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Court Should Consider Taking Over Dept. of Correction, Warns Manhattan U.S. Attorney

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Dozens of criminal justice reform advocates protested outside Rikers Island after a detainee died on the island, Feb. 28, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Rikers Island is one step closer to being under total federal control.

The city’s jails “are in a state of crisis…and action is desperately needed now,” wrote Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in a scathing court filing to a federal judge on Tuesday. 

Williams threatened to push for the entire city Department of Correction to be put under a court-appointed receiver, who would have power to totally revamp the agency and ignore existing union contract rules. 

The lack of “dramatic systemic reforms” would leave his office with no other choice “but to seek more aggressive relief” like a court-appointed receiver given total control, he wrote. 

Currently, only the jail facility itself is under federal watch. Williams noted that more than six years of oversight by federal monitor Steve Martin has led to few improvements. 

“We remain alarmed by the extraordinary level of violence and disorder at the jails and the ongoing imminent risk of harm that inmates and correction officers face every day,” Williams wrote to federal judge Laura Taylor Swain, who has overseen the case for years.

In an unusual move, Williams asked the court to order Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and a representative from City Hall to attend the next meeting with the monitor and the feds on Thursday so they can directly respond to any questions. 

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina

Department of Correction

Williams said neither Molina “nor department operational staff” attended meetings on April 5 and April 14 to discuss the city’s broader plans to improve conditions. 

On April 15, the Department of Correction Twitter account touted how Molina attended the New York International Auto Show at the Javits Center to display some of the agency’s new vehicle fleet. 

On Tuesday, when asked about the court filing, Mayor Eric Adams blamed his predecessors and made vague promises of reform.    

“Rikers was a mess,” he told reporters. “And we need to be clear on that. It did not start in January. And we’re going to move forward to make it a humane place.”

A History of Violence

Martin, a corrections consultant from Austin, Texas, was appointed federal monitor in the summer of 2015 as part of a sweeping settlement tied to a class-action suit by a group of city inmates who alleged abuses by officers that included excessive solitary confinement and beatings.

Then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara later joined the so-called Nunez case, named after the lead defendant, citing a “deep-seated culture of violence” against teen inmates at Rikers Island.

Under the terms of the court settlement, the DOC has taken some measures intended to reduce the use of physical force by officers, such as revising policy in 2017 to order officers to avoid blows to inmates’ heads with fists or batons unless their lives are being threatened.

But escalating violence and inhumane conditions have persisted and spurred calls for change from decarceration activists and local politicians who have asked Gov. Kathy Hochul to bring in the National Guard and pleaded with President Joe Biden to intervene. 

The department has also been plagued by a staffing crisis, with at least 1,000 officers calling out sick on average each day. 

Martin’s monitoring team has itself hired an “independent expert in correctional staffing” to analyze how and where officers are deployed. A highly anticipated report on that analysis has taken more than a year to compile and there’s no target date for its release. 

The Correction Officers Benevolent Association has contended the city should hire at least 2,000 new officers, bringing the systemwide total to approximately 10,000. 

But Martin and former jail commissioners have pointed out that hundreds of correction officers are assigned to administrative tasks like data entry, secretarial support, time keeping, social services and analytics.

Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for COBA did not respond to requests seeking comment on the possible push for a court-appointed total takeover. 

‘A Drastic Remedy’

The appointment of a receiver is rare and typically seen as a last resort but not unprecedented. 

In 2007, Chicago’s Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center was put under a receiver. Earl Dunlap, a nationally recognized expert, stepped aside in 2015 after implementing a series of reforms

In 2005, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was taken over by a court-appointed receiver. That takeover has had mixed results and remains partially in place. 

U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams, April 12, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice from 2014 until 2020, told THE CITY last year that she believed the appointment of a federal receiver, with emergency powers to make unilateral decisions, was the only possible solution.   

She and former Correction Commissioner Michael Jacobson, who served during the Dinkins and Giuliani administration, also recommended that takeover in a Daily News editorial last week. 

“It’s a drastic remedy,” Glazer said Tuesday, “but I don’t see any other way out at this point.” 

“It’s pretty powerful medicine,” she added.

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