Judge considers federal takeover of notorious NYC Rikers jail if DOC fails to make ‘real progress’ in addressing violence

by Trinity Cardinal

Chris Lange, FISM News


A New York City Department of Correction official said that he is committed to improving conditions in the city’s jails in testimony before a federal judge Tuesday. Following years of failed attempts to reform conditions at the sprawling and troubled jail complex, the U.S. Attorneys’ office said it is giving “serious consideration” to seeking federal receivership of New York City jails to address the “ongoing, daily constitutional injury to the inmates,” ABC reported.

Rikers has a long history of inmate violence and staffing issues. Fifteen inmates at the deteriorating facility died in custody last year, and three inmate deaths have occurred so far in 2022. Sixty stabbings were reported in March alone. 

Damien Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, raised the possibility of a federal takeover of the city’s jails, citing alarm over the level of violence, particularly at Rikers.

“The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now,” Williams said in a letter to the court, the New York Post reported

“Based on our experience over the last six years and the sustained non-compliance with key Consent Judgment provisions and the three subsequent Remedial Orders entered by this Court, our Office is very concerned about whether the Department and City have the ability, expertise, and will to swiftly make the changes necessary to bring true reform to this deeply troubled agency.”

Manhattan Federal court Chief Judge Laura Taylor required New York City’s Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina to attend the remote hearing, during which she told him she expects an “action plan” to implement significant changes in the jail system.

“I expect real progress,” Swain warned Molina at the end of Tuesday’s hearing.

The city and Rikers Island federal monitor Steven Martin, who was appointed by Twain in 2016, are tasked with creating the plan, for which Taylor has given a May 17 deadline. The proposal will be addressed at a court hearing scheduled for the following week.

Martin and the city have already drawn up several similar plans since 2016, but none have produced any significant improvements to conditions at Rikers, which is still rocked by violence, untenable living conditions, and staffing problems, according to federal prosecutors.

Tuesday’s hearing also included testimony by lawyers for the city, the Department of Justice, and the city, and an attorney for plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed more than a decade ago over conditions at the jail complex. 

Molina said he inherited an agency and jail complex plagued by a multitude of issues resulting from decisions made by former Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s administration. Molina accused the administration of diverting resources away from Rikers in a politically-motivated attempt to shut it down. The commissioner went on to assure Swain that he is committed to working with Martin to address the jail’s problems.

“The monitor and I are aligned,” Molina told the judge, adding, “We have not passed the point of no return.” 

Mary Lynne Werlwas, who represents the plaintiffs in the class-action suit, expressed skepticism about Molina’s assurances to the court.

“What has transpired in 2022 alone seriously constrains the reasonableness of optimism,” Werlwas said, adding that actions taken by the city to date have been “too little, too late.”