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Rikers could soon have a federal receiver — How have takeovers worked in other U.S. jails?

Corrections departments in California and Chicago highlight benefits and challenges of moves to place chaotic lockups under outside control.

September 30, 2022 Reuven Blau, THE CITY
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As the administration of Mayor Eric Adams resists a growing chorus of calls for a federal judge to appoint a receiver to run the city’s troubled Department of Correction, past takeovers around the country suggest what might be in store.

New York City’s jails have already been under the oversight of a federal court-appointed monitor as a result of a 2011 class-action lawsuit. But under receivership, the judge in that case would appoint a person to take over running Rikers Island and the city’s other jails — where violence far outpaces other lockups throughout the country, a national expert testified before the City Council Wednesday.

Since the 1970s, eight jail facilities across the country have had a receiver, or similar overseer, appointed to take over, according to Hernandez Stroud, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

Similar jail takeovers of scandal-ridden systems across the country have yielded some successes, but also encountered funding and court challenges.

The Chicago way

In Illinois, a federal judge tapped acclaimed juvenile justice expert Earl Dunlap in 2007 to run the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, previously described by one editorial as “a wasteful, disorganized, abusive cesspool.”

Dunlap first used his power to kick out approximately 100 politically connected and unqualified officers and revamped how the agency hired and trained new staff. He also initiated a cognitive behavior therapy approach to counsel juvenile detainees and broke large housing units into smaller, more therapeutic, areas.

Criminal justice reformers and inmate advocates hailed the changes as a success and an example of what one expert can do if given the opportunity and power.

But many of his proposed reforms were opposed by the local Teamsters union and some elected officials, according to Dunlap, who spoke to THE CITY about his tenure as the “transitional administrator” from 2007 until 2015.

“It took me the first three years just to get my feet on the ground, and be able to work around all the barriers and the obstacles and the stones that were thrown up,” he said.

Dunlap also faced multiple court challenges over the years, including one appeal in 2011 by the union that threatened to totally strip his power. The effort failed.

He also noted that the Cook County detention center is only a 500-bed facility. By contrast, 5,830 people were held in New York City’s correctional facilities as of Sept. 28.

“But size doesn’t have as much to do with it as does the leadership in the administration of the facility and how they create an overall vision that will get at dealing with some of the most difficult problems,” he said.

Over the years, the New York City jail system has had some “decent” people attempt reform, Dunlap said.

“But they always get thwarted because of politics, or unions, or whatever,” he said, adding that organized labor groups “are not out to represent the jail population.”

“They represent the people who work in the jails,” he said. “They really don’t care for the conditions of prisoners. That’s been established over time, and all too often people who live in the facility come out on the short end of the stick.”

California scheming

In California, U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson appointed Robert Sillen as a receiver in June 2005 to operate and reform medical care for state prisoners. He was named after the judge found that “on average, an inmate in one of California’s prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days” due to poor medical care.

Sillen proposed reforms that included boosting pay for medical workers at an initial cost of $300 million a year. He also unsuccessfully sought $3 billion for 5,000 long-term medical beds.

Sara Norman, managing attorney for Prison Law Project, was instrumental in calling for a California receiver.

Simply getting a receiver to propose reforms does not guarantee their delivery. Funding for the proposed changes has been “something for the state government to work out,” she told THE CITY.

Finding the right person to appoint as receiver is key, multiple legal experts and jail reformers said.

Laura Taylor Swain, the chief district judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, has given Correction Department Commissioner Louis Molina until November to implement his action plan before she assesses the results.

If Swain decides that a receiver is necessary, she will likely ask both sides — the Legal Aid Society plus the feds on one, and the Adams administration on the other — to submit a list of acceptable names, according to legal experts. Swain will then probably try to get the two sides to agree on a selection, based on prior similar cases.

The Golden State may serve as a cautionary tale.

In 2008, Judge Henderson abruptly booted Sillen after nearly two years of failed attempts to improve medical care for state prisoners.

“I think there was a widely held sense that he was not working well enough with everybody,” Norman said.

J. Clark Kelso, a law professor who had no specific prison experience, was named as the new receiver. Kelso had an extensive track record of reforming multiple troubled public institutions in California. As the current receiver, he has implemented electronic health records and a data-driven system to keep track of how fast prisoners are sent to medical specialists.

