Notorious Rikers Island NYC lock-up, Correction Dept. grappling with staffing & safety as inmate deaths mount

One of nation's largest municipal jail systems, NYC's Rikers Island, struggling with staff exodus as nearly 12 inmates have died in custody this year

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New York City’s Department of Correction – among its facilities, the notorious Rikers Island lock-up – is grappling with staffing woes amid nearly a dozen inmate deaths so far this year and a new $25 million lawsuit, Fox News has learned.

A city correction officers’ union and representatives of families whose loved ones have died while in New York City DOC’s custody are blaming the lack of safety for both inmates and employees on a lack of adequate staffing levels, which has in turn led to the department’s inability to provide sufficient care and control. 

How could this happen, and how many more people are going to have to go through it?"

— Tanisha Smith, spokesperson for family of Elijah Muhammad

"To run our jails effectively, efficiently and safely, you need to have optimal staffing levels. You need to hire staff to maintain optimal staffing levels," said Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association told Fox News Digital on Friday. "Everything that happens through our jails in terms of care, custody and control, inmate services, safety and security runs through staffing levels."

The DOC system consists of seven facilities across four of the five boroughs the Rikers Island lock-up is made up of multiple units. As of December 2021, the correction department employed 7,501 correction officers – down by 27% since January 2019, according to the New York City Comptroller’s Office. The most recent figures released by the DOC showed that the agency employed 7,068 uniformed staff as of the end of June. 

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A DOC spokesperson told Fox News Digital employee shortages "are a national issue," but added: "[We] are encouraged by staffing improvements we've seen under this administration."

"While more work remains to compensate for decades of neglect, almost half as many officers are out sick on any given day compared to a year ago, a marked improvement that has allowed us to resume tactical search operations for contraband in jails," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "We are working every day under our Action Plan to improve staffing and safety in our jails."

11 INMATE DEATHS

The entrance to Rikers Island, home to the main jail complex, is shown from the Queens borough as shown on October 19, 2021 in New York City.

The entrance to Rikers Island, home to the main jail complex, is shown from the Queens borough as shown on October 19, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

On Friday, the Department of Correction reported its 11th inmate death so far this year.

The person, an inmate at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, died of a suspected drug overdose on Friday morning, according to the DOC and a source familiar with the matter. 

DOC Commissioner Louis A. Molina wrote in a statement that the agency was "extremely saddened by yet another death in custody."

"[W]e are doing everything in our power to keep people safe and prevent further losses," Molina wrote. "Any death in custody is intolerable and we are investigating both of the deaths that occurred this week aggressively."

Five more inmates have died in DOC custody this year than the same time in 2021, according to the New York Post. 

Of the 11 inmate deaths, at least eight were reported to have occurred at Rikers Island. 

‘DEATH SENTENCE'

Elijah Muhammed, in this undated photo

Elijah Muhammed, in this undated photo (Photo courtesy Sanford Rubenstein)

Just hours after the DOC revealed the news of the latest death of a person in its custody, New York City-based attorney Sanford Rubenstein announced a $25 million notice of claim against the city and the agency.

Elijah Muhammad, 31, was found dead in a jail cell at Rikers Island on July 10 under circumstances that led to the immediate firing of an agency employee. Muhammad’s family is now seeking justice. 

"Incarceration at Rikers should not be a death sentence," he told Fox News Digital. "The federal court judge overseeing Rikers needs to order a federal takeover of the facility."  

According to the notice of claim, Muhammad, who had certain mental health care requirements, was placed in solitary confinement for an estimated 32 hours "against proper New York City Department of Correction protocols, without a bed or access to medical care that upon information and belief contributed to his death," the notice states. 

Elijah Muhammad with his newborn son in this undated photo

Elijah Muhammad with his newborn son in this undated photo (Photo courtesy Sanford Rubenstein)

DOC guidelines state that an inmate should not be placed in solitary confinement for more than six hours "in such situations," the notice continues. Correction officers allegedly saw that he needed medical help, but did nothing. 

Correction Officers "saw that [Muhammad] appeared to be disoriented and barely able to walk and that he needed medical attention," the notice states. "However, [he] was left to die in his cell and remained deceased in his cell for a length of time that his body began to show signs of rigor mortis."

Rigor mortis is a medical term that describes when the body stiffens after death, and can be indicative of a period of time passing. 

The filing goes on to describe how Muhammad possibly died as a result of a drug overdose from narcotics allegedly transported onto Rikers by DOC staff. 

