The officials who run the Rikers Island jail complex are finally beginning to devise solutions to long-running problems, the federal monitor overseeing improvements said in a letter on Tuesday. For now, the monitor is not recommending a federal takeover.
The letter to a federal judge from the monitoring team was the first relatively positive assessment of the Adams Administration’s approach to improving conditions at Rikers. It was filed with the court along with a mandated action plan for improvements, devised by the Department of Correction in conjunction with the monitor.
“This action plan is a well-informed effort to identify specific immediate steps the city and Department of Correction must take to reduce the risk of harm in the city’s jails right now and to lay the groundwork that begins to disentangle the decades of dysfunction and mismanagement that characterizes this agency,” wrote the monitor, Steve J. Martin, in a letter addressed to U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain.
At a federal court hearing on May 24th, Swain gave the city another two weeks to revise its action plan for making improvements at Rikers, saying the new plan must include specific ways to measure progress.
If this action plan is not implemented or not successful, Swain could order a takeover. A federal receivership would strip the city of control of the jails and hand it over to the federal government. The possibility was first raised last month by U.S. Attorney Damian Williams and endorsed by attorneys for those held at Rikers, among other advocates.
But Martin said that is not immediately necessary.
“An opportunity still exists for the city and the Department to exercise their respective authority in overcoming these obstacles if they commit, utilize, and dedicate aggressive, vigorous, and creative strategies to the problems facing the agency,” he wrote.
The action plan, which was ordered by Swain and must be approved by her next week, tackles some of the most nagging problems at Rikers, including chronic staff absences and violence. Among its proposals are a revamped leadership structure and increased searches to confiscate drugs and weapons.
Following revelations last week that three inmates died this year after they fell ill and correction officers failed to render aid, in part because of a lack of staffing, the plan calls for ensuring that posts “directly related to the safety of the incarcerated population” are mandatory assignments. The plan also calls for revising sick leave policies within 90 days by addressing the fact that at least 1,100 correction officers call out sick on any given day.
Also on Tuesday, a state judge found the city’s Department of Correction in contempt of court, saying that Rikers Island staff failed to provide inmates with basic medical services. A court order by State Supreme Court Judge Elizabeth Taylor gives the city 30 days to show that it’s getting inmates to their medical appointments. If it fails, it will face a $100 fine for at least each of more than 1,900 appointments inmates missed in December and January.
Legal Aid attorneys — who both sued over the medical care and are party to the lawsuit that led to the federal monitor — were unimpressed by Tuesday’s action plan.
“As today's state court decision holding the Department of Correction in contempt of court makes clear, this administration's inability to staff and manage its jails puts lives in danger every single day,” the attorneys said in a statement. “We have yet to see the swift, decisive action necessary to abate this harm, and the promises made today in federal court…are not action.”
Martin said that he’ll be keeping a close watch on whether the action plan is implemented, and “more extraordinary remedies” will be considered if officials don’t keep their commitment to reform.
Martin didn’t lay all of the blame for Rikers dysfunction on the Department of Correction. He noted that about 28% of the inmate population has been in custody for longer than a year, including 278 for more than three years, and he said these long-time inmates account for a disproportionate number of acts of violence. Since Rikers is made up almost entirely of people charged but not convicted of crimes, Martin said the city, district attorneys, and courts must “work collaboratively and creatively to address this case backlog” and move out these inmates.