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Exclusive: CBS2 Goes Inside Rikers Island To See How The Department Of Correction Is Trying To Turn Things Around

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The Manhattan District Attorney is advising prosecutors not to ask for bail for certain non-violent offenses that could put someone on Rikers Island.

This comes as alarms have been raised about the conditions there.

A federal judge has ordered significant changes for Rikers Island and other New York City jails. The emergency order requires the city to immediately come up with an interim security plan to address ongoing issues.

CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas got an exclusive look inside to see how the Department of Correction is trying to turn things around.

The city has not allowed cameras outside of the main office on Rikers Island during this crisis until Wednesday.

CBS2 was restricted in where we could go and we were not allowed to talk to detainees on camera, but we were able to spend hours with the commissioner and others on the ground and ask them to address some of many concerns.

Flanked by clergy who gathered on Rikers Island, Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi read the names of detainees who died in custody and offered an unexpected apology.

"On behalf of myself, on the department, on city of New York and for the corrections field, I want to apologize for mass incarceration," he said.

With just three months on the job, the commissioner is under immense pressure to do what his predecessors could not as the deaths, violence and staff shortages have put the department under a microscope.

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On Wednesday, he called in clergy to jumpstart the rehabilitative process with a paintbrush at the complex that houses young adult detainees.

It's where violence is the worst.

"We're hoping to change for the better by us improving conditions for them, adding programs, physically rehabilitating this space," Schiraldi said.

Extra hands helped renovate a vacant housing unit.

"I'm painting. I'm trying not to, uh, um, just go through all the thoughts that are in my head of the time I was here," volunteer Seneca Soler said.

For Soler and his mother, Elsa Valentin Mendez, their service was personal. Soler was once incarcerated at Rikers.

"To actually see that little cell that they're in, it breaks my heart," Valentin Mendez said.

"You made mistakes, but you're surviving. Your mindset is survival. Everything is survival," Soler said.

The Department of Correction is clearing out one wing at a time. Adding a fresh coat of paint, new cell doors and furniture is just part of the plan.

"Dedicated staff that always works with the same young people every week so they get to know them, know their problems and know how to help them. Programs morning, noon and night," Schiraldi said.

The goal is to address the violence – but is that enough?

"With elected leaders coming over the past few weeks, they're coming back with horrific stories, with feces on the ground, people being held in showers. Why is it so bad?" Cline-Thomas asked.

"I'm ashamed of what those legislators got to see, but I'm not just going to wallow in shame. My job is to fix stuff," Schiraldi said.

Correction officers returning to work has been central to every solution.

Rahman Telfair is among the majority that never left.

"We don't come here to mangle anybody. We come here to do our jobs and feed our families," he said. "This agency, it works. It really does. As long as we're given the tools and the ability to do our job, we will work and we will do what we're supposed to do."

Inside Rikers Island: CBS2's Aundrea Cline-Thomas Details Tour Of Troubled Jail Complex

That job has come with mounting criticism.

"The number of staff has increased that we have here. The number of people that are incarcerated here has declined and that allows us to do a lot more," Schiraldi said.

It's work that's the last effort for so many to salvage any hope for the future.

"There so many more here that need that help and that encouragement," Valentin Mendez said.

Cline-Thomas spoke to a detainee who has been on Rikers Island for 16 months and asked him what he thought about all these efforts. He said it's nice, but it's still jail.

Cline-Thomas also asked the commissioner what he would say to people who watch the story and think this is just window dressing or show-and-tell. He says wants to be judged not on what he says, but his outcomes.

Both of the changes have only been in place for about two weeks, so only time will tell. The question is how much time do they really have?

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