Living conditions in New York City’s prison system remain abysmal — even after 40 years of federal oversight by a court-appointed monitor brought in at taxpayers’ expense, records show.
The city’s deeply troubled Department of Correction had come under intense scrutiny in the mid-1970s, when pre-trial detainees brought seven different class-action lawsuits alleging confinement conditions were so poor that their constitutional rights were violated.
In 1982, then-Manhattan federal Judge Morris Lasker signed off on a settlement agreement requiring the DOC to drastically improve the jails’ “environmental conditions.”
The pact also created an independent monitoring entity, called the Office of Compliance Consultants, to try to help speed up the process.
Four decades later, harsh critics including lawyers for the Legal Aid Society, who represent the plaintiffs in the lawsuits over jail conditions, say the situation is still horrific.
“Conditions in the jails are deteriorating at an exponential rate,’’ Legal Aid wrote to a judge this past fall.
“People in custody are living in filth and darkness, and as a result of massive neglect and mismanagement, the jails and the people confined in them are in crisis.”
Legal Aid was responding to an October status report to the court filed by OCC Deputy Director Nicole Austin-Best — who all but agreed that Rikers Island, for one, is a disaster.
The OCC is one of at least 11 federal- or state-appointed monitors or “special masters” overseeing ongoing cases aimed at ridding city agencies of longtime negligence and misfeasance.
As the Sunday Post exclusively reported, the city has forked over a total of at least $111 million to these high-priced overseers to help fix serious failures: from horrific conditions in public housing to alleged racist practices at the NYPD and FDNY
In terms of the city’s jails, in addition to the OCC, there are two other court-appointed groups handling related issues: one involving correction officers accused of routinely using excessive force on juvenile detainees, and another seeking to ensure mentally ill detainees get access to medical treatment and other services upon release.
But none of the court-appointed monitors have been on the job as long as the OCC.
The OCC has received enough judicial extensions to continue operating for 40 years while racking up hefty fees on the taxpayers’ dime — and as the Rikers Island jail complex remains plagued by poor ventilation, filthy cells and plenty of rodents, records show.
The DOC rejected a request by The Post under the Freedom of Information Law seeking its 40-year payment history to the OCC.
Instead, it only provided the monitoring agency’s cost to taxpayers from 2018 through 2021, which totaled nearly $1.5 million.
The OCC works closely with the DOC, has its own staff and sometimes uses outside consultants. All hires and other expenses must be approved by parties in the ongoing litigation.
In her October status report, Austin-Best, who records show is paid $150,000 yearly, said the city continues to have difficulty providing inmates clean jail cells, proper ventilation, adequate lighting and other basic living necessities. Those conditions are in violation of a 2001 order by the late Manhattan federal Judge Harold Baer Jr.
Austin-Best said the DOC is failing to comply with many of its mandates and that sanitary conditions on Rikers island had gotten especially worse over the previous year, including a “significant increase in vermin activity.”
She questioned whether DOC staffing shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic played a role.
Legal Aid said in its response that the “disgusting, inhumane conditions are markedly worse” than those Baer found “sanctionable” two decades earlier.
“Compliance is not just backsliding,” they said.
Ex-City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who released an analysis in December exposing how costs to house city inmates had reached all-time high while violent jail incidents skyrocketed, said he supports the use of monitors and special masters but believes they need to be held more accountable for their work.
We need monitors, but we need better results,” he said.
City Councilman Keith Powers (D-Manhattan), who chaired the council’s Criminal Justice Committee from 2018 through 2021, said the goal is obviously improving city jails so the federal monitors are no longer needed. But he conceded that some conditions plaguing Rikers Island are so challenging they require constant oversight.
“We have constantly seen a [jail facility] that is plagued by violence and has failed to provide even basic services,” he said.
In September, Powers was among a group of elected officials who toured Rikers Island amid a spike in inmate deaths.
Afterward, the pols described putrid conditions that included feces and rotting food carpeting the floors, a dozen men packed into a single cell and inmates with chronic health conditions not receiving proper medical care. Two state legislators also said they saw an inmate try to hang himself in front of them.
Last year, 16 people died in DOC custody, more than the previous two years combined and the most since 2016, which saw 15 in-custody deaths, records show.
Staffing shortages have led to an uptick in inmate violence, insiders say.
In a bid to make its jails more humane, the city is preparing to move ahead with ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial, nearly $9 billion plan to shutter the Rikers Island prison complex and replace it with four smaller jails in every borough but Staten Island.
Many critics say the city would be better off building a new state-of-the-art complex on Rikers Island and away from the general public.
Austin-Best did not return messages, and DOC declined to comment.