Staffing shortages at Rikers Island have limited access to medical care for incarcerated people, leading to a “high level of disorder and chaos” as the New York jail fails to “provide basic services to people in custody,” according to a New York Focus investigation.
According to jail leadership, there aren’t enough correction officers on hand to escort people to appointments, and city jails records show thousands of missed medical appointments each month. In March 2021, one in five scheduled doctors’ visits didn’t happen — 12,914 in all.
A letter from monitor Steve Martin to U.S. District Court Judge Laura Swain highlighted the severe security risks of such a shortage, which include suicides in cells and escalating use of force by officers, as over a third of the department’s uniformed officers aren’t on the job.
Martin’s letter, released earlier this week, blamed the shortages for “unreasonably high” levels of violence this summer and declared the situation an “absolute emergency,” the New York Times reported.
Driving the staffing shortage is the concern that working conditions in the city’s jails are unsafe. Hundreds of correction officers and health practitioners protested jail conditions last week at the foot of the bridge to Rikers Island, chanting “stop the triple shifts” and “safer jails now.”
“You cannot step away from your post,” one officer told New York Focus. “You’ll be thinking, ‘I’ve been sitting here for 16, 17 hours, how can I physically and mentally care for all of these people?’”
Absences have risen steeply throughout the pandemic, with the average daily number of sick leaves more than doubling between July 2020 and July 2021.
The number of unexplained staff absences more than tripled over roughly the same time period, and the number of officers on medical monitoring status rose by 73 percent.
The jail, one of the nation’s largest, was set to close in 2026 following the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission, with incarcerees to be transferred to smaller facilities around the city. But the shutdown date has been delayed for one year.
Eva Herscowitz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.