Manhattan Judge Rules Against Fed Takeover of Ailing Rikers Island
By: Serach Nissim
On Thursday, a Manhattan Federal Judge ruled against a federal takeover of the City’s troubled jail complex, keeping it under NYC’s control for now.
As reported by the NY Post, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain turned down a legal plea made by the Legal Aid Society, who had advocated the appointment of a “receiver” or third-party administrator to oversee Rikers Island and other city Department of Correction facilities. The group, which is New York City’s largest legal aid nonprofit, had begun the process of requesting federal intervention in the prison system’s management–including hiring external wardens and other uniformed leaders and facilitating the city’s transition to a smaller, borough-based jail system.
“Continuing down the same path cannot and will not bring relief to the plaintiff class,” Legal Aid attorney Mary LynneWerlwas had told the judge during the trial. The group maintained that seven years have passed since a federal monitor was appointed but still they have failed to bring about reforms at the jail. The attorneys, which represent a group of detainees at the jail, cited a long list of problems plaguing the jail system, including chronic absenteeism in the staff, use of force by staff, and inmate suicides.
Judge Swain said in her Thursday ruling that though she is deeply concerned about safety at Rikers, the appointment of a receiver could divert resources away and may prove to be counterproductive. Allowing the takeover would be “premature and inconsistent with the legal restraints,” Swain added at the end of the lengthy hearing. She noted that the federal monitor had reported some improvements made at the complex in the October assessment report.
“The judge’s ruling today is quite disappointing and alarming considering that 18 people have died this year on Rikers so far,” said Kenyatta Muzzanni, Director of Organizing for the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “So we are disappointed by this, but we ultimately know that it is up to Mayor Adams to close the island, and we are pushing for him to close it as soon as possible.” The Legal Aid Society also express dismay over the decision. “The Legal Aid Society will continue to hold the City accountable for the violence and abuse that our incarcerated clients suffer every day,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement.
“Despite seven years of guidance and oversight by a federally appointed monitor, New York City has failed to ensure even a modicum of safety or provide adequate health care, sanitary conditions, and basic nutrition to incarcerated New Yorkers,” wrote Nick Turner, President and Director of the Vera Institute of Justice, in a statement. “Receivership is a last resort, but at this point it’s necessary for Rikers and New York City jails, in which we’ve seen 34 deaths in less than two years and rates of violence not seen in decades. This sad conclusion reinforces our firm belief that Rikers must be closed for good by 2027, in accordance with New York City’s plan”.
Mayor Adams has publicly been against a federal receivership, wanting the city to maintain control of Rikers. Hizzoner’s Corrections Commissioner also commented saying in a statement: “I appreciate that the Court acknowledged our efforts and the progress we have made this year. We have so much more work to do, but we are confident that a receivership would be counterproductive to the many positive changes that are already underway.”