READ THE $25 MILLION NOTICE OF CLAIM HERE:

In announcing Muhammad’s death, DOC Commissioner Molina also revealed that the agency had taken "immediate action against the staff involved, and an officer was terminated." Molina added that the incident was referred to the city’s Department of Investigation. 

The notice of claim argues that the department has "failed" to maintain necessary staffing levels.

New York City and the DOC, it wrote, "failed to provide enough personnel and/or correction officers who could properly supervise, monitor and control all of the inmates at the time of the incident."

Muhammad’s cousin, family spokesperson Tanisha Smith, told Fox News Digital on Friday they hope no one ever has to experience "something like this."

In this March 16, 2011, file photo, a security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York. 

In this March 16, 2011, file photo, a security fence surrounds inmate housing on the Rikers Island correctional facility in New York.  (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

"It’s unthinkable. It’s shocking. How could this happen and how many more people are going to have to go through it?" Smith told Fox News Digital on Friday.

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She further added that her cousin "was treated so inhumane."

"The lack of medical attention – it needs to be changed," she said. 

Muhammad left behind three daughters and one son, ages 2, 3, 9, and 11. Smith, a nurse in the Bronx, described her cousin as a "humble" man and a "kind soul" who "wrestled with demons and suffered from bipolar [disorder] and schizophrenia." 

"He was always willing to lend a helping hand, not only to his family or anyone," she said. "He was that type of person who always wanted to make sure you were okay. He had an infectious smile that would light up your heart up."

‘COMPLETELY UNTENABLE SITUATION’

But correction officers and those who work on behalf of them say staffing levels within the agency have created a lack of safety for personnel and control of the environment. 

DOC figures provided to Fox News Digital this week show 473 uniformed personnel have left the agency so far this year as of July 1, with 287 resigning and 186 retiring. That’s compared to the 415 who left the job during the same time last year. A DOC spokesperson told Fox News Digital the agency plans to hire a staffing manager to handle employee deployments and the administration. 

COBA President Benny Boscio Jr. said correction officers are "working double and triple shifts, while getting assaulted in one of the most dangerous working environments in the country." 

"Anyone who thinks that the nation’s second-largest municipal jail system can run safely and effectively, while not hiring enough correction officers to backfill the 3,500 officers we have lost to resignations and retirements since 2019, and the 100 officers we continue to lose every month, is completely clueless," Boscio said in a statement. "[U]ntil our elected officials invest in hiring the manpower we need to keep our jails safe, the many challenges we face will needlessly continue to jeopardize thousands of lives in our facilities every day."

In this March 12, 2015 file photo, numbered doors of enhanced supervision housing unit, also commonly known as solitary confinement, are shown at the Rikers Island jail complex n New York.

In this March 12, 2015 file photo, numbered doors of enhanced supervision housing unit, also commonly known as solitary confinement, are shown at the Rikers Island jail complex n New York. ((AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File))

A COBA spokesperson told Fox News Digital the agency is operating "at very unsafe staffing levels." 

"You can't have large gaps where 50 officers come in one month and maybe 50 officers come in like six months later because in between you've lost 100 officers a month at that time," he said.

He further described instances in which correction officers recovered fentanyl and other forms of narcotics in mail sent to inmates. 

A current correction officer employed to work on Rikers Island, who has been with the agency for at least 15 years, told Fox News Digital there have been instances where five correction officers who are assigned to one unit will leave the job in a single week.

The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that doing so could negatively impact her, is currently out on sick leave after they suffered a back injury during a struggle with an inmate in late 2021, they said. They are now looking for another job after staffing conditions inside have left officers with "no control." 

The Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background.

The Rikers Island jail complex stands in New York with the Manhattan skyline in the background. ((AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File))

"I can’t do it," the officer said. "You’re basically risking your life going there. You have no protection …. And the inmates know it."  

The officer added: "They’ll throw feces, they'll throw urine at you … It's just not safe. And you have to weigh the pros and cons. And at the end of the day, my mental health and my safety is much more than this check."

When asked for their thoughts about the recent notice of claim and the argument that the DOC "failed to provide enough personnel and/or correction officers" to "properly supervise, monitor and control," the officer, they said the statement was "absolutely correct." But the officer also said it was the result of a "domino effect." 

"They do not have the staff. But it's not our fault. We’re getting our asses kicked," they said. "Nobody wants to come to work to go through that."

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Skelly, the COBA spokesperson described the staffing struggles as being the "residual effects of the previous mayoral administration not hiring correctional officers for three years." 

Skelly added: "That is a completely untenable situation with dramatic implications."

The correction system is no stranger to such staffing struggles. Fox News Digital reported in August 2021 on similar issues, in which correction officers were working double or triple shifts and, in turn, calling in sick.