The Department of Correction (DOC) is refusing to disclose how it ensured the safety of inmates in its more restrictive housing units, including during a record-breaking heat wave this summer, two petitions filed in Queens court Thursday by the Legal Aid Society allege.
Following a summer of deteriorating conditions at Rikers Island that culminated in an emergency hearing this week, the city’s Department of Correction (DOC) is refusing to disclose how it ensured the safety of inmates in its more restrictive housing units, including during a record-breaking heat wave this summer, two petitions filed in Queens court Thursday by the Legal Aid Society allege.
Rikers staff have a history of poorly managing high temperatures at the jail complex’s aging facilities, with advocates and those incarcerated describing brutal conditions, like walls wet with condensation and inmates sucking air from cracks under cell doors.
READ MORE: As Conditions at Rikers Reach Crisis Levels, Concerns About Heat Persist
The heat issues have been particularly bad in the jail’s enhanced supervision housing units (ESH)—which DOC says are used to house the “most dangerous inmates in custody”—and where people are confined in solitary for as long as 17 hours a day, according to Robert Quackenbush, an attorney with Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project.
“[ESH] has become notorious for the life-threatening conditions inside the facility when the outside temperatures exceed 85 degrees Fahrenheit,” the petition says.
Individuals in those units are supposed to be afforded cold showers during high temperature days, according to an annual accountability report by the Board of Correction. But they require escorts when leaving their cells, and ongoing massive staffing shortages have “severely impacted the number of escorts,” a spokesperson for the Department of Correction told City Limits. Of the DOC’s 8,370 uniformed members of service, 1,789 were out sick on Tuesday alone, officials for the agency testified at a City Council hearing this week.
In May, Quackenbush filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the Department of Correction for photos or video of cells and cell doors in the ESH units, which he noted in the court petition are in a different building that the one used pre-pandemic. By September, the request still had not been fulfilled, prompting him to file a petition in court.
“This is basic information that should be at DOC’s virtual fingertips. But in the middle of the summer, when the need for this information is at its zenith, DOC has chosen to completely ignore the request and the administrative appeal that challenged DOC’s constructive denial,” the petition says.
In July, Quackenbush filed another Freedom of Information Law request related to how the agency handled the heat wave from June 28 to 30, during which New York City saw record-breaking high temperatures. He requested records showing temperature readings inside the ESH units as well as water temperatures and operability of showers.
He also requested documentation related to all DOC denials to move heat-sensitive inmates into an air-conditioned unit. Those requests have also not been fulfilled, a second court petition says.
Inmates who are designated as heat-sensitive—individuals over 65 years of age or with an underlying health condition—can request to be moved to an air-conditioned unit, documents from the Board of Correction show, but correction officers can override that request citing security concerns. The DOC has a history of erratically and improperly documenting these denials, according to the Board of Correction’s annual heat report, released in June.
A spokesperson for the DOC told City Limits they are in the process of gathering and reviewing the records. “The challenges brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic have delayed this process to an extent, but these requests have not been denied,” the spokesperson said.
The DOC also has a history of delaying or failing to provide information about how it handles summer temperatures in general. Last year, Quackenbush filed a similar court petition after the DOC failed to fulfill his requests for documents related to how the agency managed heat conditions during a 2019 heat wave.
“Climate change may be moving at a glacial pace, but it is advancing faster than DOC is moving to protect our clients,” Quackenbush told City Limits. “DOC needs to add air-conditioning capacity throughout Rikers Island. If it can’t, then it shouldn’t be confining people there.”
He similarly wrote a letter to the agency last summer noting that he was concerned that its heat plan failed to protect inmates, particularly those in ESH units. He reiterated this concern to City Limits again in June.
Since then, conditions that Rikers have rapidly escalated, leading to unchecked violence, increased COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths of those in custody during the last year— several from suicide. Public officials visited the facility this week and declared what they saw to be a humanitarian crisis, describing scenes that included hundreds of inmates being held for weeks in an intake pen with one toilet, facilities filled with rotting food and human feces, among other atrocities.
In response, the City Council called an emergency hearing on Wednesday, during which NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams likened the circumstances to those that led to the 1971 uprising at Attica Prison.
“I hate this hearing, not because you guys are telling falsehoods, but because you’re telling the truth,” DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi said during Wednesday’s hearing in response to intense questioning from Councilmembers. “This is extremely painful to sit through as a person who spent his entire career trying to fix the garbage that mass incarceration has left us with. I appreciate you guys kicking me around on it. You should kick me around on it.”
Advocates have been calling for the city and state to immediately release as many people from Rikers as possible to help bring the crisis there under better control. After dropping to a longtime low at the height of the pandemic last year, the city jail population has been steadily rising again, exacerbated by COVID-related delays in the court system.
The majority of those held at Rikers are awaiting trial and have not yet been convicted of a crime; there are currently 1,500 inmates in city jails who have been there for more than a year, according to Schiraldi, up from 700 before the pandemic.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has so far resisted calls for him to release those incarcerated at Rikers serving less than a year for low-level offenses, something he has the authority to do under the city’s 6A pr0gram, which allows participants to serve the rest of their time via work-release.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Friday announced she would be signing a bill into state law, dubbed the Less is More Act, which would release people jailed for committing technical parole violations, like missing appointments or being late for curfew. This would result in 200 people being let out of Rikers in the coming days, she said.
“We have a combustible situation still at Rikers because of overcrowding,” Hochul said. “What does that look like? It means there’s too many people and too few people to protect them and to guard them.”
This story was updated with a comment by the Department of Correction.
Liz Donovan is a Report for America corps member.