WNYC: Stabbed and Slashed While Waiting for Albany to Act

When body scanners at the Rikers Island facility are used, inmates have wrongly been scanned for an extended period of time to make sure they don’t have any weapons on them. Zachary Katznelson, a Staff Attorney for The Legal Aid Society's Prisoner’s Rights Project, tells WNYC that in order to deal with the broader weapons issue at Rikers, everyone suspected of carrying contraband should be scanned, not just inmates.

Stabbed and Slashed While Waiting for Albany to Act
by Cindy Rodriguez
Apr 27, 2017

As violence continues to rise at the jail complex on Rikers Island, body scanners that can detect dangerous contraband are sitting idle because Albany legislators have been slow to tweak a state law that prevents their use.

The seven machines can detect objects hidden inside body cavities. The city says at least one county jail in 28 states currently uses these machines. When the city first bought them in 2012, they cost around $1.2 million.

Correction officers used them for more than a year, until the New York State Commission of Correction issued a memo telling them to stop, because a public-health law that primarily regulates the medical industry requires that x-ray equipment only be operated by licensed technicians. The machines have been gathering dust ever since — and stabbings and slashings went from 68 then to 155 last year.

“You have no idea how urgent this is,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association. “We just continue to allow correction officers to be stabbed and slashed. We just continue to allow inmates to be stabbed and slashed.”

Husamudeen said the city could have hired licensed technicians and resolved the issue long ago. Instead, the city has been lobbying Albany legislators to change the law. The Senate passed the needed amendments in 2015 but the Assembly has held back out of concern over radiation exposure. Assemblyman David Weprin, the new chair of the Committee on Correction, said he has a new bill that should alleviate those concerns.

“The new version has an exemption for pregnant women and an exemption for inmates under the age of 18,” Weprin said.

While the exemptions completely prohibit scans on pregnant women, teenagers may still be scanned as long as they are not exposed to levels of radiation that exceed 4 percent of what's considered safe. Weprin’s bill also allows correction officers to operate the scanners as long as they receive training approved by the city health department. The legislation also allows the health department to set limits on how often an inmate may be scanned.

In a lawsuit, two former Rikers Island inmates alleged they were scanned up to three times a day for an extended period of time. They accused the city of exposing them to dangerous levels of radiation that was causing them physical harm. Last year, a judge ruled against them and said even if they were scanned more than 800 times, the level of radiation they would have absorbed was less than what's absorbed during a single mammogram.

Zachary Katznelson, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society's Prisoner’s Rights Project, said the city should scan everyone suspected of carrying contraband, not just inmates.

“That's only one piece of the problem,” he said. “If they really want to get at the issue of weapons, they have to scan staff as well.”

The correction officers' union said it was inmates, not staff, who were responsible for the spikes in violence. The union recently sued the city in federal court. The lawsuit alleges the city is violating the rights of correction officers by subjecting them to dangerous conditions caused by a series of issues, including the failure to equip jails with body scanners.

Weprin hopes to get his bill passed by June. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the issue will be reviewed.

In a written statement, city hall spokesperson Natalie Grybauskas said, "Following a thoughtful dialogue with the bill's sponsors prior to its introduction, we're pleased with the progress made so far in advancing this legislation which is vital to improving safety in our jails."

This article originally appeared on WNYC.