As the city looks to overhaul operations at Rikers Island, the Department of Correction has asked its own employees what they think—and four out of five say the beleaguered department needs improvement.
“This survey speaks loud and clear: our officers want real, meaningful change on Rikers Island—and we agree. We have a special duty to protect and support our officers, and we’ve already started putting their suggestions into action to make sure every officer feels confident and secure when they start their shift each day,” Commissioner Joseph Ponte told the Observer in a statement.
According to excerpts of the survey’s results, provided to the Observer, officers enumerated complaints about everything from the building’s physical condition to the way inmates are housed. The department would not immediately provide full, detailed results of the survey.
Overall, four out of five—or about 80 percent of those surveyed—responded that the way the department has been run could be improved, according to the department. The results reveal low morale that Mr. Ponte has discussed before, and perhaps come as no surprise with the city’s jails the focus of scathing newspaper stories and a lawsuit from the federal Department of Justice.
And while people enter the job with high hopes for it, those dissipate quickly, according to the survey. New academy recruits were five times more motivated than other staff—but in less than two years, that had lost those optimistic feelings, the survey found.
As critics of the department have focused on abuses against inmates, leaders of the unions representing uniformed correction employees have said they, too, feel unsafe—and the survey reports that employees are “stressed and overworked” while facing a “dangerous environment” on the job.
Seven out of ten staffers placed some of the blame on an inadequate inmate classification system—saying the way inmates are classified and assigned contributes to an unsafe environment. Changes to the classification system are underway as part of a “14-point” plan aimed at reducing violence against both inmates and officers at Rikers Island.
Union leaders and Mr. Ponte himself have previously pointed to the classification system at Rikers as a problem. In a sit-down with the Observer in February, Mr. Ponte said he believed violence had risen in part because certain tools, like administrative segregation to allow violent inmates to be housed separately even if they had not committed an infraction, were missing. On top of that, Mr. Ponte said, with crime on the decline and the jail population similarly falling, those remaining in jail were among the worst offenders.
“We had ineffective tools to start with, it shows up now much more severely, because the inamtes are much more difficult. So it didn’t work well before, it works less well now, because this is a much more difficult population,” Mr. Ponte said in February.
Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the union representing assistant deputy wardens and deputy wardens, did not respond to a request for comment today but told the Observer in February that the “classification system is a big part of the violence,” with the department changing its system from four levels of classification to three.
“There are circumstances where lambs are being housed with lions,” he said.
The Correction Officers Benevolent Association, the union representing the vast majority of uniformed staff at Rikers, has also been relentlessly focused on violence against officers. Its website includes graphic photographs of officer injuries alongside the slogan “Not what we signed up for.” Its Twitter and Facebook feeds feature daily reports from President Norman Seabrook about incidents at Rikers—today he reported that in the preceding 72 hours, 12 correction officers were sent to the emergency room, 28 inmates had fought and were sprayed with a chemical agent to stop, and eight correction officers were “splashed” with “feces-urine-blood.” Mr. Seabrook’s office did not respond to a request to speak with him about the survey’s findings.
In recent weeks the department has opened new Enhanced Supervision Housing Units—designed to hold the most problematic inmates, like those who have repeatedly been violent or have gang connections, in more restrictive housing.
In the survey, staffers also reported a “lack of fairness” and respect between different ranks and tenure groups at the department, and that outdated equipment make it difficult to work and remain safe. The physical plant at Rikers has been under fire in recent weeks, particularly after an inmate was able to enter a secure area and attempted to rape an officer—with other inmates ripping apart a plexiglass partition that was supposed to be secure in order to come to her rescue.
All of the roughly 11,000 people who work for the department—including uniformed officers and civilians—were offered the opportunity to take the survey, with 80 percent opting to respond.
Some of the reforms in Mr. Ponte’s recently announced plan are aimed at addressing the morale problems outlined in the survey—including extra training in mental health first aid and crisis management, improving search procedures at entrances to jails to detect drugs and weapons, and putting first-line responders in some facilities at Rikers to respond more quickly to violence.
But the department is also taking smaller steps to better the morale among officers—including a new bus route, with new vehicles and updated schedules, to help workers get around from facility to facility and back to the parking lot on the other side of the Rikers Island bridge. The department is also rolling out new food carts and new break-room furniture, as well as a fully staffed human resources office on Rikers so officer don’t have to travel elsewhere.
Other reforms are aimed at addressing complaints from officers about tension between different ranks—and the feeling among some that moving up the ranks happens unfairly, which were also evidenced in the survey results. The department has already overhauled its training and recruitment—it will no longer allow people who have failed the police department test to join the correction department, for example. This year it will also look to better offer a roadmap to officers who want to stay in the department to stem staff attrition, and expand training and professional development programs, officials said.