Rikers Staff Tampered With Records, Hiding Intake Rule Violations, Documents Show

Rikers staff repeatedly altered records to extend the clock on a 24-hour time limit for holding people in notorious intake cells.

Chris Gelardi   ·   October 17, 2022
The city Department of Correction said it is investigating the records alterations. | NYC DOC

NEW YORK CITY’S RIKERS ISLAND jail complex has skirted time limits on holding people in temporary intake pens by tampering with records, documents shared with New York Focus show.

Under city regulations, the jail system must process and house people within 24 hours of them coming under its custody — a requirement set to ensure that they don’t languish in intake cells, which have no accessible bathrooms or beds and are notorious for cramped, squalid conditions.

But an email and attachment from a jail oversight agency official show that, during a two-day period in June, staff at Rikers Island’s main intake facility manipulated electronic records to push back the initial in-custody times for at least 17 new arrivals to the jail complex. In most instances, the tampering took place as the incarcerated people were approaching 24 hours in custody, suggesting that jail staff made the adjustments to avoid documented violations of the time limit.

The oversight agency — the New York City Board of Correction, which is tasked with regulating and monitoring the city’s correctional facilities — declined to provide comment for this article.

The city Department of Correction (DOC), which runs the jail system, said it is investigating the records alterations. “We hold transparency and integrity in high regard, and we will continue to hold staff accountable so that our jails are run efficiently and that people in our custody are safe,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

The Board of Correction documents — shared with New York Focus by the Legal Aid Society, which obtained them through a public records request — come to the fore as a judge mulls whether to place Rikers under temporary federal control. Sixteen people have died while in Rikers custody so far this year.

The revelations also come on the heels of recent testimony and uncovered photos from inside Rikers intake — some taken within days or weeks of the apparent record tampering — showing widespread misery and neglect: men languishing for days in packed cells, sleeping next to feces, defecating in their clothes.

“We are deeply concerned by this revelation, which appears to show DOC employees tampering with data that is used to monitor compliance with a court order,” said Kayla Simpson, staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project and counsel on the lawsuit that may lead to a federal takeover of Rikers. “This seriously diminishes the credibility of the City’s public assertions that they have solved their long-standing problem of holding people for days in these uninhabitable areas.”

Carlina Rivera, chair of the City Council’s criminal justice committee, told New York Focus that the record tampering “will be investigated.”

“The report of manipulated data by the Department of Correction runs counter to the commissioner’s stated commitment to transparency,” she said. “No one should accept data that obscures mismanagement and neglect or covers up inhumane and dangerous conditions.”

ON JUNE 16, the Board of Correction’s director of violence prevention emailed the acting warden of the Eric M. Taylor Center (EMTC), which serves as Rikers Island’s main men’s intake facility. The director informed the warden that board staff had been monitoring the electronic dashboard EMTC uses to keep track of new arrivals and found numerous instances where facility staff apparently tampered with its data.

According to the director, over a two-day period, Rikers staff changed the in-custody start times for at least 17 incarcerated people — repeatedly, in many cases. “These changes often occurred as a newly admitted person in custody approached their 24 hour clock expiration, or sometimes following the expiration,” the director wrote, suggesting that the manipulation was meant to cover up violations of the time limit.

In every case of alteration, staff pushed in-custody start times back, extending the clock, rather than forward.

The director pasted photos of three snapshots of the dashboard, which included columns for “in custody … start time” and a “24 hour clock” that counted up from the in-custody time. The first two snapshots, taken on June 15 at 7:23 and 7:30 pm, showed one incarcerated person’s 24-hour clock running out at 7:30 that evening. In the third snapshot, taken six minutes after the run-out time, the person’s in-custody start time had been inexplicably pushed back by three hours, causing the clock to once again dip below the 24-hour mark.

The director also attached a spreadsheet to the email, which depicted several snapshots showing that jail staff had extended the clocks of at least 16 other people held in EMTC intake between Monday, June 13, and Wednesday, June 15.

