Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Keith Powers, Chair
September 15, 2021
Good morning Chair Powers and members of the Criminal Justice Committee. 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;
and First Deputy Commissioner, Stanley Richards.
In my first three months as Commissioner, I have been impressed by the dedication of my staff,
especially the officers who continue to come to work despite the incredible challenges we’re
facing. Because so much has been said, and will be said during the course of this hearing, about
officers AWOLing and calling in sick, I’d like to mention that during the depths of the pandemic,
there were 403 officers who didn’t miss a single day of work. There were also numerous officers
who contracted COVID and, when they were better, immediately returned to work. These officers
are heroes. I don’t think anyone is saying that enough. They are right out there on the front lines
confronting some of our city’s most dire social problems and caring for our most vulnerable
citizens and I can’t say enough about how proud I am of the officers who come back day in and
day out despite some really grueling conditions. So while I’m here today to tell you all what is
happening in the jails and what we need to make it better, I am also here to make a promise 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.
I am proud of the plan we have put together working jointly with city hall, but I’m absolutely not
satisfied with conditions in our jails. And I’m not going to be satisfied until we get the violence in
our jails down and make our jails a better place to work and live. My standard of care is for our
jails to be a place where I’d feel good about my son or daughter working there, or feel that if my
son or daughter were incarcerated there, they would be safe and I could sleep easy. We’re not there yet, but that’s my goal, and I think any other standard is unacceptable.
The primary three issues facing the Department right now are safety, adequate staffing, and
population reduction. These three issues are, of course, intimately interconnected.
First I’ll talk about staffing. Without enough staff available to work, it becomes increasingly
difficult for the Department to provide excellent services and maintain safety within the facilities.
By the way, when we do provide robust services and programming for people incarcerated,
everyone’s life inside our jails – correctional officers, health care workers, civilian staff,
volunteers, and, of course, incarcerated people – will improve dramatically. I’ve seen that
throughout my 41-year-career in other jurisdictions and in reforms I’ve undertaken myself – the
more people are productively occupied, the better facilities run and, the better people do when they return home to their neighborhoods and families.
The situation in the jails is worse than I imagined before I came on. Before the pandemic, the
Department had about 400-500 staff out sick on any given day. Now, out of approximately 8,400
staff members, roughly 2,700 – or 32% – are unable to work with incarcerated individuals because
they are out sick, AWOL, or medically modified. That means officers have been forced to work
triple shifts and that there are sometimes posts with no staff on them, and makes it extremely
difficult for us to provide basic services and maintain the level of safety that our officers, civilian
workers, and people in custody deserve.
Despite all the challenges we’re facing, I am optimistic about our ability to turn things around. Our
New Day DOC plan focuses on safety of staff, ending triple tours, improving morale, 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 going to do. We’re engaged in what I
consider a balanced and multi-facetted 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 touch on each of those and then I’m eager to get to your questions.
In terms of resolving our staffing issues, in addition to the previous 400 new staff we have
committed to hiring, we plan on hiring another 200, increasing our commitment to hiring 600 new
correction officers to fill in the gaps in our ranks and contribute to the overall safety of our
facilities. Our first new class of officers will join the academy on October 1st, and we expect the
first 75-125 of them to be available to work on January 1. On top of these 600 new officers, we
are also making efforts to bring back DOC staff in good standing who have retired or resigned
within the last four years. With rapid reinstatement, these officers can return to working after two
weeks of refresher training. Out of the 425 former officers we reached, 58 indicated they were
interested in coming back and an additional 77 indicated they may be interested.
By partnering with Mt. Sinai Hospital and requiring officers who call in sick to see a doctor we
have reduced by about two thirds the number of officers who are calling in sick. But we’re also
trying to make things easier for the staff who are putting in long hours by providing meals to staff
on double and triple shifts, and 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. Just yesterday we
announced that officers who have not been AWOL or called in sick more than five days since
April will receive a bonus for each triple they worked. And that bonus policy will be extended
We have also ramped up and streamlined our disciplinary process for the most egregious cases of officers being AWOL or abusing our sick leave policy. As the Mayor announced yesterday, people
who don’t come to work, don’t call in and don’t have a real reason for doing so – effectively
AWOLing - are facing immediate 30 day suspensions. OATH is planning to set aside specified
days to hear uncontested AWOL cases so we can resolve them as quickly as possible. But we feel strongly we won’t be able to discipline our way out of this problem. Instead, we need to create
belief in the department’s mission of turning lives around – that’s when we’ll have people eager
to come to work.
Focus on YA and MO
Another facet of our New Day DOC plan that will help improve conditions in the jails is our focus
on young adults and people who are mentally ill. The units containing young adults and our mental observation units have some of the highest rates of violence throughout our facilities.
By the end of July, we met our goal of fixing half of the broken cell doors at RNDC, our young
adult facility. When I started in June, the timeline to fix the remaining doors was two years, but
with focus and pressure and help from City Hall, we now anticipate finishing the other 250 by
February and are still pushing to do so sooner. We are also working strategically to safely
reorganize housing across the Department in order to minimize conflict and reduce the presence
of gang activity. Yesterday, for example, we began the first in a six week series of gang
interventions with credible messengers from King of Kings and Exodus with some of the key gang
affiliated youth in custody as part of our efforts to quell gang activity and increase the peace.
