A federal monitor issued a stinging report this week decrying the “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” across New York City’s jails and documenting alarming use of force by guards on the youngest people in detention. Violence among teenagers on Rikers Island spiked at the end of 2020, reaching its highest level in five years and far exceeding violence among all other age groups.
Within hours of the report’s Tuesday release, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new leader will take over the troubled Corrections Department: Vincent Schiraldi, a reformer who has made it his life’s work to shut down youth lockups and keep people away from the hazardous conditions inside detention centers — especially children and young adults.
Schiraldi will take over the Department of Corrections next month, replacing Commissioner Cynthia Brann, who is stepping down after three and a half years.
Schiraldi, a former city probation commissioner, is founder and current co-director of the Columbia Justice Lab at Columbia University, which works toward “a community-centered future for justice in which healing and resiliency, rather than punishment and surveillance, are used to solve social problems often rooted in racial and economic inequity.”
He is also the co-chair of Youth Corrections Leaders for Justice, a nationwide coalition that advocates for closing youth prisons.
In an email to reporters, Schiraldi pledged to make decarceration and rehabilitation a centerpiece of his leadership of the New York City Corrections Department.
“The opportunity to run, reform and downsize New York City’s jail system and push forward efforts to close the Rikers Island jails isn’t just an opportunity to advance justice and decency that I couldn’t pass up,” he wrote, “it’s also a chance to implement the types of policy innovations and transformational change that the Justice Lab studies and shapes.”
As director of the District of Columbia Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services in the early 2000s, Schiraldi closed the district’s central juvenile detention center, long infamous for high rates of violence and staff abuse. He is a strong supporter of New York City’s 2013 “Close to Home” law, which houses juvenile offenders in the five boroughs, rather than in far-flung upstate detention centers.
A former New York City probation commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Schiraldi has questioned whether probation is the best way to rehabilitate youth, or whether they would be better served by community-based organizations. He has also urged courts to develop different approaches for offenders in their late teens and early 20s, pointing to neuroscience and psychology research showing their brains are not fully formed, affecting behaviors such as impulse control and understanding consequences.
In his new role, Schiraldi will work with the largest union of city jail officers in the country and oversee the long-troubled Rikers Island — a momentous task by any measure. More than 5,000 people are incarcerated in the sprawling complex, which was in crisis long before the coronavirus began racing through cell blocks last year.
A 2011 lawsuit alleging widespread abuse in the city’s jails resulted in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the appointment of the federal monitor Steve Martin. His 11th and most recent report found that the city’s jail system has made little progress in reforming a culture that has long tolerated — and even relied on — the use of excessive force against inmates.
“The issues plaguing the Department are systemic and deep-seated and have been passed down and accepted by all levels of staff across the agency,” states the report released this week. Most critically, the report panned the “poor quality” of leadership at each detention facility, where wardens and assistant wardens are selected from the ranks of uniformed officers.
“They do not seem to be capable of dismantling the dysfunctional/abusive culture at the
facilities and replacing it with one built on dignity, respect, and problem-solving,” the report said. “They simply do not know of other ways to solve problems besides ‘how we’ve always done it.’”
The monitor’s report called out a “high level of disorder” at the Robert N. Davoren Center, the Rikers Island facility that houses most incarcerated 18-year-olds, along with half of those ages 19 to 21. The rates of both use of force by guards and youth-on-youth violence first spiked in the summer of 2018, when 18-year-olds were separated from older inmates and housed in one location.
Data in the monitor’s report shows that the youngest inmates are by far the most likely to have physical force used against them by an officer. Compared to those ages 22 and older, 18-year-olds were five times as likely to be handled with force in 2020, while 19- to 21-year-olds were three times as likely. Since federal monitoring began, the rate at which officers apply force against 18-year-olds has more than doubled.
The rate of violence among 18-year-olds in the Davoren Center also spiked at the end of 2020, reaching its highest level in five years. That’s despite the fact that the number of 18-year-olds in the facility has dropped by half, while the population of 19- to 21-year-olds and older adults — who data in the report shows are much less likely to fight — has increased.
The facility’s high levels of violence are a product of “unstable” leadership, inconsistent staffing assignments and inadequate staff supervision, the report found. It noted that the situation was likely exacerbated by the yearlong lapse in in-person education and structured programming from community partners, neither of which has yet resumed.
Even with an unusually high rate of staff out sick or on leave during the pandemic, the city has an “extraordinarily large” workforce of available correctional officers — roughly one officer for every detained person. That staffing structure has contributed to a pattern of “hyper-confrontational Staff response,” the court monitor report found, one that “undervalues de-escalation and problem-solving and overuses physical intervention.”
City leaders are now looking to Schiraldi to correct the deep dysfunction.
In a publicly released statement Tuesday, Mayor de Blasio called him “a reformer through and through.”
"Vincent has led the charge to fundamentally change how our criminal justice system works,” the mayor said. “I trust that he will drive us forward in our work to create a jail system that is smaller, safer and more humane."
The chair of the City Council’s criminal justice committee, which oversees the Department of Corrections, also issued a statement praising Schiraldi’s appointment as urgently needed in light of the most recent scathing federal monitor report.
“We have a responsibility to act on criminal justice reform in our city, including ending solitary confinement, overhauling the culture in city jails and truly closing Rikers Island,” said Manhattan Councilmember Keith Powers, in a statement sent through a spokesperson. “There is no more urgent moment for change.”