Rikers Island officers 'scared to go back to work' amid spike in violence

RIKERS ISLAND, New York City (WABC) -- Inside the walls of Rikers Island, there's an increase in violence -- and it's not just attacks amongst inmates.

Assaults against corrections officers are up by 23%.

7 On your Side Investigates sat down with three officers who say there were assaulted by inmates just over the past few weeks. They didn't want to be identified, saying they feared for their safety.

One officer who has been on the job for five years said he was jumped by two gang members last month who cut his face, bit his hand, and punched him.

"I feel scared," he said. "Officers are scared to go back to work because they're out of control."

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Another officer said he was also jumped by two gang members who tried to steal his prison keys.

"He literally was choking me (for) what felt like forever, while he was on top of me," he said.

The third officer was rushed to the hospital after he was knocked unconscious by an inmate.

"I'm scared to go back to the job," he said. "I'm afraid, because I don't know what's going to happen."

The Corrections Officers' Benevolent Association, the union representing thousands of officers at Rikers, says its members are at "the brink of disaster."

Over the past year, there has been an increase in inmates, a decrease in staff, and an increase in officer sick calls.

"We feel like we're the forgotten souls," union President Benny Boscio Jr. said.

Some officers inside the jail complex are working 25 hours at a time, even sleeping in their cars in the parking lot to get some rest. And as the gang situation intensifies on the streets, they say It's also percolating inside the complex.

"Working that many hours is having a toll on the human body," Boscio said.

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7 On your Side Investigates obtained surveillance video from inside over the past year, showing what appears to be a handful of incidents where officers were assaulted by inmates.

The jail population has risen by 1,842 inmates over the past year, meanwhile, 649 officers resigned or retired over the same time period.

A federal independent monitor released a report in May saying the "disorder" and "chaos" inside the jail is alarming, and since then, the officers say the conditions have only gotten worse.

"It's affecting inmates tremendously," Boscio said. "They're not receiving the services, the mandated services."

The man in charge of the jail, Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, was appointed to his position three months ago.

"Conditions are really rough both for staff and for people who are incarcerated here," he said.

He said he's hiring new officers this fall.

"We just bumped it up to 600," he said.

Boscio said that with so many resignations and retirements, they need 2,000 new officers to improve the situation.

"I'm supportive of the union and I think they've raised the alarm on this," Schiraldi said. "It's very important for the public to hear, but I think the 2,000 number is made up."

The union adamantly disagrees, citing that staffing has been an issue this summer.

This past June, more than 1,600 officers called out sick -- more than double the amount from the June before the pandemic started.

This past July, the Department of Corrections said 2,300 people didn't show up for work.

"Working 25 plus hours, how do they expect the sick rate not to be high?" Boscio said.

Schiraldi believes some officers are abusing the unlimited sick leave policy, and he said he's now requiring them to see a doctor to prove they're sick.

"The ones that are abusing it, which isn't everybody, the ones that are need to come back to work," he said.

However, the union said a majority of the workers are exhausted, sick, and injured -- and that the problems are much bigger than that.

"It is, there are no home runs here," Schiraldi said.

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Something both sides said they agree on is harsher penalties for those inmates involved in violent acts, as well as a better way of separating the gang population.

"I do not disagree," Schiraldi said. "I wish I disagreed with many of the things people are complaining about."

As for the injured officers 7 On Your Side Investigates spoke with, they said they want to go back to work, but something needs to be done now.

"Somebody has to listen and do something," one of them said. "It's about time."

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