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Judge’s Rebuke of New York City Signals Potential of Rikers Takeover

The Rikers Island jail complex with the Manhattan skyline behind it.
The judge who would decide whether New York City’s jails are taken over by an outside authority expressed strong disapproval of the city’s track record.Credit...Uli Seit for The New York Times

A day after the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan called for New York City’s jails to be taken over by an outside authority, the judge who would make the decision expressed strong disapproval of the city’s management of Rikers Island and other lockups.

The federal judge, Laura Taylor Swain, wrote on Tuesday that the administration of Mayor Eric Adams had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails and imperil those who are confined and who work there.”

“These concerns raise questions as to whether defendants are capable of safe and proper management of the jails,” Judge Swain said in a court filing, referring to the city and its Department of Correction.

Rikers Island, which holds most of the city’s jails, has descended into chaos over the past three years, with violence and self-harm among detainees soaring after the pandemic. Lawyers for those confined there have repeatedly asked that Judge Swain strip the city of its control over the jail complex. On Monday, in a significant shift, they were joined by Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who said that “we cannot wait any longer” for the city to remedy the yearslong crisis.

Because the power of an outside authority — called a receiver — would derive from the federal court, it would be able to override state and local laws. That could mean circumventing contracts that have kept the jails reliant on the largest correction officers union in the city, releasing certain detainees to ease overcrowding or cutting through red tape in the procurement of items as basic as locking doors.

Judge Swain’s comments do not necessarily mean she will appoint an outside authority, and any decision is likely still months away. But her statement underscored the growing likelihood that the city could lose at least some control over the jails. Any such loss would be a stain on the administration of Mayor Eric Adams, who on Tuesday strenuously defended his record.

Speaking at a news conference, the mayor appeared frustrated and defiant at the idea that a takeover might be necessary, though he said that his administration would abide by the law.

“You’re not going to find a person that’s more committed to turn around the Department of Correction than I have shown as the mayor of New York,” he insisted.

Mr. Adams, while voicing his respect for Mr. Williams, said that his administration had improved the jails. He quoted an April report from a federal monitor who oversees conditions at Rikers, which said that the city was making changes that had “real potential to move the department toward reducing the imminent risk of harm faced by people in custody and staff.”

The mayor, however, did not quote the next paragraph from the monitor, Steve J. Martin, which noted that his cautious optimism was tempered by “persistently high” rates of violence, committed by staff on detainees and among detainees themselves.

“There is certainly progress, but there is also continued cause for alarm,” Mr. Martin concluded then.

The situation in the jails has since eroded. Six people have died this year, three of them this month, either while in the custody of the city or directly after being released. And in a series of reports beginning in May, Mr. Martin criticized Mr. Adams and his correction commissioner, Louis A. Molina, for hiding episodes of violence and negligence. These included a confrontation between correction officers and a detainee that left the detainee paralyzed and another incident in which staff members left a detainee who was badly beaten by other inmates naked in a jail facility for hours.

Mr. Adams was asked about the lack of transparency by a reporter at the news conference on Tuesday.

“Let’s correct that,” Mr. Adams said, before exclaiming, “But you don’t go to receivership!”

He emphasized — contradicting the monitor and lawyers for detainees — that the city was “trending in the right direction.”

“Let’s sit down and talk,” the mayor said. “Let’s work together towards a goal of how do we correct the system.”

The city’s jails have been troubled for decades, but the most recent crisis began in March 2020, when the pandemic arrived in New York. Many correction officers fell ill with Covid-19 that fall, and they soon stopped showing up for work en masse. As a result, violence and chaos reigned in the jails, with more than 40 people having died since the beginning of 2021.

Rikers is required by city law to close by 2027 and if an outside authority were appointed, he or she might well run the jail complex for its remaining years. In the history of the United States, federal and state judges have approved transfers of power away from local jail or prison authorities about a dozen times, with the first in Alabama in 1979, according to Hernandez D. Stroud, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Mr. Stroud said that a receiver could reconfigure the way that jails work in New York City.

“Instead of turning back to the old, failed processes and practices that created the dysfunction that has existed for decades on Rikers, it could allow the city to turn a fresh page,” he said.

The filing on Tuesday by Judge Swain, of Federal District Court in Manhattan, did not refer to Mr. Williams’s statement calling for Rikers to be placed under a receiver’s control. But in the forthcoming weeks and months, the judge is likely to ask the parties to weigh in on whether a receiver is necessary and, if so, who should be given the job and how broad their authority should be.

Elizabeth Glazer, the former director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Bill de Blasio and a former Southern District prosecutor, has been a champion of the idea of a receiver and urged city officials to embrace it.

She said the challenge is to persuade the Adams administration that it is in the best interests of the detainees, staff and the city itself “not to fight this but to shape it and use it to make the reforms that are otherwise so difficult to make and have not been made for 30 years or longer.”

Indeed, the problems at Rikers and the city’s other jail facilities will not be reversed easily, and there is no guarantee a receiver will succeed where a generation of correction commissioners has failed, Mr. Stroud said.

“I’ve tried to caution people that a receiver can be effective in certain ways,” he added. “But it’s no panacea.”

Maria Cramer contributed reporting.

Posted on 19 Jul 2023 00:45 link