NYC jail staff shut off sprinkler system before April fire at Rikers, report finds

Before a Rikers Island fire that injured 13 people in April, jail staff shut off the sprinkler system, didn’t do fire safety checks, stopped making rounds and then kept people in solitary confinement for 27 minutes as the fire spread, according to the city’s Board of Correction.

The blaze sent nine correction staff and four detainees to the hospital with injuries, the BOC found in a report issued Friday.

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction, which oversees the city’s jails, wrote in an email to Gothamist that the department is reviewing the report and its recommendations.

Advocates said the report underscores a bevy of problems with Rikers, the DOC and its use of solitary confinement, which the City Council this week voted to ban, with a veto-proof majority. Mayor Eric Adams must decide within 30 days of the Council’s vote whether to sign or veto the legislation, which he said would hinder correction officers from protecting themselves and detainees from violence in the jails.

“They really need to just shut Rikers down and stop using this punitive measure and help people get better,” said Anisah Sabur, an organizer for HALT Solitary Campaign, which supports ending solitary confinement in NYC, in a phone interview Friday.

Redmond Haskins, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Legal Aid Society, said in an emailed statement that “it is hard to imagine any institution in our city where such compounding and colossal failures to prevent and contain a catastrophic fire would not result in immediate accountability by leadership.

The incident happened in the same housing unit where, months later, several men held on civil charges, such as failing to pay child support, were locked in isolated cells for 23 hours a day, Gothamist reported this week. John Proctor, who has given writing workshops at the jails, said the unit is “by far” the worst environment he encountered at Rikers.

A federal judge recently held the DOC in contempt of court, saying officials had failed to tell a federal monitor they had put detainees accused of arson in a specialized unit lacking sprinklers in cells. The judge is considering putting the city’s jails under the stewardship of a federal receiver, or outside manager.

The report authored by the Board of Correction, the city’s official jail oversight group, found the April 6 fire was started by a detainee frustrated about having his shoes confiscated.

This was the person’s fifth such fire and was started using batteries, headphone wires and a remote control, according to the BOC. The detainee then added tissues and clothing to fuel the fire, the board said.

Correction officers encountered a number of difficulties in responding to the fire, including an inability to contact fire safety officers and unlock an emergency fire house, as well as a malfunctioning or insufficient fire extinguisher, per the report.

The report also said supervisors gave officers direct orders not to open the cells and evacuate eight people held in them. Body camera recordings described in the document showed a detainee struggling to breathe during the fire.

In total, it took 27 minutes for DOC staff to bring people from their cells to safety, the board concluded.

The report says the city’s fire department counted 15 correctional staff and four people in custody with soot on them.

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