DA still sending some defendants to Rikers, despite jail’s chaos

DA Gonzalez continues to send people to rikers island
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.
File photo by Colin Mixson

The Brooklyn District Attorney is still sending some defendants to Rikers Island, despite the continuing chaos at the island’s jails.

A spokesperson for DA Eric Gonzalez, Oren Yaniv, said that the borough’s top prosecutor is still requesting that judges set bail for a limited set of “violent and repeat offenders” — and if they cannot post the necessary bail, they are detained at Rikers, which is currently dealing with shocking levels of violence, chaos, understaffing, and loathsome jailhouse conditions. 

The Department of Correction, which operates the jails at Rikers, announced on Sunday night that another person, Karim Isaabdul, had died in custody at Rikers — which marks the eleventh death of an inmate this year, and which comes just two weeks after the death of Esias Johnson on the island.

Yaniv said that the DA’s office is reviewing the cases of those detained on Rikers to see who can be “safely released.”

“Our policy is to limit bail requests to cases involving violent and repeat offenders,” the spokesperson said. “Given the current humanitarian crisis in Rikers, we are reviewing all cases with detained individuals to identify those who can be safely released.”

As an example of those defendants for whom the DA’s office is still asking for bail, the spokesperson noted the case of Dashawn Lewis, a 30-year-old Bronx man who was indicted on Friday for allegedly raping a woman on an A train in East New York. He is currently being held on $500,000 bail.

A spokesman with the state’s Office of Court Administration said that​​, between Sept. 1 and Sept. 19, judges set bail 284 times in Brooklyn Criminal Court, including $1 bail. 

Representatives of the Department of Corrections, which keeps records on the number of people who successfully posted bail, did not respond to a request for comment on those numbers. 

In the wake of Johnson’s death, a group of lawmakers visited the island and recounted witnessing shocking conditions for detainees there, including people being held in cramped intake rooms by the dozen, surrounded by their own urine and feces and garbage strewn all over the place, and that people were being denied access to a phone to call their lawyers or family. Lawmakers even witnessed one detainee attempt to commit suicide.

The jail is also facing a staffing crisis: DOC commissioner Vincent Schiraldi testified to the City Council that 1,789 correction officers, out of 8,370 total, had called out sick last Tuesday, and 93 were AWOL. That’s not an outlier: in August, 1,416 officers called out sick daily on average, and 93 were AWOL. Respectively, those numbers are double and triple what they were in the same period last year, according to Gothamist. Correction officers are entitled to unlimited paid sick days in their contract.

The result of those extreme numbers of officers missing work is that some of those who show up end up working triple shifts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio last week unveiled an executive order aimed at addressing the immediate staffing challenge, which included suspending AWOL officers for 30 days, expanding intake by opening up new processing centers, and shifting NYPD officers to court duty so DOC officers could be shifted back to Rikers. He also called for the courts to calendar 500 cases and for the state to transfer inmates out of Rikers and into state facilities, as well as to enact the Less Is More Act at the state level.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday signed the Less Is More Act into law. The bill bans incarceration as a punishment for technical parole violations. The bill doesn’t go into effect until March, but Hochul nonetheless ordered the immediate release of 191 inmates at Rikers being held on technical parole violations, and for 200 detainees there to be quickly transferred to state facilities.

Gonzalez attended the bill signing and praised the governor for enacting it, but his spokesperson said the reforms enacted by the mayor and governor don’t go far enough, and called for outside intervention.

“Solutions that have been proposed so far will take time to have an effect,” the spokesperson said. “In the meantime, immediate help from the outside is needed to increase staffing levels to make the jail safe for both the people incarcerated there and the corrections officers. About a month ago, the federal monitor overseeing Rikers stated that for the time being the situation was best dealt with by the City and Department of Correction. That time is now over and an immediate action plan to increase staffing and safety is required.”

The mayor last week pledged to visit Rikers before the end of his term, after being asked by Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication amNewYork Metro. He has not visited the island since June of 2017. That year, he announced a plan to close the long-troubled lockup by 2027, and replace it with four “borough-based” jails. That plan necessitates reducing the island’s incarcerated population, mainly composed of pretrial detainees, to below 5,000.

The city released hundreds of inmates in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the virus raged through the city and congregate facilities like prisons were seen as prime stomping grounds. In April 2020, the city’s jail population fell below 4,000 for the first time since 1946. Since then, the jail population has shot back up, and is now back over 6,000.