Mayor Adams vowed Wednesday to give Department of Correction officers “the benefit of the doubt” when they call out from work despite concerns that hundreds of them are abusing the agency’s sick leave policy in a manner that’s exacerbating the increasingly deadly crisis on Rikers Island.
Absenteeism in the Correction Department ranks has been a major problem for the city during the pandemic, with former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration alleging that nearly 1,000 officers faked sickness to avoid going to work last year, worsening conditions at Rikers, where at least 16 inmates died in 2021.
But, visiting Rikers on Wednesday afternoon, Adams told reporters that the de Blasio administration “on every level did not support the Department of Correction” and claimed there’s been too much scrutiny around officers calling out sick.
“This is the only occupation where we are asking, ‘Hey, are your members faking sick?’ We are not asking anyone else. We’re not asking NYPD, we’re not asking H+H, we’re not asking school teachers,” Adams said before adding: “Something’s not wrong with that?”
On the flip side, the mayor acknowledged there has been an abuse of DOC’s sick leave system — and called it “unacceptable.”
“But the overwhelming number of city employees that are out sick, they are sick, and we would like to give them the benefit of the doubt until an investigation determines that they are abusing the process,” he said.
Adams’ full-throated defense of Rikers guards comes on the heels of two inmates dying this week, putting the city’s total in-custody death toll this year at eight — two more than at the same point in 2021. As first reported by the Daily News, a ninth inmate died at a hospital on June 15 eight days after hanging himself in a Bronx holding cell, but the DOC didn’t count his death as having happened in custody because he was granted “compassionate release” on his deathbed.
The mayor, who was on Rikers to announce that the DOC has seized 2,700 weapons and other contraband this year, suggested some of this year’s deaths may be the result of inmates having “preexisting conditions” or otherwise being in poor health.
“By the time people reach Rikers, their health has deteriorated,” he said.
The Legal Aid Society, one of the city’s largest public defender groups, slammed Adams’ explanation for inmate deaths as “callous” and took issue with his focus on contraband seizures at a time when Correction Department absenteeism appears to still be an issue.
“This is emblematic of how City Hall views incarcerated people as second-class citizens, guilty until proven innocent and unworthy of compassion,” the group said in a statement.
“While Mayor Adams makes these press announcements, people held inside the jails are unsupervised as staff continue to stay home from work with impunity and basic jail services remain in limbo. The extraordinarily high death rate on Mayor Adams’ watch, and the suffering of all who are kept in abysmal conditions inside, are a humanitarian crisis that this administration seems incapable of rectifying any time soon.”
According to an investigation by the Correction Department’s internal watchdog, at least 827 officers were caught violating sick leave regulations between July 2021 and this past January. Upward of 2,800 officers were out sick daily — amounting to 35% of the whole staff, the probe found.
Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, who joined Adams for Wednesday’s Rikers event, said that absenteeism rates have improved, but confirmed roughly 900 officers remain out sick on any given day.
He said he had no reason to believe any of them are gaming the system.
“I don’t have any evidence right now that anyone’s faking it,” the commissioner said.
Adams’ Rikers visit comes after a New York judge declined last month to put the island under federal receivership, instead, the judge ordered the city to come up with a plan for resolving the jail crisis before revisiting the issue again in November.
The judge’s ruling came after the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan raised the possibility of appointing an independent federal monitor to run the jail, arguing the city has for years failed to improve conditions at the notorious lockup.
Adams reiterated in his remarks Wednesday that he does not want a federal takeover.
“The crisis we’re facing here is one of our largest crises. We could easily throw up our hands and say, ‘Let the federal government take over.’ We could have easily done that, but no, we know we are better than that,” he said. “We know that we can fix this problem.”
Vincent Schiraldi, de Blasio’s final Correction commissioner who has been critical of Adams’ handling of Rikers, pointed to the mounting inmate death toll as a sign that the jail will eventually end up under federal control.
“Do we really need to wait till November?” he wrote on Twitter.