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As the bodies pile up, NYC Comptroller calls for Federal Receiver at Rikers Island

October 14, 2022 Rob Abruzzese
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It was back in 2014 when federal investigators condemned Rikers Island for its systemic issues and persistent violation of prisoners’ civil rights, and despite efforts to close the notorious jail ever since – and a significant shrinking of the daily population – the violence at Rikers remains as bad as ever.

In 2021, 16 people died at Rikers Island and other city jail facilities. That number is already at 16 deaths for 2022, and that doesn’t count Elmore Robert Pondexter, who suffered a heart attack on September 18, 2022, while on Rikers Island, but was released before his death days later so as not to count against NYC Department of Correction statistics, according to The New York Times.

Since 2017, the city has worked toward closing Rikers Island and replacing it with four smaller complexes spread out in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and The Bronx, but that was under former Mayor Bill de Blasio. The current mayor has reportedly cast doubt on the city’s ability to follow through with its plan.

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“When you still have a higher number of people that can fit into the borough-based jails, what do we do with those that continue to do shootings, robberies, assaults, rapes, and other crimes?” asked Mayor Eric Adams.

“We have to have a plan B, because those who have created a plan A, that I inherited, obviously didn’t think about a plan B,” Adams continued.

Adams did not offer a solid Plan B while speaking at a public hearing where he addressed the topic in late August, except to say that he will need help from the governor, and they will have to consider state facilities.

There is one politician that hasn’t given up on closing the notorious prison.

On Thursday, while speaking at a virtual forum called, “How to End the Crises on Rikers Island,” NYC Comptroller Brad Lander called for a federal receiver at Rikers Island to oversee operations of the jail and to make management reforms as necessary to address rising violence, missed medical appointments, and rising death rates.

“Admittedly with some trepidation, I have come to the conclusion that to address the short-term crisis – which is rooted largely in deeply entrenched mismanagement of staff and union leadership recalcitrance – a receiver should be appointed,” said Comptroller Brad Lander. “A receiver will not be able to magically fix what has been broken at Rikers for decades.

“But a receiver would be empowered to make decisions that the city has failed to adequately contend with for many years, whether by lack of will or through inability due to legal, regulatory or other barriers,” Lander continued. “To change the systems for assigning staff to posts, to end the abuse of sick leave, to change some of the qualifications for hiring, to procure repairs and services and goods more promptly.”

The proposal to close Rikers Island, which was first put forth by the Lippman Commission, chaired by Hon. Jonathan Lippman, the former chief judge of NY State, was originally planned to be completed by 2026.

One of the biggest obstacles in closing Rikers Island is to shrink the daily population of NYC inmates, which was approximately around 10,000 inmates per day in 2017, and now sits at approximately 5,558 per day as of Sept. 17, according to the Brooklyn Defender Services. The city still needs to shrink that number to at least 4,000 inmates per day, according to the Lippman Commission.

“Receivership should not be confused as a ‘fix’ for what is broken at Rikers,” Lander said. “While we must address the immediate and inescapably real safety threats both to individuals in custody and to staff, we must not lose focus on the hard but necessary work to close Rikers Island.”

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