Overview of DOC
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New York City


Razorwire Fence


More Inmates Than
In Some State Systems

The New York City Department of Correction (DOC), that began in 1896 with an inmate count at 2,650, now averages a daily inmate population of between 12,000 and 17,000, more than the entire prison system in any of scores of states. On an average day, the Department logs more than 3,000 miles transporting inmates to courts in the five boroughs and to medical and other jail or prison facilities throughout the city and state.

The Department provides custody of males and females, 16 and older, who--after arraignment on criminal charges--have been unable to post bail or were remanded without bail, pending trial. These detaineers constitute about two-thirds of the total inmate population.

The Department also incarcerates those sentenced in the city to terms of up to one year, parole violators awaiting parole revocation hearings, and persons charged with civil crimes. Persons sentenced to prison terms of more than a year are held pending transfer to the State Department of Correctional Services.

Officer looks over yard

Correction, as a distinct entity, dates back to 1895 when the Department of Charities and Correction was split into separate agencies—the Department of Public Charities, with jurisdiction over the City’s hospitals and almshouses, and the Department of Correction. DOC was given jurisdiction over the City’s penal institutions including the Penitentiary and Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island (now called Roosevelt Island); City Prison, Manhattan (Tombs); and five District Prisons and the City Cemetery (Potter’s Field) on Hart Island, off City Island in the Bronx. Other existing prisons in Queens, Brooklyn and Richmond counties, which in 1895 were not yet incorporated into the City of New York, fell under the jurisdiction of their county sheriffs.

Blackwell’s Island was the Department’s main base of operations until the mid-1930s when the century-old Penitentiary and the 85-year-old Workhouse there were abandoned. Blackwell's inmates were transferred to the then newly-constructed City Penitentiary on Rikers Island, just off the shoreline of Astoria Heights in Queens.

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Razorwire Fence

Most Inmates Are Housed
On Rikers Island

The Department's population growth has paralleled the City's, with most of DOC's increases being absorbed on Rikers Island, purchased by the City in 1884. Through sanitary landfill, the once 90-acre island has been enlarged to over 400 acres. Its 10 major jails have a combined capacity of more than 16,000 inmates.

Among the Rikers facilities are a jail for sentenced males, another for sentenced and detainee females, and a detention center for adolescent males (ages 16 to 18). In years past, two floating detention centers were docked off the northern tip of Rikers Island. Each of these converted Staten Island ferries had an inmate capacity of 162 and served as an annex to one of the seven other jails on the Island, all housing adult male detainees. The ferry annexes are long gone.t Rikers facilities other than institutions housing inmates include a bakery, central laundry, tailor shop, print shop, maintenance and transportation divisions, K-9 unit and a power plant. There was, in the not too distant past, a marine unit, but no moew.

The Department also operates borough facilities, court detention facilities and prison wards.

The four off-Rikers borough jails — one each in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx — have a combined capacity of approximately 3,000 detainees facing or on trial. The Bronx jail is an 800-bed barge moored off the South Bronx opposite Rikers. The island, technically, is part of the Bronx although it is zoned for postal purposes with Queens, to which is it is connected by a bridge.

Sixteen court pens are located in the Criminal, Supreme and Family Court buildings in each borough. In Manhattan, an additional court pen is operated in the special Narcotics Court. These courthouse facilities hold inmates scheduled for the day's proceedings.

Old HDM on Rikers
HDM: First Rikers' jail built in 1930s.

Seriously ill inmates and those requiring intensive psychiatric observation are held in prison wards that the Department operates in Elmhurst General Hospital and Bellevue Hospital. The North Infirmary Command on Rikers Island houses detainees with less serious medical problems and persons with AIDS not requiring hospitalization, as well as high security inmates. A portion of the West Facility on Rikers Island contains specialized housing units for inmates with tuberculosis and other communicable diseases.

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Past Population Pressures

From the time that the first jail opened in the city, overcrowding has been a recurring problem. Official reports filed by prison authorities since the early 1700s repeatedly refer to a shortage of jail space and increasing ommitments. In 1954, for example, the inmate population of 7,921 exceeded capacity by 88 per cent. The population was "accomodated" by placing two inmates in each cell, and through the establishment of crowded dormitories.

Although two borough facilities were replaced and another enlarged during the 1960s, population pressures remained intense. These pressures were a major factor in the riots that swept through four City jails in 1970.

Following the riots, the City constructed three new facilities on Rikers Island and enlarged a fourth. The population declined after 1973 and remained at or below capacity for the next seven years. Between March 1980 and March 1981, however, the population surged by nearly 2,000 to 9,250, or 11.4 percent above capacity. The growth continued through 1982, reaching 10,149 (22 percent above capacity) in November 1982, setting the stage for the court-ordered releases of nearly 600 low-bail detainees in November, 1983.

The releases focused public attention on overcrowding. The City intensified efforts and, by FY87, had increased capacity by 4,000. Despite difficulties DOC has kept pace with inmate increases. The population grew from 10,000 in 1982 to more than 21,000 a decade later, with the City adding 11,000 more beds during that period to accommodate the increase. As need requires, DOC contracts or expands its bed capacity.

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City Cemetery

The 101-acre Hart Island, situated off City Island in the Bronx, is the site of Potter’s Field. City-sentenced inmates, transported to and from Rikers Island by bus and ferry, are assigned to work details clearing fields or burying the indigent at the City Cemetery that has been located on Hart Island since 1869.

More on Hart Island and the City Cemetery
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A uniformed and civilian staff of about 438 map routes, drive, maintain and provide various other support for DOC's fleet of more than 500 vehicles. The Transportation Division logs more than 2 million miles a year transporting 2.5 million riders (inmates, staff, visitors). Besides moving inmates to and from courts, the Division transports inmates to and from hospitals, inmates to and from significant family events such as funerals, felony-sentenced inmates to state prisons, and visitors to and from the Rikers Visitors Center and the Island jails.

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Since 1927, the Department has operated a training Academy. Presently situated in Rentar Plaza at 66-26 Metropolitan Ave., Middle Village, Queens, it provides both in-service and pre-service training to uniformed and civilian staffers in such subjects as security, investigations, fire response, use of force, interpersonal communication, health matters, substance abuse, first aid, sign language, chemical agents, and human relations skills.
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DOC Headquarters

DOC Headquarters is located in Queens relatively near Rikers Island -- in the Bulova Corporate Center. This building, built in 1953 for the Bulova Watch Company, is situated near the intersection of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) and the Grand Central Parkway (GCP).
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ACKNOWLEDGMENT: We gratefully acknowledge NYC DOC's permission to post here material used in creating the original version of the NYC DOC web page posted on NYC LINK, predecessor to NYC GOV.
-- Thomas McCarthy, NYCHS webmaster