A Surge of Violence in Jails Stirs Scrutiny from City

Incidents of slashings and stabbings in city jails surged 10.4 percent last year and physical confrontations between detainees and corrections officers rose sharply to a staggering 37 percent—and the City Council Committee on Criminal Justice is trying to find out why.

On Monday, senior officials from the city’s Department of Correction appeared at a hearing before the committee to examine the unsettling statistics cited by Council Member and committee chairman Keith Powers.

According to data provided by the mayor’s office, in 2019, overall violence between inmates escalated by 12 percent.

“Over the years that I’ve been here, the City Council has been increasingly concerned about jail violence and these indications of violence have been steadily increasing and show no sign of abating,” said Powers, who represents District 4 in Manhattan.

“This is happening despite the jail population decreasing over these years and has continued to increase despite the new bail reform,” he added.

Criminal justice reform advocates from the Jail Action Coalition rallied on the City Hall steps prior to the well- attended hearing.

 Corrections Commissioner Cynthia Brann introduced a 14-point plan to deal with the increase in violence.  Among the plan’s recommendations:  training protocols designed to enhance safety through organizational reform measures.

Her plan, however, was met with a series of pointed questions from the five committee members. They seemed unsatisfied with the imprecise and opaque responses from the corrections cohort.

Brann and other corrections officials, including the chief of staff Brenda Cooke and department chief Hazel Jennings, were often unable to furnish statistics on infractions committed by 18 to 21 year old inmates during a hearing that lasted more than two hours and featured a few testy exchanges.

District 30 Council Member Robert Holden, a Queens Democrat, grew visibly frustrated, for example, when he attempted to determine through questioning how violence against officers increased by 37 percent in 2019, despite a decrease in the prisoner population.

“If we have less people incarcerated then why have 1,109 correction officers been assaulted in 2019? Why are these incidents increasing?” he asked Cooke.

“Honestly, we are focused on the harm and risk of harm,” said Cooke.

Council Member Holden then inquired about existing punitive measures for inmates found guilty of assaulting an officer as well as the number of re-arrests for such an offense.  Specifically, Holden asked about disciplinary action related to incidents of ‘splashing’ or assaulting an officer with urine or feces.

Chief of the Corrections Department Hazel Jennings described ways that an officer could defend against this offense including the use of splashguards or a shield but offered no further information.

“It is not clear if we have any measures of discipline in place at all,” said Holden.

All of the corrections officials who testified emphasized the effective use of de-escalation techniques that have been integrated into training doctrine.

“Despite the overall increase in the total aggregate uses of force, the department has made important progress over the past year,” Commissioner Brann said. “From 2018 to 2019, compelling total use of force causing serious injury and use of force with minor injury decreased by nine percent.”  She also pointed to the installation of 14,000 cameras in city jail facilities as an important safety enhancement.

Department chief Jennings indicated that 20 officers had been discharged for excessive use of force and another 40 officers were disciplined in 2019.

Cooke, the chief of staff of the corrections department, pointed to progress, but also pleaded for patience regarding reforms.

“We have made substantial strides, but it requires an internal organizational shift along with a cultural change,” she said.  “It’s a culture based on respect and tries to minimize situations that require the use of force.”

“We are fully engaged,” she added. ” But it takes time and there are no easy answers or quick fixes.”