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Judge Says ‘Transformative Change’ Needed, Laying Groundwork for a Possible Rikers Takeover

The fight for control of city lockups will play out in court over the next few months.

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Who will control it? A view of Rikers Island with Manhattan in the background.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

A federal judge Thursday began the process of potentially yanking control of the beleaguered Correction Department away from City Hall.

As the federal monitor who oversees Rikers Island said that years of reforms have amounted to “nothing more than facile window dressing,” the chief judge for the Southern District of New York said “transformative change” is needed.

“The people incarcerated at Rikers are at a grave risk of immediate harm,” said Judge Laura Taylor Swain. “Although some progress is being made, it is not being made at a rate that is commensurate with the perils that are presented.”

Steve Martin, the federal monitor, pointed to “real, abject harm” occurring behind bars as recently as Tuesday during the nearly two-hour hearing in Lower Manhattan. 

His deputy, Anna Friedberg, cited Aug. 8 — when there were 29 uses of force, a dozen inmate fights, nine assaults on staff and the discovery of contraband including cocaine and a sharp object — as an example of recent Rikers Island chaos.

“I reiterate: This was just one day at Rikers Island,” Friedberg said.

Swain set a so-called “briefing schedule” so that Manhattan federal prosecutors and lawyers from The Legal Aid Society can make their case via legal briefs for transferring part, if not all, of the department to a third party.

Any decision likely is months away. The next court hearing is set for November. 

‘Tragic and Unacceptable’

The Adams administration has vehemently opposed the move, and during the hearing, top jails officials said there has been a 30% decrease in stabbings and slashings this year, while touting “unprecedented” improvements over the last 19 months.

“The Adams administration has made progress at a breakneck pace,” Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said.

If appointed, what is called a “receiver” would likely have extraordinary powers and be able to set new work and disciplinary rules for staff. But the receiver would still need to work with City Hall on a yearly budget and likely work to get some buy-in from the unions representing officers.

On Thursday, Swain began the hearing by citing the most recent federal monitor reports — which have slammed Molina for failing to come up with a comprehensive reform plan. 

“The current state of affairs is tragic and unacceptable,” she added, noting that reforming the department “has never been an easy task.”

Martin reviewed several key elements of his latest report that concluded “little progress has been evident” on recommended reforms. He also said that the department’s efforts to enact suggested changes over the past few weeks have been “haphazard, tepid and insubstantial.”

He noted that last month there were eight slashing incidents in one enhanced supervision housing unit inside the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers — more than in any other city lockup.

“It’s one of the most high-security units,” Martin said, noting the specialized area is “richly staffed.”

The violence was “quite disturbing” and has “spilled over” into further attacks, he added.  

“Harm will continue to flourish” unless Molina and his staff abide by basic “sound correction standards,” Martin told the judge. 

A Drop in Deaths

Over the last eight years and four Correction commissioners, Martin said new department leaders have typically launched into a “flurry of activities to comply” with some of the monitor’s findings — but ultimately little changes.

“Some concrete steps are initiated in select areas that suggest progress,” Martin said. “Then there are some areas where the response constitutes little more than window dressing.”

Molina, who became commissioner at the start of the Adams administration in January 2022, argued that his team has “taken this department from the precipice of collapse.”

“Things are not getting worse,” Molina said. “Just the opposite.”

The jails chief cited a drop in deaths from 19 on his watch last year to seven so far in 2023. 

“That’s 36% fewer [than] similar-sized jails in large American cities,” he said, though a single death “is one death too many.”

But critics contend that despite such year-to-year improvements, the major metrics are worse now than when the monitor was first appointed in 2015. 

Friedberg cited a letter from the department filed with the court on Wednesday asking what new developments have occurred since the last court hearing in April. 

“The city asked what has changed since April,” she said. “That is exactly the problem — nothing has changed since April.”

Friedberg and her colleagues recently visited Rikers and found “concerning security breaches,” such as incarcerated people escaping their cells and attaching other detainees to a desk. They also saw “active drug use” in the highest security unit on Rikers. 

“When staff were alerted, they essentially reported to the monitoring team that individuals use drugs all the time … [and] that the department has a fentanyl problem,” she said. 

New Paint Not Enough

In the Otis Bantum Center, four incarcerated people have been slashed by other detainees in the past four days, Friedberg said. Officials also met with someone who was in the intake entrance area for at least 21 hours, she added. 

In addition, Friedberg said they saw four “heavily intoxicated” detainees who could barely stand or talk, and continued smoking an “illicit substance” in front of the monitor’s team. 

Jail officials suspected the four detainees had been involved in a slashing some hours earlier, but then placed them in a holding pen away from the line of sight of any correction officer, she added. 

“How do they have drugs if they got searched before coming into intake?” Friedberg asked. “Why didn’t anyone in intake notice that they were smoking? I do not have answers to any of those questions.”

She also called out how the department has handled staff discipline, while noting that Molina has “made some progress” addressing a backlog of several thousand pending cases.

But Friedberg pointed out that in 2022, the department held fewer people accountable for misconduct than in any of the previous eight years since the monitor was appointed. 

“Such a reduction can only be attributed to a regression in detecting misconduct and the department’s ability to actually hold wrongdoers accountable,” she said. 

Friedberg noted that a group of mostly conservative-leaning City Council members visited Rikers earlier this week and declared that the situation was vastly improved and did not need a federal third party takeover. 

They cited new paint, cell doors, and programs being offered. 

“The monitoring team doesn’t dispute these physical changes, but they can’t be viewed in a vacuum as the department appears to want to do,” Friedberg said. 

She highlighted three recent days when there were scores of violent attacks in part due to improperly locked gates or officers not being at their posts — including Tuesday.

Last Thursday, she said there were 25 use-of-force incidents — six of which were avoidable. In addition, she pointed to gates and food slots being improperly secured that day, when four staffers were suspended.

Notably, Jeffrey Powell, an assistant U.S. attorney in Manhattan, was in court to join the push for the appointment of a receiver. 

“Obviously, the jail system has been in crisis for many years,” he told judge Swain. “Simply put, the government just can’t wait any longer for conditions to substantially improve, and that’s why we have decided to seek the appointment of a receiver.”

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