The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island. Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Citing “pervasive dysfunction” behind bars, the federal monitor who oversees the city Department of Correction said Monday he wants the Adams administration held in contempt in order to force jail officials into implementing much-needed reforms. 

Monitor Steve Martin cited years of failed efforts at overhauling the city’s jails in his request that Laura Taylor Swain, chief judge for the Southern District of New York, “initiate contempt proceedings” against the city.

“The pace of reform has stagnated instead of accelerated in a number of key areas, meaning that there has been no meaningful relief for people in custody or staff from the violence and the unnecessary and excessive use of force,” says Martin’s eighth report since 2015. 

The 288-page report slammed city jail officials for repeatedly failing to apply “even the most basic correctional skills to improve practice.”

If Swain moves forward, the contempt proceedings could lead to fining the city if changes weren’t made. 

The latest scathing write-up comes as Swain recently opened the door to allowing the appointment of what is called a “receiver” to take over parts, or all, of the department. 

Calling for Outside Help

Swain last month ruled that Manhattan federal prosecutors and lawyers from The Legal Aid Society could make their case this summer for transferring part, if not all, of the department to a third party.

Legal experts say a receiver can be granted extraordinary powers and would technically not be required to follow union contracts — meaning everything from job protections to work hours could be on the line across the Correction Department.

Legal Aid is expected to use Martin’s latest report — and his call to hold the city in contempt — as further evidence that a third-party expert is needed to take over the department. 

Mayor Eric Adams and Correction Commissioner Louis Molina are vehemently opposed to the appointment of a receiver. They contend some progress has been made and that more time is needed to turn things around within the struggling department. 

“We take our obligation to keep people in our charge very seriously and remain committed to continued reform and working with the monitor,” said City Hall spokesperson Kayla Mamelak, noting that they were still reviewing the report. 

“We are prepared to fully defend against any contempt motion and the record will reflect the important and necessary steps New York City has taken to make continued progress,” Mamelak said.

Last summer, Molina announced a Jails Action Plan for a system plagued by slashings, stabbings and high rates of use of force by correction officers. The plan called for a hard-line approach to officers repeatedly calling out sick and for the hiring of civilian supervisors to replace some uniformed officers. It also created “de-escalation rooms” for incarcerated people who act out. 

Martin, who was appointed in 2015, said Monday that “some progress has been made” but added that “many of the initiatives … remain incomplete or have not been addressed, and worse, there has been a disturbing level of regression in a number of essential practices.”

Since late May, Martin has filed three letters criticizing Molina and his staff for suppressing information about five recent jailhouse incidents, including one where a shackled detainee suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed following a takedown by officers. 

Lack of Progress

In his most recent report, Martin outlined how Judge Swain has, over the last eight years, issued five “remedial orders” to force jail supervisors into taking actions recommended by the federal monitor. 

None of those rulings has worked to drastically reduce violence, he said. 

“The current state of affairs and rates of use of force, stabbings and slashings, fights, assaults on staff, and in-custody deaths remain extraordinarily high — they are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal,” says the new report.

Martin cited several “disturbing, if not frightening” cases where correction officers ceded control of a housing unit to people jailed on Rikers Island and at the Vernon C. Bain jail barge in The Bronx. 

That “abdication … inevitably leads to negative outcomes,” the report says.

Correction officers hitting detainees in the head also remains a problem, Martin said. They happened almost 400 times in 2022, according to the monitor. 

In contrast, officers in the Los Angeles County jail system, which is also trying to decrease its use of force, utilized head strikes 52 times during that same period despite overseeing a larger jail population, records show. 

Martin’s report pointed out the “high” number of head strikes in New York jails over a recent two-month period.

“Thus far in 2023, the Department’s use of head strikes remains high — in a recent two-month period, staff used head strikes 69 times,” he wrote.

‘Culture of Violence’

Martin also revealed that city jail officials plan to close the Anna M. Kross Center, one of 10 jail buildings on Rikers, by August. The AMKC has for years housed incarcerated people with mental illness or other medical needs. 

The closure appears to be part of the broader plan to close Rikers. Those jails are scheduled to be replaced by state-of-the-art facilities in each borough, except on Staten Island. 

The new facilities will be closer to courthouses, eliminating the grueling transportation process known to jail insiders as “bullpen therapy” in which detainees are shuttled to and from courts, starting as early as 3 a.m.

Inmate advocates and public defenders contend the exhausting commute and long waits are used by prosecutors to force people into pleading guilty and avoiding further trips. 

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

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

Under the terms of the court settlement, the DOC has taken some measures intended to reduce the use of force by officers, including a 2017 policy that orders officers to avoid blows to inmates’ heads with fists or batons unless officers’ lives are being threatened.

But escalating violence and inhumane conditions have persisted, spurring 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. 

As for the latest oversight report, Legal Aid, which represents plaintiffs in the case, said it was another example of years of failed reforms. 

“It makes clear that all efforts to date to change the New York City Department of Correction’s pattern of brutality have failed,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Legal Aid. 

“Continuing down the same path — promises of change, monitor’s reports that lead nowhere, court orders that get ignored — will merely cause more injuries and death.”