Op-ed By Benny Boscio: The High Cost Of A Federal Receiver For Rikers

By: Benny Boscio   

When it comes to overseeing the nation’s second-largest municipal jail systems, our city and state officials have taken a “pass the buck” approach by abdicating their responsibility for the myriad of problems in our jails.

After the City Council voted in 2019 to close Rikers Island, policymakers made two critical mistakes. First, many Council members sat idly by, watching our jails deteriorate into the humanitarian crisis that emerged in the summer of 2020. Rather than improving the conditions of our jails, by banning triple shifts for correction officers or holding violent inmates accountable for their crimes, the Council enhanced the rights of inmates, while ignoring the crimes committed by assaultive inmates.

Second, the previous administration failed to address the staggering rates of attrition for correction officers. In fact, not a single new correction officer was hired between February of 2019 to June of 2022. That hiring freeze led to a 30% reduction in our headcount, which explains why we have the second highest vacancy rate of any Civil Service title in the city, according to state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

While the city has begun hiring more officers, we have lost more than 600 correction officers due to resignations and retirements since last August, which has forced many of our current officers to work between 100 to 150 hours of overtime a month. Does anyone believe the city’s jails have flourished by forcing us to work under these conditions with less support?

Now that the close Rikers movement has stalled, the same critics who continue to hold press conferences, instead of holding violent inmates accountable for their crimes, have renewed their calls for a federal receivership, which they believe will be the silver bullet, ending the dysfunction and disorder in our jails.

So why all the calls for a receiver now? Much of that was sparked by the federal monitor’s reports in June and July of this year. The monitor has gone to great lengths to dismiss and diminish the actual progress made at Rikers Island over the past 13 months thanks to the tireless efforts of our essential workforce.

In 2006, a federal judge in California ordered a limited receivership for that state’s prisons after a ruling that California’s prison medical facilities did not meet constitutional standards. According to a 2009 report from the California inspector general, the receiver spent $72.1 million for planning, programming, site selection, and the design for new mental health care facilities for approximately 10,000 inmates between 2007-2008. The receivership spent another $19 million in professional fees, compensation and benefits, and other expenses in that same time period.

Not a single proponent of a federal receivership has disclosed that New York’s taxpayers will be footing the bill for the millions and potentially billions of dollars for the large bureaucracy that comes along with a receiver. On top of making taxpayers pay more than $15 billion for four new borough jails and $10 million a day for the migrant crisis, do New Yorkers really want to foot the bill to outsource the management of our jails to yet another bureaucracy?

Additionally, contrary to the wishful thinking of some advocates for a receivership, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association’s collective bargaining rights are protected under state law and don’t get automatically torn up by a federal bureaucrat. Just ask the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, which remains one of the most powerful correction unions in the country, despite dealing with a receiver for years.

There are alternatives to a receivership that can create safer jails. A commitment to maintain safe staffing levels by hiring more officers and holding assaultive inmates accountable are chief among those initiatives. Additionally, Correctional Health Services (CHS) manages the health care of the inmates in our custody under NYC Health and Hospitals.

Whenever a tragic inmate death occurs, there is no oversight hearing into the breakdown of medical care that CHS provides. There should be. We are not medical professionals, nor do we screen inmates for underlying conditions. Yet the Board of Correction, as well as the Council’s Committees on Health and Criminal Justice haven’t held any oversight hearings examining what breakdowns, if any, occurred by CHS.

Scapegoating correction officers has become popular among politicians and the media alike but blaming us and passing the buck hasn’t produced any meaningful results either. A receivership will set us back years or even decades at a price tag the city will never be able to afford. It’s time for policymakers to stop passing the buck, take responsibility for the failures of our jail system that occurred under their watch, and give us the support we desperately need.

Benny Boscio
COBA President