On Tuesday, a group of mostly conservative-leaning local lawmakers visited Rikers Island and declared conditions in the city’s beleaguered jails have so vastly improved that a proposed outside takeover is pointless.

City Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) told reporters after the tour that Rikers has a “great atmosphere” and accused the federal monitor overseeing the department of “lying” in concluding the Adams administration has made no major positive changes. 

Financial filings show Holden’s campaign fund has received $2,000 from the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) since 2021 — and he’s not alone.

Other members of the Council’s Common Sense Caucus who also toured Rikers and oppose the possible appointment of a Rikers receiver also have received campaign donations from the union. 

According to campaign finance records, those elected officials include:

  • Joe Borelli (R-Staten Island), $2,000
  • Inna Vernikov (R-Brooklyn), $1,000
  • Joann Ariola (R-Queens), $1,000 
  • Vickie Paladino (R-Queens), $1,000 

The union — and Mayor Eric Adams — vehemently oppose the proposed appointment of a receiver, which would be done by Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Swain is set to begin listening arguments Thursday at a hearing in Manhattan.

The receiver would likely have extraordinary powers based on how such arrangements have worked in other jurisdictions.

The receiver would not be obligated to follow any previously negotiated collective bargaining agreements with unions, which include COBA, the Correction Captains Association, and the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association. That could lead to a total overhaul of the number of hours officers work, staff discipline for rules infractions, and officers’ training regimen. 

Some See Improvement

On Wednesday, Daniel Kurzyna, Holden’s chief of staff, said the visit was specifically planned right before the court hearing and had nothing to do with the COBA campaign cash. 

“I don’t understand what the story is,” Kurzyna said. “We didn’t do this at the behest of COBA.” 

Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for COBA, did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.

After the story was published, Skelly said THE CITY contacted him at a phone number he no longer uses.

Councilmember Borelli defended his position, saying it has nothing to do with campaign money. 

“Suddenly, labor donating to Council candidates is questionable,” he said. “But THE CITY won’t question any donations between any one of the dozens of labor orgs that give massive amounts to progressive Democrats.”

THE CITY has detailed large union super PAC donations that bolstered the election of members of the Council’s Progressive Caucus.

Councilmember Joann Ariola (R-Queens) speaks favorably about conditions on Rikers Island after touring the complex, Aug. 8, 2023. Credit: Joann Ariola/X

Holden and the other Council members said Tuesday that conditions on Rikers have vastly improved under the Adams administration. 

“I couldn’t believe the difference. Freshly painted, shiny floors, better lighting,” said Holden, who slammed the conditions on Rikers after visiting the jails complex in September 2021 when Bill de Blasio was mayor.

“They had not only video games, but they had a pretty nice movie theater,” he added. “This is all new under Commissioner [Louis] Molina — even ping-pong, which one of the Council members got involved with playing one of the detainees.”

The eight-member group sent a letter to Swain, urging her to give Molina more time to reform the department.

Give and Take

Citing years of failed Rikers turnaround efforts, The Legal Aid Society and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams have asked Swain to appoint a third party to take over parts, or all, of the Department of Correction. 

They note that Steve Martin, the Texas-based federal monitor in place since 2015, has issued multiple scathing reports about the conditions in city jails in recent weeks. 

His latest report Monday said that “little progress has been evident” and concluded that the department’s push to implement recommended changes over the past few weeks has been “haphazard, tepid and insubstantial.”

“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,” said Martin’s 56-page report.

“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 Council’s Common Sense Caucus visited Rikers the next day.

“For anyone, any federal monitor, to say that the conditions have not improved — they’re not telling the truth,” Holden said. “They’re lying.”

City Council members across the spectrum have long accepted donations from labor organizations and supported their causes. Union endorsements can also sometimes swing close local elections, especially in areas with low turnout. 

COBA has long sought to use union funds that come from membership dues to influence lawmakers. 

The union contends its workforce gets little credit, or support, for the difficult job its members do. 

Opposing Reforms

Critics of the union, however, note that the labor group has opposed most proposed jail reforms such as using body cameras, limiting the use of solitary confinement, and implementing body scanners for staff to deter smuggling of contraband. 

“COBA has always asserted influence and been able to block legislative efforts,” said Martin Horn, who served as commissioner of the probation and correction departments during the Bloomberg administration. 

Horn noted that Bloomberg tried to merge the two departments because they deal with the same population. The move was opposed by COBA and never passed. 

“It was purely transactional,” Horn charged. “The union wanted to know what they could get out of it.” 

He also tried to change how officers’ hours are scheduled to avoid staff from working day and night shifts. It required a change in the city’s administrative code, but the move was opposed by the unions representing jail officers and supervisors, Horn recalled.

COBA also has long been one of the main supporters of Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who has jurisdiction over Rikers, the Vernon C. Bain Center jail barge and Horizon Juvenile Center. 

“There should be a special prosecutor, both in the city and the state level, to deal with prison and jail issues,” Horn said. 

Meanwhile, the city’s Board of Correction on Wednesday sued the Department of Correction in Bronx State Supreme Court, arguing that the agency unfairly denied the oversight body access to real-time surveillance camera footage.

“This video access is essential for our staff to do their work. It allows them to unobtrusively monitor, for example, if meals are served on time, to review footage from fights or use of force, and to acquire truthful information about officer and supervisor presence in housing areas,” five of the eight board members wrote in a Daily News editorial, which also called for Swain to appoint a receiver to take over the department. 

Molina blocked the board’s access days after the NY1 news channel highlighted the plight of detainee Erick Tavira.

Tavira died in jail in October after he was yanked from a Rikers housing unit and doused with pepper spray. The NY1 report used video surveillance obtained from the board via a Freedom of Information Law request.