NYSNA Member Alicia Butler Delivers Impassioned Plea for Safe and Effective Staffing at Rikers Island

Alicia Butler, RN.

Days after a group of legislators toured Rikers Island and called conditions there inhumane, and after NYSNA member Alicia Butler testified before New York City Council, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the Less Is More Community Supervision and Revocation Reform Act. The measure was sponsored by New York State Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest and Lt. Governor Brian Benjamin when he was in the New York State Senate. The bill modifies the standard of evidence when determining whether to revoke community supervision of a person on parole. Due to a collaboration with the Department of Corrections, the measure also allows incarcerated individuals who have been sentenced to at least 90 days to be transferred from Rikers to New York state correctional facilities. At least 191 people will be released from Rikers due to the law.

NYSNA member Alicia Butler, a registered nurse who has worked at New York City Health+Hospitals Correctional Health Services, Rikers Island for 19 years, elaborated on inadequate staffing at Rikers during testimony before New York City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee. Her unedited remarks are below.

My name is Alicia Butler, I am a registered nurse working at New York City Health+Hospitals Correctional Health Services, Rikers Island for 19 years. I am a member of the New York State Nurses Association which represents over 43,000 registered nurses across the state. Thank you, Chair Keith Powers and this Committee, for holding this hearing on the conditions in our city jails.

First, I want to speak to the paramount issue of safety concerns. We have staffing shortages throughout Rikers. With an estimated 2,000 officers out on leave, workers are not safe doing their jobs. Those remaining officers on duty must work triple shifts. The tremendous staffing shortages cause delays and prevent patients from receiving the health care services they need, including mental health services.

Just visualize, if you would, an “intake unit,” detainees first exposure to Rikers. It is a pen with benches and no place to sleep. Yet detainees may spend up to three nights in the pen, and with limited food and water. Recently, a pen housed 47 detainees, far more than maximum capacity.

Delays are common and any obstacle in examining detainees robs nurses of critical time needed for treatment — for COVID-19, diabetes, cardiac conditions and other serious illnesses.

Between July and September of 2020, the self-injury rate for inmates nearly doubled that of the previous quarter. We had over 500 incidents of inmates hurting themselves between April and June 2021. Needless to say, there is a mental health crisis amongst inmates that needs immediate attention. But access to that care is routinely denied. The fact is that patients are unsupervised and this leads to altercations by inmates with nurses and other staff. Nurses at the mental health unit feel unsafe and unprotected. We are very vulnerable in these conditions.

We have seen a lack of accountability from DOC and NYC Health+Hospitals regarding conditions in our city jails. The number of detainees is growing while staffing shortages create a constant crisis mode for all workers, including our nurses.

While nurses continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Delta variant, threats of violence are a daily occurrence. Acts of violence against nurses have led to serious injuries and palpable fear. Nurses have become victims in an unsafe environment, where chaos reigns.

I myself am currently recovering from an attack at Rikers that required surgery.

We seek – and I quote: “a safe and effective solution for colleagues who face great personal risk simply by fulfilling their professional duties. Staff works under fear of losing their lives or being assaulted and in fear for their health and safety every shift.”

We implore the city to take action to protect patients and staff in our correctional facilities.

Thank you for your time today.