Federal judge to reconsider takeover of New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jail
A federal judge is once again weighing a takeover of New York City’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex, describing her faith in its leadership as “shaken” following recent reports of violence, gruesome injuries and a lack of cooperation that has thwarted court oversight.
The emergency court hearing on Tuesday came after a federal monitor overseeing the jails system outlined a pattern of disturbing incidents — including detainee deaths and grave injuries — that jail officials failed to report as required last month.
The monitor, Steve Martin, said the city’s jails commissioner also personally lobbied him not to publicly release a report on those findings, claiming it would “fuel the flames of those who believe we cannot govern ourselves.”
In response, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain ordered attorneys for both detainees and the city to formally discuss a potential receivership structure, an extraordinary intervention that would end New York City’s control over one of the nation’s largest and most famous jails. Swain said she would consider the proposal in August.
She also ordered the city to notify the monitor immediately anytime someone dies or suffers a serious injury in custody, rebuking jail officials for flouting reporting requirements put in place following a 2015 federal consent decree.
“I find that it is unfortunately necessary to clarify and underscore the responsibilities that have been imposed by orders that have been in place for years,” she said during the three-hour video hearing.
Advocates for detainees say a federal receivership is necessary to stem the violence on Rikers Island, where 19 people died last year, the highest number in a quarter of a century. In November, the judge rejected calls for a receiver, allowing the city more time to undertake promised reforms.
Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly touted the success of those efforts, pointing to a reduction in slashings and staff absenteeism since he took office and appointed Department of Correction Louis Molina in January 2022.
But on Wednesday, Judge Swain indicated her position on a federal takeover may be shifting, saying the court’s confidence in the city had been “shaken by the incidents of the past few weeks.”
She pointed to a report issued by the federal monitor detailing violent incidents that jail officials allegedly neglected to report to the monitor, including the death of a detainee who was originally said to have suffered a heart attack, but was later discovered to have died from a skull fracture.
Another man who attempted to flee from correction officers was tackled and paralyzed from the neck down, an injury the monitor said also wasn’t properly reported.
“The Department’s approach to reform has recently become characterized by inaccuracies and a lack of transparency,” the monitor wrote.
In addition to her concerns about reporting, the judge also called out efforts by city leaders “to shape public opinion and public perception on these very serious issues.”
In recent weeks, Adams and Molina have allowed select reporters to view footage of Rikers Island that they claim would undermine the monitor’s narrative. The Department of Correction has also said it will cease alerting the public about detainee deaths.
Asked about his agency’s media strategy on Wednesday, Molina said he was trying to protect against bad-faith criticism, arguing the monitor’s findings of chronic violence could undercut efforts to stabilize the jail system.
“What I was trying to get the monitor to appreciate is that we have a number of groups that just want to see the department fail because it advances their position that Rikers Island or the city’s jail system should not exist,” Molina said.
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