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After 4 years, NYC mayor finally visits Rikers amid ‘humanitarian crisis’

New York Daily News logo New York Daily News 9/27/2021 Chris Sommerfeldt and Michael Gartland, New York Daily News
People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island on March 31, 2017, in New York City. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/TNS People walk by a sign at the entrance to Rikers Island on March 31, 2017, in New York City.

Amid a deafening public outcry, Mayor de Blasio finally visited Rikers Island on Monday after staying away from the troubled jail complex for four years and as lawmakers and advocates demanded he see firsthand what they’ve called a “humanitarian crisis.”

De Blasio promised Friday he would tour Rikers this week, but as of Monday morning, he wasn’t revealing exactly when that visit would take place. Later, at around 2:30 p.m., his press team signaled a shift, announcing he’d arrive at Rikers within a matter of hours.

At around 5 p.m., de Blasio spoke about what he’d seen at two facilities there, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center and the Eric M. Taylor Center, which just recently reopened.

“We’ve got a hell of a lot of work to do,” he told reporters. “What I saw is work that needs to be done ... We know there’s a lot more to do.”

He specifically pointed to reducing the number of inmates there, “faster intake” and improving health care services as goals that have yet to be fully accomplished.

Asked if anything specific had struck him about what he saw inside, de Blasio said he has been “upset” about the conditions at Rikers ever since becoming mayor.

“I was upset when I took office. I was upset four years ago. I remain upset,” he said. “This is a place that should have been shut down a long, long time ago”

For weeks, lawmakers and advocates have howled about horrible conditions at Rikers Island, including crowded cells covered in urine and feces, staffing shortages and the deaths of a dozen inmates within the last year. The conditions led some to dub Rikers Horror Island and prompted several members of Congress to urge President Biden to intervene.

De Blasio has responded by expanding the jail’s intake capacity to the Taylor Center to address overcrowding in holding cells used to process new prisoners. He announced he would punish correction officers who call in sick with no good reason and brought in the NYPD to help alleviate the staffing shortages that have plagued the Department of Correction in recent weeks. On Monday, he also vowed to stop requiring correction officers to work shifts of 24 hours or longer by October, and to reduce the jail’s population from about 5,600 to under 5,000 “in the coming weeks.”

De Blasio has pressed both Gov. Hochul and the state court system to address the issues at Rikers as well, with varying degrees of success.

Two weeks ago, de Blasio demanded the courts rely on supervised release guidelines to slow the flow of prisoners being sent to Rikers, but was met with resistance. At the time, a spokesman for the court system pointed out that de Blasio’s proposal was not new and was, in fact, “something we have been doing throughout the entire pandemic.”

Days later, Hochul signed off on the Less is More Act, which allows for inmates imprisoned for minor parole violations to be released. She also ordered the immediate release of about 200 inmates before that law goes into effect next year.

But last week, a federal monitor overseeing Rikers suggested none of it has been enough. The monitor, Steve Martin, said during a federal court hearing Friday that security footage of two correction officers failing to see an inmate hanging himself showed just how bad the problems there are.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who’s overseeing a federal consent decree stemming from brutality allegations at Rikers, responded that the city and advocates had four days to work out a solution.

Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, was there Monday to confront de Blasio and suggested the mayor came far too late and did too little to address the situation.

“He didn’t tour everywhere he needed to go today,” Boscio told the Daily News, adding that it was a “sugarcoated tour” and that inmates had been “cleared out.”

“He did not go see any housing areas where inmates are housed. They cleared out the area. You could smell the paint, they just painted it. We had our masks on and you could smell the fresh paint that was just painted. The intake was absolutely cleaned out. So he saw nothing. I respectfully asked him to tour with me so I could show him our reality of what we’re dealing with every single day. He didn’t see none of it,” Boscio continued. “He came here to appease the media and the pressure that the other legislators put on him to come to Rikers, but like I said, he didn’t see what he needed to see today.”

Boscio, a consistent and outspoken critic of de Blasio, said the mayor was using the union as a “scapegoat” and also pointed to the fact that he did not speak with correction officers during his tour.

“I stood back respectfully, and I watched him. He didn’t speak to one correction officer. Maybe say ‘hi,’ from a distance, not, ‘How many hours are you working? How do you feel today?’” Boscio said. “One officer had his jaw broken this week. No call to him or his family. This is how we’ve been treated in New York City. It’s a shame. It’s a disgrace.”

De Blasio acknowledged Monday after touring Rikers that he didn’t speak with correction officers during the tour.

For weeks, de Blasio has touted himself as proactive in responding to the problems at Rikers and has pointed to the plan that’s underway to ultimately close the notorious jail, but there is still at least one measure he has been reluctant to take.

On Monday, he continued to resist using the 6A program, which would allow the city to let out non-violent inmates who violate their parole into work-release programs.

When asked at his morning news briefing how he plans to reduce the jail population to under 5,000 without using every tool at his disposal — including 6A — de Blasio said using the program would not yield “a game-changing number” of people being released.

But de Blasio also didn’t appear to have a clear sense of what that estimated total is.

When asked to provide it, he demurred, saying a number would be forthcoming in the days ahead and that “to my understanding, it’s dozens, it’s not hundreds.”

“I’m not going to give you an estimated number. I’m going to give you an actual number when the process is completed, which will be, I think, this week,” he said. “We’re going to figure out what that number is and then announce it.”

Despite that stance, de Blasio acknowledged repeatedly after touring Rikers that it is a place “that needs a lot of work.”

“Our job is to do everything that we can within a broken structure,” he said. “It’s 85 years old, a lot of this. It should not be here anymore. Our job is to do what we can with what we have.”

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