Rikers’ future uncertain: Judge holds off on federal takeover

August 14, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The future of the Rikers Island correctional facility continues to remain a contentious issue, and it looks like nothing is going to change until at least November.

On Thursday, Federal District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain denied the federal government’s bid to assume management of the controversial detention center, albeit provisionally.

Federal authorities, led by U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York, have been keen to transfer control of Rikers Island from city officials, asserting that the conditions at the facility are reaching untenable levels, with the city’s leadership apparently failing to address the escalating crisis.

“The city has had ample time to rectify the dire conditions at Rikers. The time for meaningful change is now,” Williams said.

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This push for change comes after years of concerning reports detailing the deteriorating state of Rikers. Notably, a recent 56-page report by federal monitor Steve J. Martin highlighted negligible progress in improving long-standing issues at Rikers, even pointing to a worrying surge in violent incidents.

Opponents of the takeover, however, view it through a different lens. Mayor Eric Adams remains staunchly against a federal takeover, stating in a recent press conference, “I am best placed to spearhead reforms in the Department of Correction.”

His sentiment was echoed by the “Common Sense Caucus,” a faction of conservative-leaning City Council members who, after a recent visit to the facility, argued that the push for federal intervention seems more politically motivated than based on actual conditions.

Similarly, the union representing the Department of Correction, known for its significant political clout and donations to key local figures, including Mayor Adams, has strongly resisted the idea of a federal takeover.

However, city officials advocate fervently for federal oversight, citing incessant reports of violence, inadequate medical care and severe staff shortages.

NYC Comptroller Brad Lander said, “The city has demonstrated an inability to self-regulate and reform its jail system. If we don’t intervene now, the human and economic costs will only escalate.”

Judge Swain’s ruling, though a setback for those advocating for federal intervention, doesn’t close the chapter on this contentious issue. She voiced her concerns regarding the city’s ongoing efforts but stopped short of assigning a receiver.

The matter will be revisited on Nov. 28, when another conference between city and federal officials is scheduled.


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