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Adams Jail Task Force Steeped in Secrecy as Federal Monitor Rips ‘Pervasive Dysfunction’ Behind Bars

A year after its launch, the inter-agency team heralded to help reform Rikers Island has yet to issue a single report or update showing its work. Now a key player is leaving.

SHARE Adams Jail Task Force Steeped in Secrecy as Federal Monitor Rips ‘Pervasive Dysfunction’ Behind Bars

The George R. Vierno Center on Rikers Island, where William Johnstone was found unresponsive inside his cell Saturday.

Courtesy of the Department of Correction

Five months after Eric Adams became mayor, he formed a Rikers Island task force to “remedy” the crisis in a city jails system facing a potential federal takeover.

Made up of representatives from multiple city agencies, the task force was assigned “to implement the recommended reforms as swiftly and efficiently as possible,” according to a press release announcing its formation.

But just over a year later, the eight-member body has yet to issue a single report or suggest any policy reforms to comply with a federal monitor in place since 2015. Now, it’s facing a leadership vacuum, with co-chair Brendan McGuire, the mayor’s chief counsel, set to exit the administration at the end of the month and no replacement in place.

“It’s not clear what this task force has accomplished and what interagency work has been done to improve conditions on Rikers,” Councilmember Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), who chairs the council’s Criminal Justice Committee, told THE CITY. 

The current conditions in city jails “undermine public safety,” she said, subjecting staff and detainees to “continued cycles and trauma that perpetuate cycles of harm.”

Concerns over the task force’s value have also come from the federal monitor who oversees the Department of Correction, who is pushing for the Adams administration to be held in contempt in order for a series of long-delayed reforms to be put in place.

The latest report from Steve Martin, the Texas-based monitor, cited a “pervasive dysfunction” in city lockups following years of failed attempts to revamp the jails system. It also pointed to an increase since 2015 — when Martin came on board — in the number of “use of force” incidents by officers against detainees.

The monitor has also called attention to a lack of cooperation by Department of Correction officials with his oversight efforts, including following the death or serious injury of people incarcerated in city jails.

Martin also disputed whether Molina and his team “have the requisite objectivity and transparency necessary to address such incidents and advance the reforms.” 

Paul Schectman, the top lawyer for the Department of Correction, defended the interagency task force. 

“We meet regularly and have a half dozen city agencies involved,” he told THE CITY on Thursday. “On balance, it’s been quite constructive.” 

The task force addresses a host of pressing issues, he said, from expediting the hiring of key  staff members to boosting pay for some hard to recruit titles, he said.

But meeting locations, times and agendas remain off limits to the public. There are also no minutes taken of the gatherings. 

Phil Banks, a former top NYPD official and the current deputy mayor for public safety, is the remaining co-chair. 

McGuire, who will soon leave, was named as the other co-chair of the group in part because of his prior experience as former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s top deputy. In that role, McGuire oversaw prosecution of public corruption in the Southern District of New York, including the convictions against former state Sen. Carl Kruger and former City Council Member Larry Seabrook.

Another Fatality

Adams is not the first mayor to create an interagency task force to deal with Rikers Island problems.

During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg formed a similar group to help prevent the spread of the disease among incarcerated people. The move came after the union representing jail officers demanded parts of the jail be shut down after 10 incarcerated people contracted the virus.  

Martin Horn, who served as correction commissioner at the time, said the meetings with top city officials from different agencies proved to be “useful” and a “good thing.” 

“It’s really a way of coordinating and putting the weight of the mayor’s office behind breaking through bureaucratic logjams,” he said. “And to that extent, it can be useful.” 

That task force — led by Linda Gibbs, the then-deputy mayor for health — also never kept minutes or released a formal new plan, Horn added. It was disbanded when the threat of the flu dissipated several months after the outbreak, he said.  

The task force joins a long list of past initiatives designed to improve conditions in correction department jails. 

In May 2015, then-Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced a “14-Point Rikers Anti-Violence Agenda.” That plan called for a new detainee classification system, added security cameras, programming to reduce idle time and crisis intervention teams to respond faster to fights. 

But the number of stabbings and slashings — a key indicator of violence — actually spiked the next two years, according to the Mayor’s Management Report

In May 2017, Ponte resigned after a city investigation revealed he misused his department-issued car to regularly drive back to his home in Maine on weekends.   

More recently, the city’s Board of Correction convened a task force that found that the city jails system continually fails to identify, protect, and properly care for transgender, gender non-conforming, nonbinary, and/or intersex (TGNCNBI) people in custody.

The task force was created pursuant to the City Council’s Local Law 145, passed shortly after the June 2019 death of Layleen Polanco. The 27-year-old transgender woman passed away from an epileptic seizure inside a solitary cell she was placed inside despite a history of seizures.

Meanwhile, William Johnstone, 47, was found unresponsive inside his cell at the George R. Vierno Center jail on Rikers on Saturday at 1:50 p.m. 

Johnstone was rushed to the Mount Sinai Hospital in Queens, where he was pronounced dead at 3:50 p.m., according to a Department of Correction spokesperson. 

Johnstone, who had been locked up since March on robbery and weapons possession charges, became the sixth city detainee to die in custody this year. Nineteen died in city lockups last year, the highest rate in decades.

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