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Rikers Island Crisis: House Democrats Call on de Blasio to Brief Congress

A trio of House Democrats has asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to brief Congress by next week on what they called “unacceptable conditions” at the jail complex on Rikers Island.

The Democrats — Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Jamie Raskin of Maryland — filed a letter on Monday requesting a congressional briefing from Mr. de Blasio and the commissioner of the city’s Department of Correction, Vincent Schiraldi by Monday of next week.

The letter also called on the mayor to release low-level offenders into supervised programs in order to address overcrowding at the jail complex, which is under the control of New York City officials and where about 5,000 people were being held as of Monday morning.

A spokesman for Mr. de Blasio did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Ms. Maloney, who represents parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, is the chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, while Mr. Raskin leads a subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a district encompassing parts of Queens and the Bronx and who has called for the immediate shutdown of Rikers Island, serves on both the committee and subcommittee.

The letter is the latest signal that federal lawmakers are skeptical of New York City’s ability to ease the crisis at Rikers Island, where 11 people who were held in custody this year have died, and where pervasive understaffing has led to dangerous conditions for detainees and correction officers alike. (A 12th person died on a floating jail near Rikers last week.)

The request follows a letter released last week in which more than a dozen New York Democrats called on President Biden to intervene at Rikers, and asked the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into the conditions there.

City officials have insisted in recent weeks that they have the capacity to solve the issues plaguing Rikers. At a City Council hearing earlier this month, Mr. Schiraldi and Dean Fuleihan, the city’s first deputy mayor, said that they would not need outside help.

“I strongly believe that the City of New York can fix this,” Mr. Schiraldi said.

But the letters from members of Congress, as well as a court hearing last week during which lawyers for a civil rights group asked a federal judge to intervene, suggested that those concerned about conditions at the jail complex were increasingly looking toward other parties to help fix the crisis.

Mr. de Blasio, who has not visited Rikers Island since June 2017, the year he backed a plan to close the jail complex, announced that he would tour the facility this week. The mayor said at a news conference on Monday that the trip would take place in “the next few days.”

He added that measures the city had recently put in place — including opening some new intake facilities and reducing triple shifts — were “making a real impact” at Rikers. The population of the island, which was about 6,000 people earlier this month, is now down to 4,958. Gov. Kathy Hochul this month signed a parole reform law, known as the Less is More Act, and ordered the release of close to 200 people detained on the island.

The overall jail population citywide is 5,688, and Mr. de Blasio said Monday that he would like to see that number drop to below 5,000.

Also last week, the city withdrew a lawsuit it had filed against a union representing correction officers after the union agreed to make an official statement discouraging absenteeism.

“Officers who are fit for duty should show up for work as required by the law,” the statement said.

The union, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, has continued to express ire toward the mayor, and released a fiery statement on Friday after the city said that it planned to work with state officials to amend a law governing whether private contractors can work at the city’s jails.