At a press conference on Wednesday, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer presented data on the human and financial costs of the city’s correctional facilities, offering stern warning on the future of Rikers Island, the prison complex he called a “humanitarian crisis.”
According to Stringer, claims filed for personal injuries–both from routine accidents, mismanaged facilities and violent encounters–rose 27% in the 2015 fiscal year and cost the city $13.1 million to settle. This data includes all of New York City’s jails, but overwhelmingly comes from injuries at Rikers Island. Of the 10 facilities with the highest number of claims, 8 were located at Rikers.
The cost of settling lawsuits was up 66% from the previous fiscal year. Three high-profile settlements with the families of inmates who died at Rikers cost the city over $1 million each.
“Rikers today, it is the wild west. It is the wild west of corrections,” Stringer said. “We have to own up to that. The data I’m presenting today should be a clarion call.”
Stringer has been following these claims against the city through “CompStat Alert,” a program used to identify and inform officials about trouble areas which could lead to future lawsuits. These claims are comprised of inmate against inmate, officer against inmate, and inmate against officer violence as well as non-violent “slip-and-fall” sorts of cases, many of which can be attributed to the crumbling infrastructure of Rikers.
According to Stringer, he had success in reducing the number of NYPD claims through a similar program. Working with the NYPD and CompStat statistics, the city was able to pinpoint “hotspots” and reduce their risk.
“We are spending more taxpayer dollars only to see a rise in incidents that lead to claims. Some of those settlements truly create a huge cost-burden for our city,” Stringer said.
“The claims don’t lie,” Stringer said in the New York Times. “We have obviously a crisis of violence and an untenable situation.”
City Hall Spokeswoman Monica Klein pointed out that many of the claims settled in the 2015 fiscal year were for incidents that occurred in previous years. Reforms by Mayor de Blasio, Commissioner Joseph Ponte and a new use of force policy led to positive changes that can’t be overlooked.
“The 23% reduction is serious uses of force and 11% reduction in serious assaults on staff make clear that Commissioner Ponte is taking aggressive steps to keep our inmates and officers safe,” Klein was quoted saying in The Observer. “And from expanding officer training to announcing a new Use of Force policy to safely curtailing solitary confinement, we are putting clear reforms in place to address violence and improve inmate outcomes on Rikers.”
While many argue that reforms are working, others believe that the danger of maintaining Rikers is simply too high. Despite reform a “culture of violence” arguably still exists. Reforms have been extremely costly and still not produced results that indicate it is sustainable. Poor infrastructure and isolation from the rest of the city have further complicated problems.
In her state of the city address last week, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito stated that she would have a commission study ways to fulfill the “dream” of closing Rikers for good, moving inmates to smaller borough jails.
Mayor de Blasio also said this week that the idea of closing the prison is “noble,” but it is not a reality the city is ready for.
“My job is to level with the people of New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference. “This would cost billions and billions of dollars, be logistically very difficult, and we don’t have the space right now.”
“I think the mayor is right—to close Rikers, there would be a huge cost to doing that,” Mr. Stringer told reporters in Wednesday’s press conference. “But there’s also a huge cost to not closing Rikers.”