For nearly 30 minutes in April, Rikers Island staff members kept eight people locked in their cells while the workers tried to extinguish a fire and smoke spread through a housing unit, according to a report from the city’s Board of Correction.
The fire was ignited in the complex’s North Infirmary Command, which houses people with acute medical conditions who require infirmary care or have a disability. About a dozen people, including staff members and four detainees, were transferred to hospitals after the fire, according to the report, which was released on Friday.
A review of the Department of Correction’s response to the fire revealed a series of lapses in protocol, according to the investigation by the nine-member board, the agency responsible for protecting the rights of incarcerated people. The sprinkler system water supply to the housing area had been shut off at some point before the fire, the report found. Staff members had failed to conduct weekly and monthly fire safety audits; correction officers stopped doing their required 30-minute tours for two hours on that day; and the department’s two Fire Safety Unit officers on duty were unreachable for several minutes.
A spokesman for the Department of Correction said the agency would review the report and the board’s recommendations.
The Legal Aid Society, which represents people detained at Rikers and has called for a federal takeover of the jail complex, said the report described “egregious mismanagement by multiple entities” within the Correction Department.
“It is hard to imagine any institution in our city where such compounding and colossal failures to prevent and contain a catastrophic fire would not result in immediate accountability by leadership,” Legal Aid said in a statement on Friday.
The report comes just weeks after Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, an eight-year veteran of the Correction Department, became commissioner of the agency, a post that became vacant this fall with the departure of Louis A. Molina, who then became the assistant deputy mayor for public safety.
Mr. Molina’s nearly two-year tenure was marked by a failure to reverse the violence at the Rikers Island complex, a strained relationship with the federal monitor overseeing the jail, and accusations of a lack of transparency from watchdogs and detainees’ rights advocates.
In August, the Board of Correction sued the Correction Department and the city over a lack of transparency, calling for an outside authority to take control of the jails.
A challenge for Ms. Maginley-Liddie will be addressing the possibility of a federal takeover of Rikers Island.
The matter will be decided by a federal judge, Laura Taylor Swain. In July, Judge Swain wrote that Mayor Eric Adams’s administration had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails.” In August, she set a schedule for a series of legal arguments on the issue.
Ms. Maginley-Liddie has said that a federal takeover was not a “foregone conclusion” and that she would use the relationship she had developed with the federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, to maintain control of the jail.
But in recent weeks Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor, Damian Williams, bolstered the effort to strip the Adams administration of control over the troubled jail system. In November, Mr. Williams wrote in a court filing that the appointment of an outside authority was the only solution to the persistent violence and chaos at Rikers.
Nine people have died at the jail complex this year.
The fire on April 6 was ignited in the early afternoon by a man who was frustrated that the Correction Department’s Emergency Services Unit had confiscated his “non-institutional footwear” during a search that morning, according to the report. It was the fifth time the man had set a fire, the Board of Correction found.
The blaze was first reported at around 1:15 p.m., when the smoke detector in the unit common area was activated, according to the report. Body-worn camera footage showed a correction officer trying to put the fire out using a fire extinguisher at around 1:28 p.m., while a supervisor could be heard giving officers a direct order not to open the cells, the investigators found.
The Fire Department, which staff members called when the on-duty Fire Safety Unit officers could not be contacted, arrived at North Infirmary Command at 1:40 p.m. By 1:41 p.m., correction officers began to evacuate the eight people in custody from their cells.
In its recommendations, the Board of Correction stressed that immediately evacuating the area where a fire has started should be a top priority.
In addition, the Correction Department should establish a system that requires the periodic inspection of the sprinkler system, the board said.
Erin Nolan contributed reporting.