Conditions in New York’s prison system remain appalling — even after 40 years of federal oversight by a court-appointed monitor at taxpayer expense, records show.
The city’s deeply troubled Corrections Department had come under intense scrutiny in the mid-1970s, when remand inmates filed seven different class action lawsuits alleging that prison conditions were so poor that their constitutional rights had been undermined. been violated.
In 1982, Manhattan federal judge Morris Lasker signed a settlement agreement demanding that the DOC significantly improve the “environmental conditions” of prisons.
The pact also created an independent monitoring entity, called the Office of Compliance Consultants, to try to help speed up the process.
Four decades later, harsh critics, including lawyers from the Legal Aid Society, who represent plaintiffs in lawsuits over prison conditions, say the situation is still horrific.
“Conditions in prisons are deteriorating at an exponential rate,” Legal Aid wrote to a judge last fall.
“People in custody live in filth and darkness, and due to massive neglect and mismanagement, prisons and the people locked up in them are in crisis.”
Legal Aid was responding to an October status report in court filed by OCC Deputy Director Nicole Austin-Best – who all but agreed that Rikers Island, for its part, is a disaster.
The OCC is one of at least 11 federally or state-appointed comptrollers or “special masters” overseeing ongoing cases aimed at ridding city agencies of long-standing negligence and wrongdoing.
As the Sunday Post exclusively reported, the city has paid a total of at least $111 million to these high-priced overseers to help fix serious failings: from horrific conditions in public housing to alleged racist practices at the NYPD and FDNY.
With respect to the city’s jails, in addition to the OCC, there are two other court-appointed groups that deal with related issues: one involving corrections officers accused of regularly using excessive force on juvenile detainees, and another seeking to ensure that detainees with mental health problems have access to medical care and other services on release.
But none of the court-appointed monitors have been around as long as the OCC.
The OCC has received enough court extensions to continue operating for 40 years while racking up steep fees at taxpayer expense – and as the Rikers Island prison complex remains plagued by poor ventilation, filthy cells and many rodents, according to records.
The DOC denied a request by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act asking for its 40-year payment history to the OCC.
Instead, he only provided the oversight agency’s cost to taxpayers from 2018 to 2021, which was nearly $1.5 million.
The OCC works closely with the DOC, has its own staff and sometimes uses outside consultants. All hires and other expenses must be approved by the parties to the current litigation.
In its October status report, Austin-Best, whose records show she is paid $150,000 a year, said the city continues to have difficulty providing inmates with clean jail cells, a adequate ventilation, adequate lighting and other basic necessities. These terms are in violation of a 2001 order by the late Manhattan federal judge Harold Baer Jr.
Austin-Best said the DOC was not complying with many of its mandates and that sanitary conditions on Rikers Island had particularly worsened over the previous year, including a “significant increase in activity vermin”.
She wondered if DOC staffing shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic had played a role.
Legal Aid said in its response that the “disgusting and inhumane conditions are significantly worse” than those Baer deemed “punishable” two decades earlier.
“Compliance is not just a rollback,” they said.
Former City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who released an analysis in December exposing how the city’s inmate housing costs hit an all-time high as violent incidents in prison soared, said he supports the use of monitors and special masters, but believes that they should be held more accountable for their work.
“We need monitors, but we need better results,” he said.
Councilman Keith Powers (D-Manhattan), who chaired the council’s criminal justice committee from 2018 to 2021, said the goal was obviously to improve the city’s jails so that federal monitors are no longer required. But he acknowledged that some conditions plaguing Rikers Island are so harsh that they require constant monitoring.
“We constantly saw a [jail facility] which is plagued by violence and has not even provided basic services,” he said.
In September, Powers was among a group of elected officials who visited Rikers Island amid a spike in inmate deaths.
Afterwards, officers described putrid conditions such as excrement and rotting food covering the floors, a dozen men crammed into a single cell, and inmates with chronic health conditions not receiving proper medical attention. Two state lawmakers also said they saw an inmate attempt to hang himself in front of them.
Last year, 16 people died in custody at the DOC, more than the previous two years combined and the most since 2016, which saw 15 deaths in custody, records show.
Staffing shortages have led to an increase in violence among inmates, insiders say.
In order to humanize its prisons, the city is preparing to move forward with the ex-
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial nearly $9 billion plan to shut down the Rikers Island prison complex and replace it with four smaller prisons in every borough except Staten Island.
Many critics say the city better build a new, state-of-the-art resort on Rikers Island and away from the general public.
Austin-Best did not return messages and DOC declined to comment.
New York Post