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Hochul Orders Release of 191 Detainees as Rikers Crisis Deepens

​Responding to an escalating crisis inside New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday signed a measure …

Hochul Orders Release of 191 Detainees as Rikers Crisis Deepens

​Responding to an escalating crisis inside New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex, Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday signed a measure that will lead to the release of about 200 detainees, many of them being held for parole violations.

The law, known as the Less is More Act, is intended to ease crowding in the jail at a time when severe staffing shortages at the city’s Department of Correction have led to unsafe and unsanitary conditions for detainees and guards. Ten people have died at Rikers since December, several by suicide.

Even though the law does not go into effect until next March, Ms. Hochul said she was directing the board of parole to immediately release 191 people who qualify from Rikers Island. They were expected to be released on Friday.

Ms. Hochul said the legislation’s focus on ending the re-imprisonment of individuals for technical parole violations was a crucial step to end one of the largest drivers of mass incarceration in New York.

“Parole in this state often becomes a ticket back into jail because of technical violations,” Ms. Hochul said. “Someone was caught with a drink or using a substance or missing an appointment.”

Ms. Hochul also said an additional 200 people serving sentences would be moved from Rikers Island to state prisons over the next five days to ease the burden on the city jail.

But the legislation will still leave Rikers far more crowded than it was last spring, when a wave of releases amid the pandemic dropped the population below 4,000. As of Friday, more than 6,000 people were being held at the jail.

At the same time, coronavirus rates inside the jail appear to be climbing. Correctional health officials first reported an uptick in the prevalence of the virus in mid-August, followed by a spike in cases later that month. After active cases and rates in the jail dropped to near zero in June and July, the seven-day average positive test rate among detainees — 4.36 percent as of this week — is now higher than the city’s 3.92 rate at large.

During a City Council hearing this week to address the conditions at Rikers, officials described a two-pronged catastrophe in the making. About 2,700 staff members — roughly a third of the entire work force — are absent or unable to work on any given day for myriad reasons, leading to a lack of supervision that has caused violence among detainees; and crowding in unsanitary conditions is paving the way for a new surge in coronavirus infections. As of this week, the city said there were 65 active virus cases at the jail.

Only 36 percent of detainees at the jail are fully vaccinated, according to city data.

“The current conditions are resulting in a rapid increase in Covid-19 infection rate in the jails, (and) previously effective control mechanisms such as isolation and quarantine will not be possible because of the department’s dysfunction and overcrowding,” Dr. Robert Cohen, a member of the Board of Correction, an independent body that monitors the jail system, said at the hearing.

Officials have said the staffing shortage has left posts unmanned and cells unsupervised. Guards who do come to work are forced to stay on past the point of exhaustion, working double or even triple shifts. Detainees and correction officers have described conditions inside the jails as filthy, with bodily fluids on the floors and walls of cells, and people held for days in intake units fashioned out of showers.

“The situation in the jails is worse than I imagined,” Vincent Schiraldi, the commissioner of the Correction Department, said at the hearing. “There are sometimes posts with no staff on them, and makes it extremely difficult for us to provide basic services and maintain the level of safety that our officers, civilian workers and people in custody deserve.”

Facing intense criticism following a series of violent incidents and reports of chaotic conditions inside Rikers, Mayor Bill de Blasio this week announced an emergency plan that would allow the Correction Department to suspend workers without pay who were found to be absent without permission.

After signing the bill on Friday, Ms. Hochul said the release of 191 people from Rikers Island was meant to “alleviate the pressure cooker, which could explode at any time. But we’ll be looking at other people who qualify around the state. This was just an immediate Rikers driven situation, but absolutely people meet that threshold in other parts of the state.”

Luis Ferré-Sadurní contributed reporting.

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