City jail officials opened a unit for people suspected of setting fires while detained on Rikers Island, but closed the next day after a federal monitor found it was unauthorized, and lacked required fire prevention equipment.
The misstep was revealed in a special report filed in a New York federal court on Thursday by federal monitor Steve Martin. Martin and his team are charged with overseeing conditions at Rikers Island under a 2015 court agreement to reduce violence in the jails.
Fire suppression systems are necessary for all housing units, Martin said, but the need is “particularly acute for a unit attempting to re-house known fire-setters and thereby reduce arson.”
Frank Dwyer, a spokesman for the city Department of Correction, said the unit has enough sprinklers to meet city building codes, but not one in every cell.
Martin said in court papers that his office learned from an anonymous source that the Department of Correction had opened an Arson Reduction Housing Unit on Rikers Island on Nov. 13. Martin is not permitted to speak to reporters, according to a court order.
The department shouldn’t have opened a new unit without consulting the federal monitor, and it had previously assured them it would not, Martin said. He immediately filed a complaint to the court and the city, and the unit was closed the next day.
However, on Thursday, the monitor told the court he had new and “concerning” information on the short-lived arson prevention unit: It didn’t have a working fire suppression system when it opened. The official who opened the unit later claimed it had been a miscommunication.
The department was the brainchild of Charles Daniels, principal adviser to Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina. Daniels said he designed the unit as part of a new “Violence Reduction Plan” according to a legal filing.
It’s not the first time Daniels has been accused of overstepping his authority in a job. Gothamist previously reported that in his last job as director of the Nevada Corrections Department, he alarmed lawmakers after he shut down a Nevada prison without consulting or informing state officials. Daniels could not be reached for comment Monday.
The new Rikers arson unit was designed to house detainees who had started fires on Rikers previously, with the aim to reduce the overall number of fires on the island, the department said.
Molina — who is soon to leave the department for a job at City Hall — said his team has brought the Department of Correction back from the “brink of collapse” since he started in January 2022, citing accomplishments including a lower number of fires in city jails. Molina has said there were “more than 1500 fires” in the city jail system in 2021.
This year’s numbers were not immediately available, but in one week in September, there were 15 fires on Rikers, according to a recent federal monitor’s report.
A fire set by a detainee at a Rikers Island jail unit in April injured 20 department employees and detainees, and it was later found that correction department officials failed to perform required fire safety inspections for at least a year before the blaze, according to records obtained by the Daily News.
Daniels said he gave the green light to open the unit on Nov. 9, but only if it contained a fire suppression system. Five detainees had been moved to the unit when it opened, according to emails attached to the monitor’s court filings.
Daniels told the monitor he found out the unit’s cells did not have working fire suppression systems on Nov. 13, and said he told deputy commissioner of security operations Ronald Brereton not to open it. But Daniels said Brereton did not relay the message to the chief of security, and the unit opened later that day.
When Daniels learned the next day his message hadn’t been passed on, the unit was closed, he said.
“[The unit] remained open less than 24 hours,” Daniels said.
In a court filing, commissioner Molina said he was unaware of the arson unit’s opening date.
Brereton told a different story, saying in a court filing that Daniels authorized opening the unit Oct. 23, and only came back to him on Nov. 13 with the directive not to open.
In his special report, the federal monitor raised concerns that the unit might still be in operation had his office not been tipped off about it, and said it was disturbing that the commissioner didn’t know about the unit.
He said opening a specialized area like the arson prevention unit requires “meticulous planning” to ensure safety, however the department opened the unit “haphazardly and furtively with inadequate planning, policies, procedures, and training.”
In an email to the monitor attached to court filings, Department of Correction assistant commissioner of the Nunez Compliance Unit Victoriya Baranchuk said the department’s intent was not to disregard the monitor’s approval, but to “show a proactive approach” to progress in the jails.
The news comes as lawyers recently kicked off arguments about whether control of New York City’s jails should be wrested from the city and given to a federal receiver, due to increasingly unsafe conditions at Rikers Island including high levels of violence, officers’ using force on detainees and a lack of transparency on the issues from city leaders.