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NYC Correction Department skipped weekly fire safety checks at Rikers Island jail before near-deadly blaze

FDNY fire trucks head to Rikers Island on on April 6, 2023, in Queens, New York. (Barry Williams/New York Daily News/TNS)

Correction Department officials failed to perform required weekly and monthly fire safety inspections for at least a year before a near-deadly blaze in April in a Rikers Island jail that injured 20 detainees and officers, records obtained by the Daily News show.

A July 27 internal Correction Department memo states that an audit of fire safety records in Rikers’ North Infirmary Command could not find the mandated fire inspection reports from April 1, 2022, through April 30, 2023.

The April 6 fire in in the North Infirmary Command burned one detainee severely enough to send him to an intensive care unit. Several other detainees and as many as a dozen correction officers were treated for smoke inhalation.

The blaze spread as a sprinkler system in the housing unit sputtered once and fell silent, the Daily News reported.

The sprinklers had been turned off for an indefinite period after a detainee damaged one of the sprinkler heads.

The Correction Department audit of the fire safety records was conducted after agency officials realized they could not say how long the unit’s sprinklers were out of service.

Veronica Vela, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, said if inspections of fire safety equipment were not being conducted in one jail, it’s likely they also weren’t conducted in other jails.

“The NIC [North Infirmary Command] fire exposed a lot of other issues with fire safety,” Vela said. “They don’t seem to have policies and procedures in place to deal with fire emergencies.”

Former detainee Hector Rodriguez previously described to The News how he had to stick his head in the toilet bowl of his cell to get air during the fire.

The Correction Department “left people in solitary confinement to die in the likely and foreseeable event of a fire,” said MK Kaishian, a lawyer who represents Rodriguez and five other detainees injured in the blaze.

“Fires have been happening all across the jails on Rikers Island. This was not something unforeseeable, and yet they made a series of intentional choices to continue to expose people to danger.”

The News previously reported that fire safety observation posts in another jail, the West Facility, were often left unstaffed over the past two years.

Those posts were important because that jail has no other means of fire safety protection.

“Because the sprinklers weren’t working, not only did you have 20 people taken to the hospital including correction officers, you had serious damage done to the building,” Vela said. “That’s a lot of money on top of the risk of life that is happening because of these failures.

“Even if people want to be dismissive of people in custody, there are thousands of people who work in the jails every single day.”

A Correction Department directive requires inspections to be done under state standards. State law requires an agency’s fire safety officer to inspect for compliance “on a continued basis and ensure deficiencies are corrected.”

Chapter 9 of the New York City Fire Code requires sprinkler systems to be inspected “at least” once a month to make sure they are functioning, and “detailed records” are supposed to be kept. Sprinkler systems that are not working have to be reported.

The rules also require facilities to keep six extra sprinkler heads onsite to replace damaged ones.

The city Fire Code’s Chapter 9 sets forth more specific requirements for fire protection systems — there are requirements of monthly inspections of sprinkler systems and reporting of systems that are out of order.

In a statement, Correction Department spokesman Frank Dwyer said a review of the North Infirmary Command fire is still ongoing and all sprinklers are now operational.

“[The department] complied with all annual and semiannual inspections for fire safety equipment — including sprinklers and alarms — in all facilities,” he said.

Dwyer’s statement did not address the missed weekly and monthly inspections discussed in the July 27 Correction Department audit memo.

FDNY spokeswoman Amanda Farinacci said the FDNY has not generated any report or recommendations to the Correction Department in the wake of the North Infirmary Command fire, or otherwise sanctioned the agency.

On June 29, Marvens Thomas, the detainee accused of starting the North Infirmary fire, was indicted by a Bronx grand jury on a series of arson and assault charges.

Prosecutors said he used stripped headphone wires and batteries from a TV remote control to make a heat source to start the fire.

Thomas is currently being held in the West Facility at Rikers after spending days in intensive care for burns and smoke inhalation suffered in the fire. He is awaiting trial for murder and a subsequent attack on a correction officer and is being held without bail.


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