Rikers Island has seen more inmate suicides this year than the past five combined yet only a fraction of uniformed staff have completed required suicide prevention refresher trainings, The Post has learned.
Each year, uniformed staffers on Rikers Island are required to complete a suicide prevention refresher course but between Nov. 1, 2020 and Nov. 8, 2021, only around 2,400 uniformed staff out of roughly 8,800 have received the updated lifesaving training, the Department of Corrections said.
In that time period, six inmates killed themselves while in DOC custody, which is more detainee suicides than the past five years combined and the most seen since 2003 when the average jail population was 14,533, nearly triple the amount it is now, according to city data.
“The training rate is key and a very low training rate is going to have a negative effect, absolutely,” said Marc Bullaro, a retired assistant deputy warden who spent more than 28 years with the city’s DOC and now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“When you work in that environment, as you might expect, you become very cold and callous to things that are happening around you because you’re seeing it everyday, Bullaro said. “You kind of don’t react maybe the same way you should.”
The DOC vet said the current 27 percent rate of training completion is typically around 60 to 70 percent and the refresher courses serve as a reminder to staff about the crucial suicide indicators they need to watch for so they can intervene before it’s too late.
Rikers Island has long been a dumping ground for the Big Apple’s mentally ill and the majority of the jail’s population has been diagnosed with some sort of mental health illness, the DOC said, as they blamed the dismal training numbers on the COVID-19 pandemic and an ongoing staffing crisis.
“As we bring staff back and resume staff levels that support our daily operations, our uniform members will continue to be enrolled in either our online or instructor lead suicide refresher courses,” the agency told The Post.
“We are fully committed to ensuring that our staff are trained and prepared to address the challenges of working in a jail environment where 53% of our population have a mental health diagnosis and 16.5% have a serious mental health diagnosis.”
Two correction officers who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity recounted a recent suicide attempt in early November where a teenager facing murder charges tied a noose to a light fixture and hanged himself in his cell.
“He was like, ‘Well, I can’t live here’ so that’s when he jumped off the bed frame,” one of the COs, who only identified themselves with the initials JG, told The Post.
“He jumped off and he was actually hanging from the light fixture,” added the other CO, identified as SL.
“He could have really died, he was dangling and me, I was just thinking I wouldn’t want that to happen to my child or my family, God forbid they were in that mindset.”
The officers, who last received their refresher training about a year ago, immediately sprung into action — JG lifted the detainee’s legs while SL used their 911 rescue knife to cut down the noose.
“You have to act, you have to get this individual down because you don’t want anybody to die on your watch,” said JG.
Moments earlier, another inmate had threatened to hang himself as well and the COs said the trainings are a critical component to their jobs because suicide attempts can happen as often as three to four times in a single shift.
Up until about a year ago, they said the courses were offered and completed on a regular basis but these days, it’s unrealistic to have officers leave their posts to complete trainings as the jail grapples with a staffing crisis and a ballooning inmate population.
“They’re setting us up to fail,” said one of the officers.
“We need our staff to be in the facilities to assist with these alarms, these fights and suicide attempts. How can we have training if we’re understaffed?”
Benny Boscio Jr., the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said any death in the jail system is a “tragedy” but in reality, there are “dozens of suicide attempts every day” that the public never hears about.
“Every day, our Correction Officers utilize their quick thinking to intercede and prevent inmate suicides … Our officers’ actions have been successful in making the difference between life and death in hundreds of attempted suicides this year,” Boscio Jr. told The Post.
Compounding the issue is tougher than usual conditions inside of the jail for inmates who’ve had little access to recreation time and other services because of the staffing crisis, said Patrick Ferraiuolo, the president of the Correction Captains’ Association.
“If you just lock a guy up in a cell and you don’t take him to programs, don’t take him to social services and a lot of the other things they’re entitled to, unfortunately people have mental issues and they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” said Ferraiuolo, who spoke to detainees over the summer who hadn’t been taken outdoors in thirty days.
“That’s inhumane… if you don’t get taken out for recreation for thirty days and you get anxiety or a little claustrophobic, there’s potential for people to try to kill themselves. Let’s face, it they’re human.”
SL and JG said on days detainees are given recreation time, there’s fewer incidents and on the day they thwarted two back-to-back suicides, there wasn’t enough staff available to take the detainees outside.
“You have no idea how good your day will go if they could just go outside for the hour. That day will be beautiful, you will have no issues, no fights, no nothing,” said JG.
Earlier this summer, DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi pledged to hire 600 new COs by October to assist with staffing issues but so far, only about 130 have been brought on and they’re still in the academy, COBA said.
For SL and JG, the help can’t come soon enough.
“We need help and if we don’t get help soon, I just don’t know what’s going to happen because we’re not getting trained like we used to,” said SL.
“They don’t call us the boldest for no reason, like we can deal with this, just give us the tools to help ourselves.”
If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or are experiencing a mental health crisis and live in New York City, you can call 1-888-NYC-WELL for free and confidential crisis counseling. If you live outside the five boroughs, you can dial the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.