A Rikers Island fire safety system that failed in a blaze that badly burned two detainees and left a dozen other inmates and correction staff with smoke inhalation was last inspected in November 2021, records obtained by the Daily News show.
A private company under contract with FDNY and fire safety inspectors tested and passed the sprinkler system as functional at the North Infirmary Command. An FDNY spokesperson said the system was on a five-year inspection cycle — meaning it was due for its next check in November 2026.
But the sprinkler and strobe-alarm system failed in the April 6 blaze, and there were issues with the Correction Department emergency response.
It is unclear what happened with the sprinkler system in the 17 months that passed between its inspection and the fire. The Correction Department, which is responsible for maintaining the system, did not respond to requests for comment.
FDNY spokeswoman Amanda Farinacci said Friday an investigation into the fire continues.
The fire began after correction officers conducted at least one search the morning of April 6 and confiscated personal possession of detainees held in North Infirmary Command Unit 2A, where some high-security detainees are held in an area that also includes tiny fenced enclosures. Detainees call the area “the kennel.”
The search took place after the Correction Department learned nine state legislators were arriving to do a surprise inspection of the jails, and at least one intended to visit the North Infirmary Command.
A detainee started the fire by setting his mattress ablaze at about 1:30 p.m.
MK Kaishian, a lawyer, said a client in the unit told her the sprinkler system “hissed once” and fell silent. The smoke grew so thick and the emergency response was so delayed that detainees were flushing their toilets to get air.
A correction officer appeared with a fire extinguisher, but was unable to extinguish the flames. It finally took FDNY firefighters with a hose to put out the blaze about 2:13 p.m.
In the aftermath of the fire, the detainees housed in Unit 2A were moved to Unit 2B in the same jail — where, instead of being given access to toilets, they were given bags to defecate in, Kaishian said.
After less than 24 hours, and without any apparent clean-up, the detainees were returned to the fire- and smoke-scarred unit 2A, said Kaishian and an inmate who wrote a complaint to a public defenders organization.
That detainee, whose name is being withheld by The News and is represented by a different lawyer, begged for a transfer because of the post-fire conditions in the unit.
Smoke debris was not cleared out, no repairs had been made, “toxic” fumes remain, and the cells were not power washed and remain covered in black soot, according to the complaint. The detainee complained detainees are coughing, spitting up black saliva, and have vomited.
Fires are not uncommon in the jails, especially higher security units. On Nov. 5, 2021, a detainee set a fire in Unit 2B at North Infirmary Command amid a conflict with a correction officer, an internal Correction Department report on the blaze indicates.
That officer left his post. Other officers tried to put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher, but it was ineffective, and the Fire Department was called to extinguish the fire, the report indicates.
A correction captain was suspended for failing to fill the post of the officer who departed, the report says.
That last FDNY inspection took place eight days later on Nov. 13, 2021.
Meanwhile, on Friday, state Sen. Latrice Walker (D- Brooklyn) tied the Board of Correction April 12 report on seven jail deaths in 2022 to her sharp opposition to changes to the bail reform law pushed by Gov. Hochul.
The report detailed a range of breakdowns that contributed to the deaths, including unstaffed posts, slow emergency response, missed medical visits, and pre-trial detentions of more than a year and echoed conclusions in two prior death reports.
Walker has been on a hunger strike since April 9 — Easter Sunday — to protest jail conditions and Hochul’s proposal, which would remove language requiring judges to use the “least restrictive means possible” to ensure someone returns to court.
“It is for the people in this report and others who died in the jails across the state that I am on a hunger strike. This report adds to the mountain of evidence of how racist, brutal, and deadly our pre-trial jail system is,” Walker said in a statement.
“No one could in good conscience read this report and then adopt changes to the bail laws that will send more people to these deadly jails.”
Sixteen people died in the city jails in 2021, and another 19 in 2022. One person has died so far in 2023.
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