Rikers Detainees Kept in Cells After Fire Breaks Out


For nearly 30 minutes in April, Rikers Island staff members kept eight people locked in their cells as workers tried to extinguish a fire and smoke spread through a housing unit, according to a report from the city's Board of Corrections. .

The fire started in the complex's North Nursing Command, which houses people with acute medical conditions who require nursing care or have a disability. According to the report released Friday, about a dozen people, including staff members and four detainees, were taken to hospitals after the fire.

A review of the Department of Corrections' response to the fire revealed a series of flaws in protocol, according to the investigation by the nine-member board, the agency responsible for protecting the rights of incarcerated people. The sprinkler system's water supply to the living area had been turned off at some point before the fire, according to the report. Officials had not conducted weekly or monthly fire safety audits; Corrections officials stopped conducting the mandatory 30-minute tours for two hours that day; and the department's two Fire Safety Unit officers who were on duty were unreachable for several minutes.

A Department of Corrections spokesperson said the agency would review the board's report and recommendations.

The Legal Aid Society, which represents people detained at Rikers and has called for a federal takeover of the prison complex, said the report described “egregious mismanagement by multiple entities” within the Department of Corrections.

“It is difficult to imagine any institution in our city where such complex and colossal failures to prevent and contain a catastrophic fire would not result in immediate accountability from leadership,” Legal Aid said in a statement Friday.

The report comes just weeks after Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, an eight-year veteran of the Department of Corrections, became the agency's commissioner, a position left vacant this fall with the departure of Louis A. Molina, who later he became deputy vice mayor. for public safety.

Molina's nearly two-year tenure was marked by a failure to reverse violence at the Rikers Island complex, a strained relationship with the federal monitor who oversees the jail, and accusations of a lack of transparency by watchdogs and advocates. rights of detainees.

In August, the Board of Corrections sued the Department of Corrections and the city for lack of transparency, calling for an outside authority to take control of the prisons.

One challenge for Ms. Maginley-Liddie will be addressing the possibility of a federal takeover of Rikers Island.

The matter will be decided by a federal judge, Laura Taylor Swain. In July, Judge Swain wrote that Mayor Eric Adams' administration had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague prisons.” In August, she set a schedule for a series of legal arguments on the issue.

Maginley-Liddie has said that a federal takeover was not a “foregone conclusion” and that he would use the relationship he had developed with federal supervisor Steve J. Martin to maintain control of the jail.

But in recent weeks, Manhattan's top federal prosecutor, Damian Williams, has stepped up efforts to strip the Adams administration of control over the troubled prison system. In November, Williams wrote in a court filing that appointing an outside authority was the only solution to the persistent violence and chaos at Rikers.

Nine people have died at the prison complex this year.

The April 6 fire was set in the early afternoon by a man who was frustrated that the Department of Corrections Emergency Services Unit had confiscated his “non-institutional footwear” during a search that morning, according to the report. It was the fifth time the man had set a fire, the Board of Corrections found.

The fire was first reported around 1:15 p.m., when the smoke detector in the common area of ​​the unit went off, according to the report. Body camera footage showed a correctional officer trying to put out the fire using a fire extinguisher around 1:28 p.m., while a supervisor could be heard giving officers a direct order not to open the cells, investigators found. .

The Fire Department, which staff members called when on-duty Fire Safety Unit officers could not be reached, arrived at the Northern Nursing Command at 1:40 p.m. At 1:41 p.m., correctional officers began evacuating the eight people in custody from their cells.

In its recommendations, the Board of Corrections emphasized that immediate evacuation of the area where the fire started should be a top priority.

Additionally, the Department of Correction should establish a system that requires periodic inspection of the sprinkler system, the board said.

Erin Nolan contributed reports.

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