NEW YORK CITY — The Department of Correction needs to hire 2,000 more officers next year to reach its optimum level and implement many of the changes under Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to fix the troubled Rikers Island.
But the agency doesn't have the proper facilities to train enough officers to reach its goal in time, according to Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte and Elizabeth Crowley, the chairwoman of the City Council's Committee on Fire & Criminal Justice.
Crowley, speaking at a recent budget hearing, said she recently visited the department's training facility in her Queens district and was surprised at the conditions.
"I was very disappointed when I saw the lack of training facility. There's no gym. There's hardly the space that one would think of a department that we're requiring a level of professionalism," Crowley said during a DOC budget hearing at City Hall.
Ponte, hired to reform the failing agency, agreed.
"At the end of the day we do need to do something with our training facilities," he said.
There are plans to employ 9,537 uniform corrections officers, up from 9,109 last year, Ponte said. Approximately 362 of those positions were needed to address changes in the way the city will handle adolescent and young adult inmates.
Under de Blasio's plan, punitive segregation will be ended for all inmates under 21 by 2016.
In addition, specialized enhanced supervision units have been created to house the most dangerous inmates and mentally ill inmates will also be treated differently.
There are now specialized crisis intervention teams designed to reduce violence.
But those changes are costly, especially without the proper amount of personnel. Overtime for the upcoming fiscal year is projected to be about $175 million — almost 10 percent of the agency's $1.8 billion budget.
The current class of corrections officers stands at 380. Ponte said he would have to modify the current training academy to train up to 1,200 officers per year in two or three large classes and that would be "pushing the envelope."
Crowley said those numbers seem unrealistic in light of Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro's earlier testimony that he could train only 600 new recruits per year, in spite of the department's large and modern training facilities on Randall's Island.
"The priority No. 1 ... has to be a training facility," said Crowley. "There's no way you can train the existing officers to meet the demands of the profession and new officers to be ready for the job with the facilities that you have."
"We are not in a place where we can do all the things we need to be doing as it refers to training because of the physical limitations of the space," Ponte said.
Ponte said the agency has spoken with the Office of Management and Budget about finding an alternative location somewhere in the city, but Crowley thought that Rikers Island, with its 400 acres and obsolete buildings that could be demolished or modified, would be an ideal location.
"Does it really make sense to look around the city for adequate space when you have 400 acres of available land on Rikers Island to build a proper training facility?" asked Crowley.
De Blasio's office referred questions to the DOC, which said that it was "working with the administration to finalize its capital plan." Part of the reform initiatives includes efforts "to raise DOC facilities to a state of good repair and to expand training for recruits and uniformed staff."
The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Ponte and de Blasio recently announced a series of changes to Rikers Island including efforts to screen visitors to reduce violence by limiting drugs and weapons from entering.
Rikers Island has been plagued by a series of reports detailing everything from violence by correction officers toward young inmates, inadequate medical treatment and an uptick in violence despite increased spending and a declining inmate population.
In spite of the difficulties the agency is facing, Councilman Corey Johnson praised Ponte's efforts thus far to turn things around.
"I just want to acknowledge that you inherited a disaster," he said. "I don't know what the hell your predecessors were doing."