Welcome to the latest edition of this New York City civics-focused newsletter. I’m journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and today I’m discussing the latest developments at the beleaguered Rikers Island jail complex.
At this point, the idea of a crisis at Rikers has become essentially background noise to a lot of the city, persistent as it is, though it’s certainly far from an abstract consideration for the many New Yorkers who themselves have been in, or have had family in, the jail complex.
From a physical infrastructure that’s quite literally falling apart, to persistent recent staffing shortages among corrections officers, to the fact that the complex’s location on an isolated island between Queens and the Bronx keeps it largely out of public sight, the jail has been the site of persistent catastrophe and violence that has vexed one administration after another.
The situation has been so bad for so long that it was the subject of a class-action lawsuit, Nuñez v. City of New York, that was filed in 2011 and in 2015 resulted in the appointment of a federal monitor empowered to conduct periodic examinations of the facility and report back to the federal court with assessments and recommendations. That monitor is Steve Martin, a longtime corrections consultant and lawyer, as well as former prosecutor, corrections executive, and probation officer, who along with a small staff has been issuing periodic reports that have only grown more urgent and alarming.
The latest report was issued last week, and Martin’s exasperation is palpable. He excoriates what he refers to as an “entrenched culture of dysfunction” in the Department of Correction, which he all but says is the most incompetently run of the many such corrections offices he’s dealt with over his decades-long career.
In the 78-page document, he lays out how managers at the site are fundamentally indifferent to overseeing their staff effectively, how a policy permitting indefinite leave has allowed officers to essentially refuse to go to their jobs and leave detainees to run areas of the facility themselves, the utter lack of consequences for misconduct or ineptitude, and the fact that this is all being done in a department that spends over three times per detainee than the corrections departments in Los Angeles or Chicago. All of this has resulted in 16 deaths over 2021, and two so far in 2022, not to mention innumerable other serious injuries from rampant violence that the department itself has often tried to hide.
An intractable predicament of course doesn’t mean that city officials should throw up their hands and give up, and it’s now up to Mayor Eric Adams to prove that he can get a handle on things. Though he’s previously backed predecessor Bill de Blasio’s plan to shut down Rikers altogether and replace it with new borough-based jails, it’s not clear that he’ll hold this position long-term, particularly as the city’s jail population holds at nearly 6,000 detainees, up from lows of around 4,000 a couple of years ago.
This is particularly dubious as Adams himself touts crackdowns on gun crime and homeless people in the subways and fights in Albany to roll back reforms to the state’s bail laws. His new DOC commissioner, Louis Molina, has been scrutinized for closeness with the corrections union, resulting in his having fired a respected internal investigator that was examining issues with Rikers and DOC staff writ large, and agreeing to the rule change on indefinite leave. What’s clear is that Adams cannot simply stay the course here. Without quick and deliberate action, the violence is set to become a persistent political liability, in addition to a moral monstrosity.