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What Federal Receivership Might Mean for Troubled City Jails

With the plan to shut down Rikers Island looming, the Department of Correction is prepping for a battle over control of all city lockups.

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Going to Rikers Island is not supposed to be a death sentence.

formulanone/Flickr Creative Commons

As Rikers Island and the city’s troubled jail system stumble toward a big turning point, and deaths and horrific incidents mount, many advocates and experts have proposed transferring the system to control of a “receiver” appointed by a federal judge.

So far this year there have been 14 detainee deaths in Rikers and other city jails, including one death last week. In 2021, there were 16 deaths. 

But what does receivership mean exactly, and how long would it take to happen? How long would it last?

New York’s jails have already been under the oversight of a federal court-appointed monitor as a result of the 2011 case Nunez v. City of New York, filed by the Legal Aid Society and later joined by the Manhattan U.S. attorney.

Under receivership, the judge in that case, Laura Taylor Swain, the chief district judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, would appoint a person deemed to be 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 each borough except Staten Island.

Many options for how a receiver would work and possible legal complications for the process remain. 

November Deadline

In May, Swain gave city Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina until November to enact a set of proposed reforms including moving more officers into problem spots. 

Molina, 50, a former NYPD detective tapped by Mayor Eric Adams in January, has pushed the DOC to launch more facility searches for contraband. He also moved to hire additional civilian staffers to transfer correction officers working desk jobs back into jails.   

But if Swain concludes later this year that the reform plan isn’t working, legal experts predict she will set a so-called briefing schedule. That’s where both sides can argue their case for or against the appointment of a receiver. 

Criminal justice reform advocates protest in Lower Manhattan against conditions at Rikers Island, May 17, 2022.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

On one side will be Manhattan federal prosecutors from the Southern District, as well as lawyers from the Legal Aid Society, and the other side will be City Hall lawyers representing the Correction Department. Outside the courtroom, a growing list of criminal justice reformers and activists have called for a receiver to take over. 

That process — which might include an actual courtroom hearing — could take at least three or four months because each party will likely be given weeks to respond to the initial written arguments, based on prior similar cases.  

“The judge can’t just willy-nilly say we need a receiver in place,” said Hernandez Stroud, an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

“There has to be a factual record that the judge is basing his or her decision on,” he added, noting that eight other jail systems have had receivers appointed to take over since the 1970s. 

In October 2020, Molina was actually part of a team that took Westchester County jails out of a federal receivership. He briefly served as the First Deputy Commissioner of the county’s jail system. 

Pros & Cons

Some criminal justice-reform advocates are urging the Adams administration to welcome the appointment of a receiver who would have the power to make the necessary changes.

Adams and Molina have so far argued that they need more time to improve conditions, without the feds looking over their shoulders. 

“You know what it says? It says we can’t do our job. That’s what it says,” Adams told reporters in May. “What’s next? Do they take over our school system? Do they take over our Department of Sanitation? Do they take over probation? What’s next?”

Of course, none of those city agencies have had multiple federal monitors overseeing them for the past several years.  

The city’s jail system has four— including the latest, Steve Martin, who was appointed in June 2015. Martin is the most powerful of all the monitors with broad oversight over all incidents of violence and measures to bring it down.

He’s part of the Nunez case, named for the plaintiff in that class action suit brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of a group of young detainees. All told, Martin has issued 12 reports so far in seven years — with each one calling out an increase in violent incidents and a host of other problems. 

“The monitor has laid out the complete collapse of management and discipline at the jails,” said Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice from 2014 until 2020, who has since advocated for a federal receiver to take over the jail system.

As for the possible appointment of a receiver, if Swain decides that’s necessary she will likely ask both sides, the Legal Aid Society plus the feds and the Adams administration, 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. 

If a receiver is named, legal experts say it will be up to the judge how much power that person is granted. The receiver would technically not be required to follow union contracts — meaning everything from job protections to work hours is free game. 

“A receiver has extraordinary powers. It has to be a last resort and it’s a big thing to do,” Glazer said. 

Currently, correction officers are entitled to argue their disciplinary cases before an independent arbitrator at the Office of Trials and Hearings. That process can drag out for over a year, and in some cases past the union’s statute of limitations. 

Getting Buy-In

Despite the universal power, receivers at other jail systems have usually worked to get union buy-in before making major decisions. 

“You have to get some modicum of agreement that the direction you’re going in is both effective and acceptable,” said Glazer. 

In New York City, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association has significant power to disrupt, and in November 2013 blocked all buses from leaving the island to stop a detainee from testifying against two of its members on trial for beating a detainee. 

The union has also previously blocked the sole bridge to Rikers when upset over a new policy or a disciplinary matter. 

This month, Southern District U.S. Attorney Damian Williams took the rare step — for the region’s chief prosecutor — of visiting Rikers Island.

Courtesy of the Southern District

The receiver may also have to shepherd the $8.16 billion, multi-faceted, 10-year process of closing down Rikers by 2026 and replacing it with four new so-called borough based facilities closer to criminal courts. The plan has gotten pushback from residents in The Bronx and in Manhattan. 

Activists and advocates, many of them relatives of formerly incarcerated people or former detainees themselves, have pushed for years to close Rikers Island’s jails. 

They note it takes hours to travel to courts across the five boroughs and it can be difficult for loved ones to access the island with just one bus line.

Additionally, the facilities on Rikers are aging and have been neglected for years. Some lack air conditioning and others have busted cell doors and crumbling walls and floors. 

But a receiver may just focus on how the jail system operates and not the Rikers relocation plan, according to some legal observers familiar with the case. 

“It depends how the order is crafted,” said Glazer, referring to the judge’s decision. The federal monitor in place right now is primarily overseeing the violence in jail. 

Tragic Urgency

As the court case and a possible receiver appointment snakes its way through the court system the chaos, sometimes with fatal outcomes, in the jail system continues unabated. 

Last Wednesday, detainee Kevin Bryan, 35, took his life after he was chased by a group of other detainees inside the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers, according to jail records. 

He’s the 14th detainee to die in city custody this year so far, after 16 perished last year. That’s the highest total since 24 died in 2013. 

“This type of inhumane treatment has been tolerated by the DOC for years now, leading to the death of dozens of people like Mr. Bryan,” Brooklyn Defender Services, which represented him, said in a statement to THE CITY. 

Bryan’s death came two days after the city’s Board of Correction released a report on several 2021 suicides and drug-related deaths, finding a lack of staff and proper checks contributed to many of the fatalities. 

In a rare move, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of New York’s Southern District and members of his executive team toured Rikers. The U.S. Attorney, rarely, if ever, travels to crime scenes or other locations, according to veteran staffers. 

As for Molina’s reform plan, it’s just the latest in a series of efforts to turn around the department marred with staff shortages and a spike in the number of detainees stabbed and slashed this year. 

In August 2014, former Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office released a 79-page report that concluded that “a deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive throughout the adolescent facilities at Rikers, and DOC staff routinely use force not as a last resort, but instead as a means to control the adolescent population and punish disorderly or disrespectful behavior.” 

Some, like Glazer, believe that the appointment of a receiver is not a fait accompli. 

“It’s a very, very big step for a court to take,” she said, “because a receiver has extraordinary powers. It has to be the last resort where there’s true, imminent danger to the people involved.”

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