I Worked at Rikers Island. Mishandling the Vaccine Mandate Could Cost Lives | Opinion

When I worked as a correction officer at Rikers Island, it was understood that you were going to do overtime on your first day back from your day off and on the last day before you were going to be off again. You could also expect overtime to increase a little in the summertime, when your colleagues were out on vacation.

But while overtime did occur, it was understood that there had to be limits, and for good reason: Being a correctional officer requires for you to be vigilant, awake and on your feet for most of the eight hours of a normal shift. Add into the mix an additional eight hours and you get a recipe for chaos. It's not about being lazy or not wanting to work; after a few days of working sixteen-hour shifts, you will get worn out. And if you're worn out, you'll be worse at protecting the inmates in your care, as well as yourself.

But this rule book has been thrown out the window for most of the pandemic. NBC reported that correctional officers have been forced to work triple shifts for 24-hours straight, due to a shortage of officers, many of whom were out sick or had died of COVID-19. Fewer officers means overworked officers which I can tell you first hand means a radically less safe work environment for everyone.

So it's dismaying to see Mayor Bill de Blasio throwing fuel on this fire with a vaccine mandate that has already exacerbated the situation. Back in September, de Blasio instructed the officers to get at least one shot of the vaccine by December 1, 2021 in order to remain on the payroll. But as of last week, just 77 percent of Department of Correction employees complied with the vaccine mandate, while another 9 percent or 708 officers have applied for religious and medical exemptions. That leaves 570 officers without the vaccine or an exemption at risk of losing their jobs—in an already strapped workforce that just can't afford to lose them.

Lawmakers Call NYC Jail 'Horror Island'
New York lawmakers are describing the inhumane conditions at one city jail after witnessing an inmate’s attempted suicide on a private tour. In this photo. a sign marks the location of the Rikers Correctional Center in the East River on March 9, 2021. Gary Hershom/Getty Images

Of course, it's important to protect fellow officers and inmates from COVID-19. I myself am double vaxxed and support the vaccine 100 percent. I think officers should have been given 48 hours of paid leave to fulfill the vaccine mandate.

Moreover, there are many ways to protect people from the virus without forcing them out of the workforce. De Blasio could have mandated testing, or even antibody testing. Recall that these correctional officers were on the front lines before there was a vaccine. Many of them already got COVID. And many of them feel resentful of having worked at the most dangerous of times, to now be told how to protect themselves from COVID when they had to learn that a long time ago.

That's how I knew many officers were not going to comply and get vaccinated. They're sending a message to the City about using them and then abusing them, as they see it. I hope that New York City is right and nothing bad happens, not only to the inmates but to the officers too. But I fear it will get uglier.

How effective can a correction officer be when he or she is exhausted because they have been working a ridiculous amount of overtime? There are already reports of officers working 12-hour shifts. But what happens when 12 hours are up and you're still short staffed? Work an additional four hours? And then what?

Mayor de Blasio feels confident that this new drama plaguing Rikers Island will last only a few days, that once the officers stop getting paid, they will quickly fall in line, get vaccinated, and return to work. I hope he's right. Many lives are at stake. And if he's wrong, the outcome could turn out to be deadly.

A lack of officers will contribute to more inmates dying or committing suicide. An officer can play a huge role in saving an inmate's life. I conducted my tours in my housing area and looked for depressed inmates or any change is an inmate's behavior constantly. All it takes is for the officer to engage the inmate and see what the matter is. You would be surprised to see what showing someone that you care can do for them.

But an exhausted officer who is just trying to stay alive and not make egregious mistakes at the end of a 16-hour shift and another one coming tomorrow is less likely to have the wherewithal to do that crucial work.

Mayor de Blasio is flexing his muscles thinking that the officers who have chosen not to get vaccinated will come back within a few days. "We've seen it with every agency," he said. "There's a certain number of days where things need to sort out and they do sort out. It's going to happen again here."

Well, I hope he's right. According to City Hall, the Department of Corrections has the lowest number of vaccinated staff. And it's going to cost lives.

Ralph Ortiz has worked for both FDNY as an Emergency Medical Technician and as a Correction Officer for the New York City Department of Corrections. He now works as a case manager for the Department of Children and Families in NJ where he also lives.

The views in this article are the writer's own.