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Conditions at Rikers Island are so bad that Manhattan’s DA won’t ask for bail in non-violent cases

The conditions on Rikers Island, home to New York City‘s main jail complex, are ‘so bad’ that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has asked prosecutors not to ask for bail in non-violent cases, even if it risks an increase in ‘low-level street crime.’

From now on, monetary bail will not be required for offenders in NYC if the crime is considered nonviolent. 

Prosecutors will also drop bail for defendants who aren’t considered violent felons and who have not record of sex crimes or violent convictions within the last ten years. The defendant also needs to have a perfect court date attendance.

Warshawer said the office will still ask for release upon parole and other terms that don’t involve monetary transactions. 

The order comes after a dozen of deaths were reported this year at the jail complex, which is subject to a potential federal civil rights investigation request by New York City lawmakers.

The district attorney’s office said the conditions at Rikers ‘are of deep concern’ and ‘will inform our bail practices for at least the next few weeks.’ 

Conditions at Rikers Island have gotten so bad that Manhattan DA Cy Vance tells prosecutors not to ask for bail on crimes committed by non-violent offenders — even if it risks an increase in ‘low-level’ crime. PICTURED: A sign marks the location of the Rikers Correctional Center in the East River.

City officials toured Rikers complex last week saying it's filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food (pictured)

City officials toured Rikers complex last week saying it’s filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food (pictured)

Floors at Rikers Island complex is rumored to be covered in rotting debris (pictured)

Floors at Rikers Island complex is rumored to be covered in rotting debris (pictured)

Some cells are described to be 'filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and barely usable sinks (pictured)

Some cells are described to be ‘filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and barely usable sinks (pictured)

‘We hope that the conditions on Rikers Island improve quickly,’ executive assistant district attorney Joan Illuzzi said in a memo obtained by ABC News. 

‘While we are duty bound to insure public safety, we are also aware that no one can avert their eyes from the conditions being reported at Rikers.

‘In light of the conditions faced by those individuals detained at Rikers, we have endeavored to ensure that our practices are as equitable as possible, even though we understand that releasing some individuals may, unfortunately, lead to additional low level crime.’    

One jail watchdog called it ‘a complete breakdown in the operation of the jails.’

‘In our office’s 50 years of monitoring the city jails, this is one of the most dangerous times we’ve seen,’ said Mary Lynne Werlwas, a lawyer and director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

At one point during the summer, more than one-third of the city’s jail guards — about 3,050 of 8,500 — were on sick leave or medically unfit to work with inmates, according to the agency that runs the city’s jails, the Department of Correction. 

Some guards have been missing shifts without any explanation.   

PICTURED: A solitary confinement cell at New York City's Rikers Island jail. New York City's Rikers Island jail has entrenched problems responding to the increase of violence on the island

PICTURED: A solitary confinement cell at New York City’s Rikers Island jail. New York City’s Rikers Island jail has entrenched problems responding to the increase of violence on the island

One prison staffer at Rikers Island has described the facility as having 'a complete breakdown in the operation of the jails' due to the shortage of guards

One prison staffer at Rikers Island has described the facility as having ‘a complete breakdown in the operation of the jails’ due to the shortage of guards

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday, ‘It has to be very, very carefully approached.’

‘There are some low-level offenses where — I’ve said this for a long time — people do not belong in a jail setting. We can use supervised release, we can use a lot of other tools,’ he said. 

‘But when it particularly comes to anything regarding violent crime or serious crime, I would be very, very careful.’

The growing crisis, brought to light in recent weeks by advocates, news reports and a federal monitor who wrote of ‘grave concerns’ with the city’s jails, has sent officials scrambling for remedies amid plans to close Rikers by 2026.

On Wednesday, the city started suspending jail guards for 30 days without pay if they refused to come to work. Last week, the city said the staffing situation was so dire it was enlisting a telemarketing company to entice recently retired correctional officers to return to work. 

Lawmakers who toured Rikers complex last week said it’s filthy and inhumane, with overflowing toilets and floors covered in dead cockroaches, feces and rotting food. 

State Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas said inmates told her they felt like they were being treated like slaves and animals.   

The union, meanwhile, has said that hiring more guards is the answer and that suspensions will leave remaining officers working ‘triple and quadruple shifts with no meals and no rest.’

‘The mayor cannot discipline his way out of this staffing crisis that he caused by refusing to hire a single correction officer for nearly three years, even as the inmate population doubled,’ said Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association.

In actuality, the city’s jail population has risen by about 58 percent, topping 6,000 inmates at the end of last week after falling below 3,900 inmates as bail reforms took effect, arrests slowed and some inmates were sent home early in the pandemic. 

In addition, city jail Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said Monday that the city has authorized the hiring of at least 200 correctional officers.

De Blasio has blamed virus-related court backlogs for the increases and called on judges to use supervised release instead of jail for people accused of nonviolent offenses. 

He wants the state’s prison system to transfer sentenced inmates from Rikers within five days and joined advocates and lawmakers in calling on Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign a bill overhauling the parole system.

Most of the city’s jail inmates are being held for trial or on parole violations.

Mayor Bill de Blasio (pictured), after touring the Rikers Island jail complex on Monday, said the prison's conditions need improving but declined to provide details about what he observed

Mayor Bill de Blasio (pictured), after touring the Rikers Island jail complex on Monday, said the prison’s conditions need improving but declined to provide details about what he observed

Problems at Rikers aren’t new. 

The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported on past concerns including violence, deaths, sexual assaults and mistreatment of mentally ill inmates.

‘It’s taken a really long time to mess this place up. It has been decades of neglect out here,’ said Schiraldi, the jail commissioner since June. ‘I call it the junk drawer of the criminal justice system.’

Inmates have wallowed for days at a single intake unit without basic medical attention, like having their blood sugar checked, and unable to make phone calls to relatives, lawmakers and advocates said.

Inmates have lashed out at guards and each other. In July, an inmate tossed feces at a jail captain. In August, an inmate slashed a guard.

In March, in what was supposed to be a secure and closely watched mental health observation unit, authorities said an inmate managed to kill himself.

‘These conditions are not just responding to the crisis of the pandemic that hit the jails 17 months ago,’ said Werlwas. ‘This is a severe and remarkable decline in the very most basic security and operations of our jails.’

Some housing units have no guards at all and some Rikers inmates were able to access off-limits areas that were supposed to be highly secure. PICTURED: : The Rikers Island Prison complex is seen from an airplane in the Queens borough of New York City

Some housing units have no guards at all and some Rikers inmates were able to access off-limits areas that were supposed to be highly secure. PICTURED: : The Rikers Island Prison complex is seen from an airplane in the Queens borough of New York City

The jail’s federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Laura Swain in August that worsening conditions in the city’s jails — rising violence, self-harm, death and use of force by guards — were tied directly to a spike in ‘excessive and unchecked staff absences’ dating to April.

Guards who did show up said they were forced to work double and triple shifts, leading the union to sue the city over what it called ‘inhumane’ working conditions.

Some housing units had no guards at all, Martin said, and some Rikers inmates were able to access off-limits areas that were supposed to be highly secure.

The five suspected suicides at Rikers this year are the most there since 2005. In the past five weeks, three inmates have died. 

One of them, 25-year-old Brandon Rodriguez, had been there a week. Another, 24-year-old Esias Johnson, who died on September 7, was a month into his stay.

State Senator Jessica Ramos said lawmakers touring Rikers on Monday saw a man trying to kill himself.

‘Everything goes back to the problem of Rikers Island itself,’ de Blasio said. ‘We need to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible, but in the meantime, we have immense challenges.’


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