The violence and disorder at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex stems from years of mismanagement that allowed power to shift to lower-level wardens and the guards' union, and then to incarcerated gang members, the New York Times reports. "Wasteful and capricious" assignment plans for guards, plus easily abused sick-leave policies, lie at the root of many of the problems, and not an actual staffing shortage, as the union contends. Hundreds of correction officers were stationed in less dangerous positions while guard posts in volatile housing units went unfilled.
The official missteps date back for decades, according to the Times' review of confidential memos, other internal city documents, public records, and interviews with more than five dozen city officials, New York City Department of Correction employees, detainees and their lawyers. Multiple mayors and correction commissioners have allowed jail managers to place the least experienced officers in charge of detainee dorms and cells, posts that are critical for keeping order but viewed by many as the least desirable assignments in the system. The managers, who base staffing decisions on seniority, department custom and office politics, have also filled the jobs with guards who have fallen out of favor with administrators, reinforcing the idea that they are punishment posts to be avoided. Mayoral administrations since the 1970s have signed union contracts granting unlimited sick leave to guards and have allowed sick-leave abuses to carry few consequences. In an interview, the correction commissioner, Vincent N. Schiraldi, said the department is mired in profound problems and cannot easily be fixed. And he recounted an extraordinary admission he had made recently to other local officials: He could not ensure the safety of the people in his agency’s custody. Schiraldi called his department "a terribly, terribly inefficient system" that wastes money. “We pay so many people to not do the job we want or need them to do. We pay them to stay home sick, we pay them to be bakers instead of correction officers or administrative assistants instead of correction officers,” Schiraldi said.