’s going on here. We’ve had dozens of outside folks come in to see anything they want to, so I take issue with the narrative that’s being spun that anyone is hiding anything. We’re not hiding our problems- we’re fixing them. That’s what the Mayor saw, and that’s what anyone who has come to tour has seen- us, cleaning and fixing, not hiding.
Second, as a result of the actions we took to issue 30-day suspensions to officers who were AWOL and require doctor visits to stop some officers from calling in sick when they weren’t really sick, we are starting to see staff coming back to work and seeing the number of triple shifts decrease. As I said publicly many times, the number of staff unavailable to work with incarcerated individuals because they are out sick, AWOL, or medically modified is unprecedented and creating real difficulties for the Department. Before the pandemic, the Department would have between 400 and 500 staff out sick on any given day. Now, out of about 8,300 staff members, approximately 30%, are unable to work in posts that face incarcerated individuals. As a result, until very recently we’ve seen an average of over 30 triple shifts per day. But because of the actions we’ve taken, we are starting to do better.
We have released 201 individuals whose parole warrants were immediately vacated by the Governor’s signing of the Less is More Act. We have also transferred to state custody another 122 individuals serving city sentences and plan to transfer more in the coming days and weeks. These modest but crucial population reductions and staff increases have allowed us a little bit of breathing room, and more help is on the way. Thanks to the NYPD and the New York City Sheriff, which are taking over some of our responsibilities in the courts, and our ability to hire private contractors to handle some of the non-incarcerated individual facing posts on the Island, we will be able to shift fully-trained officers back to posts inside the facilities where they are truly needed. It’s hard to overstate how much of an impact the elimination of triples and unmanned posts will have on the morale of our staff and on the ability to deliver services, which will in turn make our jails safer and better places to work and to be incarcerated. It's clear we have begun to steer our ship in the right direction and have gotten back to our plan to make long-term improvements to the conditions and the culture of our jails.
Our New Day DOC plan focuses on safety of staff, ending triple tours by October, improving morale, improving services for and care of people in custody, and keeping people in custody meaningfully occupied. We have to do all of those things together – you can’t just do one, you have to do all of it, and that’s what we’re doing and will continue to do. We’re engaged in what I consider a balanced and multi-faceted approach to tackling these problems because that’s what it’s going to take to get the job done – no home runs, just a lot of singles will get us there. Let me just address each of those and then I’m eager to get to your questions.
First, staffing. Not only have officers had to work triple shifts, we’ve also been dealing with unmanned posts, making it difficult for us to provide the level of care that those who work and live in our facilities deserve. To fix this, we’re doing several things – bringing on more staff to fill in the gaps, incentivizing existing staff to come back to work, and, as I mentioned above, reducing the population.
We are bringing on a class of 600 new officers and the first group is beginning their training today. We expect that group to be ready for tours by the New Year. In addition, we are continuing our efforts to bring back staff in good standing who have retired or resigned within the last four years. I already discussed the steps we’ve taken to reduce AWOLs, and we are working with Mt. Sinai as well as our own medical staff to clear officers who call in sick to return to duty as soon as they are healthy.
But we’re also trying to make things easier for the staff who are faithfully coming to work and putting in long hours. For the past couple of months, we have been delivering catered meals to officers working triple shifts. More recently, working with New York City’s Office of Emergency Management, we have arranged for food trucks to deliver meals to officers working at the two facilities hit hardest by our staffing crisis, and at another centralized area so that staff can take food into their tours or take food home to their families. We are offering free rides home and back to work for those working triple shifts. We’ve created space in our Staff Wellness Center for staff to sleep after long hours and refurbished the staff garden to provide a restful place for staff to relax. Officers who have not been AWOL or called in sick more than five days since April are set to receive a bonus for each triple they worked this month, and a similar bonus structure will be extended through December.
We feel strongly that there is no single solution this problem. While we have employed disciplinary measures to ensure accountability, we have also created incentives for staff to continue to work and endeavor to make our facilities safe places to carry out the goal of DOC to turn lives around – when we create belief in that goal, people will be eager to come to work.
Focus on Increased Programming
Another facet of our New Day DOC plan that will help improve conditions in the jails is our focus on increased programming. Stepping up our level of programming is the right thing to do and it helps our mission to ensure that people in our custody are better off when they leave than when they came in. That makes everyone in our facilities – and ultimately our communities – safer.
Getting people engaged in programming is one way the Assembly and the Senate can help. Chair Weprin, Your Merit Time Allowance bill (S606, A4251) provides time credit for incarcerated individuals who participate in programming, which means that if people enrich themselves while they are in our custody, they spend less time in jail or in prison. That is good for both people in custody and correction officers. People in custody would have an opportunity to slightly reduce their sentence while making themselves better prepared to return to the community, and officers will be dealing with people who are busier, less anxious, more hopeful, and less prone to violence. This might not be as dramatic as the incredible advocacy you all have been doing the last few weeks, but this is the kind of common sense, everybody wins approach that simply works.
We’ve been in conversations with several members of the State legislature about possible amendments to the bill, which will increase the effectiveness of its purpose – to increase participation in programs and decrease the amount of time people spend incarcerated. The bill almost passed last session and we encourage you to pass it this time around. As I’ve said, when people participate in programs, when they are better educated, when they are treated fairly, and when they are given the right incentives, they become better people. That ultimately means less violence, more safety, and improved conditions for everyone in our jails.
In addition to bringing staff back to work and targeting the root causes of violence in the jails, we need to reduce the number of people in our custody. We are very grateful that Governor Hochul signed Less is More, a bill that will continue to reduce the number of people who violate state parole held in city custody on any given day. We have begun to utilize the 6A work release program to allow people to reenter the community with supervision and support, rather than just sending them on their way releasing 6 people this week to rigorous community programming. We also continue to work closely with District Attorneys and the Office of Court Administration to get court cases resolved and get people where they are going faster. And it’s beginning to work- over the past two weeks we’ve reduced our jail population by 348, which gives us some much-needed breathing room.
Deaths in Custody
Finally, I would also like to address the recent tragedies we have experienced. This year, there have been eleven deaths in our custody. Seven of them have occurred since I came on as Commissioner. One of the more recent deaths was a man who was in on a technical parole violation for 29 days, which is one day shy of the max he could do under Less is More. And he was on parole for a drug charge. That is someone who should not have been in jail, and should not have been in prison, and it is absolutely devastating to me that this happened to him. Just heartbreaking, and wrong. When I talk about reducing the jail population, it’s easy to think about it in terms of our numbers, but these are human beings we’re talking about. And this human being was in our jail for no good reason when he died, that’s the kind of person I’m thinking about when I talk about getting people out. The kind of person who was behind bars even though there was no discernible benefit to putting him in jail in the first place. I want to assure you and everyone listening today that I am doing everything I possibly can to stop this from happening again.
I want to close by saying that the problems we are facing are due to neglect spanning several decades, and as I have said before: I can’t fix these problems on my own. No DOC Commissioner can. But with your continued support, we are turning things around. All of the initiatives I’ve mentioned represent a balanced approach to making the lives of the people who work and live in our facilities better and more productive, reducing violence in our jails, and increasing safety all around. My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions you may have.