Meanwhile, because we recognize that people must be held accountable when they commit serious acts of violence against staff or other incarcerated people, we are working closely with the Bronx District Attorney who personally came and visited Rikers Island and with whom we’ve been in frequent contact, to prosecute individuals who commit serious acts of violence in our jails.
However, we also understand that when conditions in our facilities improve, incarcerated
individuals’ morale improves, their behavior improves, and violence decreases. A primary focus
of New Day DOC is increased programming, and there are a few reasons for that. First, it’s just
the right thing to do. Second, most of the people who enter our custody are going right back to
their communities, and it’s our duty to ensure that they are better off when they come out than
when they came in. Third, engaging people in programs gives them focus and hope for their
futures, which makes them less anxious, less prone to violence, and eases tensions within the
facility. As I said earlier, that makes our staff and everyone in our custody safer.
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 actively working on population
reduction efforts by identifying areas within our control that contribute to case processing delays.
We are also working closely with District Attorneys and the Office of Court Administration to get
court cases resolved and get people where they are going faster. We are also asking the court
system to prioritize the 2% of individuals in our custody who are responsible for 38% of the
violence we see.
Case processing is vitally important because jails are not meant to be long-term facilities. Prior to
the pandemic, 700 people incarcerated in our jails were incarcerated for more than a year; now
that number is 1500. These long stays can cause frustration which can, in turn, lead to violence on behalf of those whose cases feel interminably unresolved. Moving those cases forward would be
of great help as part of our efforts to quell violence and improve conditions.
Lastly, the city has been working with the state government to pass Less is More, a bill that will
greatly reduce the number of people who violate state parole held in city custody on any given
day. There are roughly 1,000 people held on state parole violations (including 275 in on purely
technical violations) in custody, and reducing this number would immensely help ease the strain
on everyone who lives and works in the jails.
Reducing the jail population is particularly important given the increased COVID risks that
we’ve seen across the country recently. Correctional Health Service has identified people at
elevated clinical risk for a serious course of illness, should they contract the virus, and provides
documentation to their attorneys and other relevant stakeholders, as appropriate, to help prioritize
who they divert in the face of the pandemic.
Since March 13, 2020, CHS has provided advocacy letters to 3767 patients. Of the patients
provided letters, approximately 65 percent have been discharged. CHS conducts additional risk
assessments to identify its most medically vulnerable patients, including those under the care of
the Geriatric and Complex Care Services (GCCS), for enhanced advocacy.
With your continued support and the support of my colleagues in the Administration, all of these
initiatives represent a balanced approach to bringing folks back to work, making the lives of the
people in our custody better and more productive, and reducing violence in our jails.
Deaths in Custody
Finally, I would also like to address the recent tragedies we have experienced. Over the past 12
months, there have been eleven deaths in our custody. Five of them have occurred since I came
on as Commissioner. With everything that is going on it’s too easy to forget that human beings
are at the core of what we are doing here. Every single life that has been lost on my watch is one
that I’m going to carry with me.
I want you all to know, and I want the families of the people who died in our custody to know, that
I take every incident like this personally. We in the Department owe everybody in our custody and
everyone who works in our facilities a measure of dignity, humanity and safety, and losing
someone is never acceptable.
We recently spoke to a nationally recognized expert in suicide prevention in correctional facilities,
and we learned that depression during the pandemic is pervasive across the country, but especially in correctional facilities. Still, we understand that we must do everything in our power to protect the mental and physical well-being of those in our custody.
The Department recently updated its suicide and self-harm prevention policies to better reflect
industry standards and provide staff with crucial information regarding suicide risk factors, the
identification of people at risk, and procedures for intervention and responses to threats or acts by
people of concern. The suicide prevention policy also carries four main tenets that each contribute
to reducing these behaviors among incarcerated individuals:
In addition to relying on correction officers to help prevent suicides, we are also restarting the use
of observation aides in housing units which ceased during the pandemic and during the time when
so many people committed suicide. These are people in custody who have been trained to identify
warning signs in others’ behavior and immediately report such behavior to housing unit officers.
Underscoring all of these efforts is a robust training plan for staff, which we are ramping up as we
bring staff back to work.
Finally, 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 I strongly
believe that the city of New York can, but I need the support of every elected official in this city
to take whatever measures are necessary to help us fix these problems. The fact that the First
Deputy Mayor is here with us today says a lot about the commitment the city is making to
getting the job done, so despite everything I’m optimistic we can and will get there.
The Department remains committed to ensuring the safety of our staff and everyone incarcerated
in our facilities. However, like a lot of you, I am not satisfied about where we are right now. We
have so much more to do, but we have a plan, and with your help, our plan is going to work. I am
asking you to keep supporting us in what we’re trying to do and keep the spotlight on what’s
going on our jails. I also want you to keep holding us accountable, because that forces us to keep
getting better. That’s you doing your job to make me better at my job and I appreciate all of it.
My colleagues and I are happy to answer any questions.