Nine of the people had been taken into Rikers custody on Monday in the late morning and early afternoon. In the hours leading up to and shortly after the expiration of their 24-hour clocks, Rikers staff changed all of their in-custody start times at least twice, the spreadsheet shows. One of the nine had their start time changed at least four times; the final snapshot showed an in-custody start time eight hours later than their original.

Another group of five had been taken into Rikers custody on Monday in the early evening, and had their start times changed at least once the following day — all to exactly four hours later than the original. And another two, who were taken into custody in the Tuesday early morning hours, had their start times changed at least once overnight, adding between five and six hours to their 24-hour clocks.

According to the DOC, it is investigating these apparent cases of dashboard tampering, which took place four months ago, and has been in contact with the Board of Correction. The department also said that its Office of Management Analysis and Planning is reviewing the dashboard for accuracy and efficiency.

To advocates, the apparent dashboard tampering is evidence that conditions on Rikers are far worse than the DOC is willing to admit. “DOC seems to be willing to try anything to hide the deadly dysfunction in the City’s jails,” said Darren Mack, co-director of the Urban Justice Center’s Freedom Agenda, a member of the Campaign to Close Rikers. “The truth is they have no immediate plan to meet basic minimum standards for the thousands of people in the eight jails they are operating.”

THE EVIDENCE OF record tampering raises questions about the validity of data that the DOC shares with the Board of Correction and other governmental bodies tasked with overseeing the jail system’s reform.

The department made EMTC the main men’s intake facility in September 2021, shortly after the New York Post published photos of horrid conditions in its prior intake facility: hundreds of men languishing for days or weeks on end, forced to take turns sleeping on floors and using the bathroom in plastic bags. Within days of the switch, a federal judge issued an order mandating that the DOC provide the necessary staff and space to process those in intake  — both new arrivals and those taken to intake while being transferred between Rikers facilities — within 24 hours.

Despite the judge’s order, the EMTC dashboard only keeps track of new arrivals, not people waiting in intake for transfer from one Rikers facility to another. The department has another electronic tracking system for those transfers, but despite urging by a federal monitor tasked with overseeing reforms to Rikers, it has refused to implement it island-wide, instead opting for a smattering of paper record-keeping systems.

Less than two months after the switch, a status report filed by the federal monitor included DOC data that showed that, in October 2021, EMTC had held 61 people — 6 percent of new arrivals to Rikers that month — for more than 24 hours before housing them. Another federal monitor report from June showed that, per the dashboard, between November 2021 and May 2022, the DOC had held about 100 new arrivals to Rikers for more than 24 hours. However, according to the reports, the department said that every one of the instances were the result of “data entry” errors and staff who weren’t familiar with the new system. According to the department, it was processing all new intakes within the required 24 hours.

But Board of Correction testimony, as well as photos from inside Rikers facilities, revealed horrifying conditions at EMTC — caused by long stays in intake — in the months immediately following the department’s assurances.

In June, board member Robert Cohen reported that EMTC intake was “packed with screaming people,” some who had been there “for days.” “There were 100-plus people crowded into pens without basic services. Filthy pens without capacity to urinate in a urinal,” he said at the time.

Photos compiled by the Board of Correction and obtained by Gothamist last month back up Cohen’s observations. One photo, shot on July 19, shows an EMTC intake cell crowded with men in their street clothes, suggesting that they are new arrivals who would be included in the intake dashboard. Another photo, taken two days later, shows the same men in the same room in EMTC intake.

Another photo, taken on June 25, shows a man in EMTC intake defecating in his shorts because there was no toilet for him to use. According to Gothamist, the man remained in his soiled clothes for 11 hours and only received new ones when another incarcerated person brought him some.

Yet another photo shows a man sleeping on the floor of an EMTC intake cell next to a pile of feces.

In response to the photos, the agency said conditions have since improved.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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