“That’s one of the big accomplishments of the receivership,” Norman said, adding that the receiver has also pushed to improve current clinic space and build more locations. For example, she noted, “They built sinks in places where nurses were seeing patients.”

But it has not all been smooth going.

In September 2021, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar, who is overseeing the ongoing case and receiver, ruled that all prison staff must be vaccinated against COVID. But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office and the politically influential California Correctional Peace Officers Association appealed the mandate. The union contended that 700 of its members would be forced to resign or quit.

In April 2022, an appellate panel agreed with Newsom and the union and overturned the federal overseers’ vaccine mandate.

Norman said the court battle showed how the union can get its way, even with a receiver in place.

“The union is a player, both in terms of being able to make legal arguments in front of the judge, and also working with the receiver often behind the scenes,” she said.

Criminal justice reform advocates hold pictures of Brandon Rodriguez, who died on Rikers, and Kalief Browder, who killed himself after being released, at a City Hall hearing on ending solitary confinement, Sept. 28, 2022.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

‘What will fix it?’

In New York City, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has strenuously opposed the possibility of a receiver and gone to extreme measures to block proposed changes.

Some activists and jail experts are urging the union, and the Adams administration, to welcome a federal takeover should it come to pass. Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams earlier this month took the rare step of visiting Rikers along with some members of his team.

In a court filing in April, he said city jails “are in a state of crisis … and action is desperately needed now.” The legal brief threatened to ask U.S. District Court judge Swain — who is overseeing the ongoing federal monitor — to appoint a receiver to take over the Correction Department.

Under receivership, Swain would appoint a corrections expert to take over running city jails — including the embattled plan to shut Rikers Island and house detainees in four new jails in the heart of each borough except Staten Island.

The possibility of a receiver looms as the department struggles with a massive staffing personnel crisis largely tied to staff calling out sick and refusing to return to work, department records show.

In March, the federal monitor overseeing the department found that more than 2,000 officers had been out sick, injured, or on some sort of modified duty in January.

An untold number of officers have cushy jobs outside of the jails, assigned to areas like the transportation unit or doing paperwork for supervisors.

The lack of staff has become so dire that some detainees were unable to get to court for their hearings and at one point forced jail supervisors to lock down the Rikers facility housing mentally ill detainees.

Yet the monitor also noted that the number of correction officers on the city payroll actually exceeds that of other jail systems.

“The Department’s staffing issues are perplexing and are driven by deeply ingrained patterns of mismanagement and dysfunction,” the federal monitor, Steve Martin, wrote in a “special” report in March. “In relation to the size of the incarcerated population it manages, the department has more staff resources than any other correctional system with which the Monitoring Team has had experience.”

So far this year, 16 detainees died in Rikers or other city jails, including Gregory Acevedo, 48, who died last week after he jumped off the roof of the Vernon C. Bain Center jail barge in an attempt to escape. That matches the total for all of 2021.

Martin’s special report in March noted that the department had a $1.25 billion budget for fiscal year 2021.

“The total average spending per incarcerated individual per year skyrocketed to an all-time high of $556,539 in fiscal year 2021, a per capita cost that is simply unparalleled,” the report said.

The national average per inmate is $438,000, according to an analysis done by the Vera Institute last year.

As for receivership, Dunlap noted that the cost of some changes can be expensive and typically must be approved by local lawmakers.

“My budget went from $26 million up to $60 million over a very short period of time,” he said. “The county, in this particular case, had very little latitude by which to reject my budget.”

A hopeless ‘catastrophe’?

Dunlap, who handed the Cook County system back to the city in 2015, said he was worried even a receiver might not improve the situation in New York.

“Rikers has been a catastrophe for years,” he said. “And there hasn’t been to date any mechanism or process that’s made any headway to clean it up. There’s been a lot of money spent but obviously it hasn’t succeeded.”

But reforms can take hold if the lawmakers are kept out of the process, he contended.

“I just think it’s long past time that somebody in New York City got some balls and did what the right moral thing is to do,” he said.

“I realize that a lot of the population on Rikers Island is not your standard good citizen. But they’re still human beings. And for too long in Rikers Island they have been treated as not even second-class citizens. They are well down the line and people don’t care about them.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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