NYC jail boss says extra $28 million in budget will be used for new hires, facility repairs

New York City's jails commissioner told lawmakers at a budget hearing Tuesday that an additional $28 million allocated to the fiscal year 2016 budget would go toward facility repairs, new hires and beefing up application screening and recruitment units to attract better talent to the troubled agency.

"Despite the tireless, everyday effort of many fine men and women, New York City's Department of Correction is deeply troubled," Joseph Ponte testified. "It will take fundamental change to undo years of declining conditions, and that takes time."

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An additional 2,000 guards should be hired in the next year to keep up with low retention rates, though officials only have training space and capacity to hire two full classes of 600 corrections officers each in the coming year, he said.

More money from the preliminary $1.2 billion budget would go toward creating a recruitment team to find qualified new hires and expanding an application screening unit to weed out problematic hires, he said. A city investigation last year found that jail guards with gang ties and psychological problems were regularly hired by the department.

Ponte said overall morale was "pretty poor" among uniformed staff but that reforms such as increased staffing, improved facilities and a drop in jail violence would mollify those concerns.

The city's fiscal year 2016 budget must be passed by June 30.

The Rikers Island jail complex has come under increased scrutiny in the past year after reporters, regulators and federal prosecutors have detailed a host of problems — from inmate beatings to guard corruption and the maltreatment of the mentally ill.

Corrections officials are negotiating with federal prosecutors in Manhattan after they joined a class-action lawsuit in December that alleges system-wide brutality by guards against inmates. Asked after the hearing how he'd feel about a court-appointed federal monitor, which is part of his discussions with the Department of Justice, Ponte said it wasn't ideal.

"In one case, it doesn't matter," he said. "We all know we have to get better, so it doesn't matter to me if it's a federal monitor or if we get better on our own, we don't have to get one."