Is a complete federal takeover of the long troubled and lethally violent Rikers Island on the horizon?
On Tuesday, Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, threatened just that.
In a letter to a judge overseeing supposed reforms at the city jail complex, Williams said that receivership — which would turn control of the jails from the city to the federal government — is an option if systemic changes aren’t made quickly.
“The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now,” Williams wrote to U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who would ultimately decide on implementing a receivership. “Our office is very concerned about whether the department and city have the ability, expertise, and will to swiftly make the changes necessary to bring true reform to this deeply troubled agency.”
Receivers can hire and fire personnel and set spending plans. They are installed temporarily before the government entity is returned to local control.
Williams said that the Department of Correction under Mayor Eric Adams has not provided information about improvements at the facility, or even sent high-level representatives to meetings with his staff to discuss improvements. He wrote that unless the department, under Commissioner Louis Molina, makes “dramatic systemic reforms,” and brings in outside corrections experts to revamp the jails, “we will be left with no other option but to seek more aggressive relief, which could involve seeking the appointment of a receiver with independent authority to implement sweeping reforms.”
The latest legal filing comes after a federal monitor issued a scathing report last month detailing worsening violence and safety issues at Rikers. Inmates miss thousands of medical appointments each month. About 30% of the workforce fails to show up to work or is otherwise unavailable for duties involving incarcerated people. And, already this year, three inmates have died; 16 held in city jails died last year.
The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now.
The federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, has been in his position since a class-action lawsuit led to a 2015 consent decree that ordered sweeping improvements at the jails. The monitor issues regular reports and recommendations, yet the rate of inmate deaths has increased and the staffing crisis is more acute than when Martin was first appointed.
Williams wrote that the Department of Correction is violating the consent decree, as well as three follow-up orders, by failing to follow security protocols, address chronic staff absenteeism, or hold staff accountable for use of excessive force against inmates. He said the monitor’s most recommendations for change mirror prior ones that the department all but ignored. He also alleged that the city failed to provide his office with specific information on how it will implement the recommendations in the monitor’s report and “address the ongoing unsafe and dangerous conditions at the jails.”
Asked about the allegations, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, Patrick Rocchio, said, “We remain deeply committed to the idea of reform and to working with all stakeholders to improve conditions.”
He added, “We take the monitor’s and U.S. attorney’s concerns seriously and are working hard to address their concerns. We are reviewing the letter and will respond accordingly.”
Idea gaining steam
Calls to bring in a federal receiver for Rikers have increased over recent months. Former Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, who was ousted by Adams, floated the idea last month on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show.
And writing in the Daily News, former Director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Elizabeth Glazer and former Commissioner of the city Department of Correction Michael Jacobson endorsed the appointment of a receiver, citing successful receiverships for a Chicago juvenile detention center and California’s prison health care system.