With a court hearing looming that could decide whether city jails go into the hands of a federal receiver, the judge-appointed watchdog who oversees the city’s Department of Correction reported Monday that “little progress has been evident” on recommended reforms.
In his ninth report evaluating operations at Rikers Island and other facilities, Monitor Steve Martin concluded that any improvements to operations are not happening fast enough.
“While hard work is commendable, it does not obviate the fact that substantially more progress is needed and on a more expeditious timeline than has occurred to date,” Martin’s report said.
“The Monitoring Team has not yet observed evidence of the necessary change in perspective regarding either the severity of the problems that must be addressed or a sense of urgency to identify and implement concrete solutions,” Martin wrote.
The 56-page report chided Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and his staff for failing to address the “gravity of the current conditions,” including a spate of deaths among incarcerated people and excessive use of force by correction officers.
Martin noted that that fixes can take time, and cited by name some top jail officials who are working “hard” to improve conditions. Overall, however, he concluded that the department’s push to implement the monitor’s recommended changes over the past few weeks has been “haphazard, tepid, and insubstantial.”
The latest critical report comes as Laura Taylor Swain, chief judge for the Southern District of New York, will begin to hear arguments Thursday in favor of appointing what is known as a “receiver” to take over parts — or all — of the troubled department.
In June, Swain ruled that the Manhattan federal prosecutor and lawyers from The Legal Aid Society could begin to argue for shifting power over the city’s lockups to a third party.
They contend that drastic change is necessary because the city Department of Correction has spent decades failing to reform the agency.
A receiver would likely be given near-total control and would not be obligated to abide by union collective bargaining agreements — putting everything from work hours to disciplinary practices up for discussion.
Mayor Eric Adams is vehemently opposed to a receiver taking over the department, arguing his administration should be given more time to implement reforms.
“You are not going to find a person that’s more committed to turning around the Department of Correction that I have shown as the mayor,” Adams told reporters last month, noting he has made multiple visits to Rikers.
Martin’s latest report comes weeks after he asked Swain to hold the Adams administration in contempt in order to force jail officials into making a litany of suggested policy changes.
Molina last summer launched a Jails Action Plan aimed at combating a spike in stabbings and slashings, along with high rates of use of force by correction officers. The plan also created “de-escalation rooms” for incarcerated people who act out in violent ways.
In the court filing on Monday, Martin, who was appointed in 2015, questioned the department’s lack of detail and the effectiveness of the plan so far.
“The City and Department have advised of certain steps they intend to take to address the Monitoring Team’s findings, but few appear to contain an adequate level of detail, substance or intensity to resolve these longstanding issues,” Martin said.
Most of Molina’s proposed changes “merely focus on revising policy, reading teletypes at roll call (which, notably, not all staff attend) or reiterating existing practices or trainings,” Martin added.
The report also questioned the accuracy of information shared by the city with the federal monitors.
“The Monitoring Team continues to find that the department, in some cases, provides inaccurate information … that is rectified only through … repeated follow-up to verify the information,” Martin said.
Jails staffers still rely on handwritten logbooks to record basic information, including detainee counts and staff changes. The antiquated books are not shared publicly and are the de facto record system behind bars. They are still in use despite a city Department of Investigation recommendation in 2019 that the department digitize all its records.
In Martin’s latest report, the monitor also cited the seven deaths behind bars this year, including two at the George R. Vierno Complex on Rikers last month. All the fatalities included some sort of “security lapses like unsecured doors” or detainees in “unauthorized areas” or officers and supervisors failing to properly tour housing units, according to the special report.
All told, eight correction officers, four captains, three assistant deputy wardens, and one acting warden have been suspended. They were disciplined for a variety of reasons, according to Martin, including leaving required posts or lying about touring the area.
“While the Department has reported ongoing work to prevent in-custody deaths, the pace of this work has moved far too slowly,” Martin said. “Severe risks to the lives of people in custody remain, and housing areas across the department are rampant with security lapses that heighten the risk of serious injury or an in-custody death in every housing area.”
The report is the latest in a series of scathing reviews of Molina and his efforts to reform the department.
Since late May, Martin has filed three reports slamming Molina and his staff for withholding basic information about five violent incidents behind bars, including one where a restrained detainee suffered a broken neck and was paralyzed after he was tackled by a group of officers.
The push for a federal takeover has gained momentum.
Earlier this month, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams announced that he would ask Swain to take that extreme measure because a federal monitor has fallen short.
“After eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize,” Williams said in a statement.
Williams is among those who will be presenting arguments to Swain on Thursday.