Nineteen people died at Rikers in 2022. Photo: Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

After decades of litigation over deplorable conditions at the Rikers Island jail system that have by all accounts remained hazardous — with some improvement and then some regression — over multiple mayoral administrations, the tides may finally be turning, and we don’t mean the ocean tides around that ignominious island gulag we call a jail.

On Monday, Damian Williams, the federal U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (whose office has been a part of the ongoing Nuñez v. Department of Correction lawsuit since 2014 and is part of the 2015 governing consent decree), announced an intention to file for contempt and, crucially, seek a court-appointed receiver to take over the system.

It’s relatively rare for a press release like this to go out before the paperwork is actually filed, but it makes sense in this instance given the gravity of the shift. Through years of false stops and starts, the idea of a federal receiver has always been a bit of a third rail that Judge Laura Taylor Swain — who’s overseen the case since its inception as a more limited complaint in 2011 — has remained skeptical of, particularly in the absence of support from either court-appointed Rikers Federal Monitor Steve Martin or the U.S. Attorney’s office.

As I wrote here last year, when lawyers for the Legal Aid Society, who represent the Rikers detainees as a class, pushed Swain for a receiver after several monitor reports raised concerns over continuing deaths and a lack of improvement, the judge fretted over a receiver’s potential “learning curve” and shot it down. Instead, the city developed a so-called action plan with roughly a one-year timeline to turn things around. I was among the many skeptics at the time, and now it’s clear that this plan and the DOC more broadly have failed.

The monitor’s latest special report, filed last week as an assessment of the city’s progress and efforts on the action plan, raked the DOC over the coals in uncharacteristically scathing language. The monitor’s team wrote that the department had shown an “inability or unwillingness to identify (and therefore address) the objective evidence regarding the pervasive dysfunction and harm” and that “the pace of reform has stagnated instead of accelerated in a number of key areas, meaning that there has been no meaningful relief for people in custody or staff from the violence.”

It stopped notably short of directly calling for a receiver, though it did recommend contempt proceedings and winkingly noted that “the totality of circumstances require that additional remedial relief (beyond contempt proceedings) is necessary” (emphasis theirs), which some read as a sort of tacit endorsement of the idea of a receiver, as there’s only so much additional relief possible.

Most ominously, this report came on the heels of the monitor’s recent warnings that the DOC was reacting to the heat not by improving conditions and practices, but by shutting out the overseers. Last month, the monitors filed a separate special report detailing how the department had failed to communicate with the monitoring team about five separate serious incidents resulting in injury or death- not until the monitors independently found out and asked for details. Earlier this year, the executive director of the Board of Correction, which is also tasked with overseeing Rikers, abruptly resigned over frustrations that the Board of Correction was being frozen out, including by being excluded from access to the department’s CCTV feeds.

Earlier this month, a separate Rikers monitor focused on infrastructure and physical conditions — yes, there is more than one federal court-appointed monitor to probe the various unsafe circumstances at Rikers — found that the facility was practically falling apart, full of fire safety hazards, collapsing infrastructure, mold, and vermin- you name it. There were entire sprinkler systems out of commission. In what is becoming a pattern, inspectors noted that the DOC was reticent to share information with them. With the legally-mandated 2027 closure deadline in serious question, leaving the deteriorating facilities behind is not an option in the near term.

Then, over the span of a couple of days last weekend, two separate stories came out about the failures of Rikers-focused advisory bodies. The New York Daily News noted that the Local Conditional Release Commission, meant to examine the possibility of early release for local inmates, had never been fully staffed and never met despite having been supposedly reconstituted three years ago. THE CITY noted that Mayor Eric Adams’ Rikers Island task force, which was supposed to make recommendations for the system to comply with court orders and reform itself, had produced no public reports or recommendations. This all came out as William Johnstone, 47, became the sixth person to die in Rikers this year.

The scale of this multifaceted, massive, unfathomable failure, a failure that has left thousands of people at risk, seems to have finally swayed the U.S. Attorney towards formally supporting a receiver. Swain may have been unconvinced by Legal Aid and outside actors like the Daily News editorial board (of which I’m part), but close observers think that the weight of Williams’ word might finally have her break the glass and reach for the emergency receiver. The judge has set an August 10 status conference that could lead to some movement on this front; in her order, Swain wrote, tellingly, that the various overseers’ “concerns raise questions as to whether defendants are capable of safe and proper management of the jails.”

As a reminder, a federal receiver might sound like another monitor, but in actuality it would mean that a single outside corrections executive- appointed by the court itself and answerable only to the court’s mandates- would take over all operational and personnel matters involving the DOC. Essentially, the receiver would supersede the entire DOC command structure and even the mayor and have the power to make contracting decisions, hire and fire, shift policy, and do whatever else is necessary to comply with the court’s orders.

Is it a silver bullet? No. Smashing through the calcified culture and ingrained structures of the DOC’s systems can’t and won’t be done immediately, and there are clear concerns around having an outside entity supplant an elected government, even if for just one department. Yet it’s clear that the DOC just can’t make the fixes needed to protect the people in custody.

Who’s most opposed to the receiver? Adams and his DOC Commissioner, Louis Molina, who fear that they will be branded as failures and have control wrested away, as well as the Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association, the correction officers’ union, which doesn’t want to lose a stranglehold that has led to many of the issues at Rikers, including officers’ chronic absenteeism. Who’s in favor? Increasingly, it seems, everyone.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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