I’ve written about the situation at the Rikers Island jail complex a few times in this newsletter, and not because I like to. In fact, I hate having to continuously parse through federal monitor and Board of Correction reports about health emergencies, mismanagement, and deaths as the bodies keep piling up, and I wish I didn’t have to keep writing about it. Yet it’s precisely because of that that we can’t look away.

Rikers Island Jail Complex

A gulag of our own

Rikers Island, essentially a gulag run in our name as New Yorkers, operated by our local government and situated just some 500 feet offshore from LaGuardia Airport, should bring us all a measure of shame, and it should be on all of us to demand better. In that regard, today could well be something of a historic day, in that it was the latest status conference for the Nuñez Settlement — the wide-ranging court agreement reached between the city and a class encompassing all the detainees held on the island’s facilities and focused on what was characterized as a pervasive culture of violence that harmed both those in custody and those who worked at the facility.

It had the opportunity not to be just another check-in of the sort that has long frustrated activists who listen as federal monitor Steve Martin — appointed by federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain in 2015 — defense counsel, and federal prosecutors detail the same horrific issues over and over as the DOC leadership promises to do better. No, in this particular conference, the parties were discussing the progress the city has or hasn’t made on an action plan it put forward this summer, and it was in the cards for  Judge Swain to allow a motion for the plaintiffs to seek an order of contempt against the city and motion for a drastic step known as federal receivership.

NYC DOC head Louis Molina. Photo: louismolina.com

Ultimately, the sweeping steps that the plaintiffs sought did not come to pass. During a hearing that lasted well over two hours, the judge was unconvinced that the plaintiffs’ attorneys had presented enough evidence to warrant that step, given what she viewed as significant progress made in recent months and more serious commitments on the part of the Adams administration, in contrast to the pattern of prior years of stalled progress. Swain worried that there would be a “learning curve” for any potential receiver, and noting that she “remains deeply concerned” about the violence and mismanagement, gave the city more time to prove that it could keep its end of the bargain. The next monitor’s report is now slated to come at the end of March 2023, with the next status conference coming about a month later, in April. 

While the city will provide additional data to the U.S. Attorney and other parties in February, this data will frustratingly remain confidential, with the court agreeing with the city’s bizarre claim that the public shouldn’t have access to the data given the danger that it could be misrepresented, something that’s true about any set of data in any context. This leaves us with a status quo situation, where the public and the press won’t have much insight into the city’s continuing efforts outside of news reporting and reports from the separate Board of Correction oversight body for months to come.

Deaths this year surpass last year’s total

The conference comes after the deaths of 18 detainees so far this year, already surpassing last year’s total, and Martin’s latest report, while praising some recent leadership changes, makes clear that the DOC has managed only incrementalism even as the body count piles up. That’s not even to say anything about the deficiencies not covered by the settlement, which is to say those that don’t have to do with violence. As the BOC has repeatedly pointed out, the situation with lack of adequate healthcare is as or more dangerous as the violence, with both issues remaining pervasive even as the population of people in custody has gone nothing but down in recent years.

The notion of receivership, however, has often gotten tossed around with little explanation of what that actually means for those not already acquainted with the concept. Essentially the receiver would be an official appointed directly by the court who would receive broad operational command of the DOC writ large. The current monitor has the authority to compile information about the system’s functioning and shortcomings, but he doesn’t have any direct administrative authority. The receiver, in turn, would actually supersede DOC leadership and even the mayor, making changes to the administration of the DOC, hiring and firing, shifting policy, and the like.

Authority to tweak union arrangements 

They would also receive the authority to tweak the DOC’s current union arrangements, which have been faulted in part for giving correction officers the ability to abuse sick leave, wave off negligence and evade consequences for a failure to rein in violence or look after detainees’ health and safety. In effect, it’s the nuclear solution to decades of failures on the part of city and DOC leadership to do more than make tweaks to the culture of mismanagement, and just cut through it altogether. It wouldn’t be likely to be a silver bullet, as the problems have been entrenched over years and years, but it would put the responsibility in the hands of an actor squarely outside the milieu of city politics.

Nonetheless, the city stringently pushed back on the notion that political considerations were playing into any of its decision-making, pointing out that it is asking the judge to take a different but more limited step under the same authority that would be used to install a receiver, which would be giving the city the ability to hire wardens outside the existing uniformed service. This seems basic, but current state law actually blocks the city from hiring whoever it wants for these facility administrator positions. The plaintiffs then pointed out that it took 18 months for the administration to take this step, and it was not even seeking the same authority for positions down the chain of command.

Incidentally, the authority that could be invoked for this or for the receiver broadly gives judges the ability to set aside state and federal laws if necessary to bring systems into compliance with superseding laws, which in this case would be the Constitution. Given that, Judge Swain asked city lawyers directly if it was their position that the city was violating the Constitution with conditions at Rikers. City Law Department attorney Kimberly Joyce had a succinct response to that question: “Yes, your honor.”

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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