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Correcting corrections: Federal judge plans to hear out Rikers receivership arguments

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By: Tandy Lau via Amsterdam News

Rikers Island is legally-mandated to close by 2027. But before then, receivership—which temporarily wrests control over the embattled jail from the city—is now on the table as federal judge Laura Taylor Swain opened the door to arguments for the move this past Thursday, Aug. 10.

Before the key hearing, decarceration advocates marched from City Hall to Foley Square, outside from where the proceedings were held. Councilmember Lincoln Restler called Rikers Island a “stain” on the city and said Mayor Eric Adams no longer has the ability to run the jail complex.

“As the conditions at Rikers continue to worsen, it’s clear that the federal government must step in and take control of this humanitarian crisis,” Restler said. “We need to swiftly close Rikers Island, but in the interim, a federal receiver can cut through intractable issues and start addressing this disaster.”

“I was incarcerated at Rikers, and I have been exposed to the violence and mistreatment found there,” added Henry Robinson, Katal Center leader. “Absolutely no one deserves to go there. The horrors that you see within the walls of Rikers are unimaginable.”

While the measure is frequently dubbed as “federal receivership,” the feds would play more quarterback than actual receiver by appointing a third party to run the jails rather than operating them. Authority would be returned to the city and Department of Corrections (DOC) once pertinent issues are resolved under the receiver.

Potential receivership over Rikers stems from the ongoing Nunez litigation, which Swain presides over. The case was filed almost exactly 12 years ago and led to legal mandates reforming New York City jails from use of force practices and other root causes harming detainees back in 2015. The federal authorities—specifically the court—hold power to ensure these issues are rectified, including installing a receiver. So if it finds the city can’t implement the sweeping changes, then someone else can try to.

Past measures include appointing monitor Steve J. Martin—a similarly independent, federally-appointed entity—to report on jail conditions. Momentum for a receiver picked up after Damian Williams—the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York—announced his support for one last month. The federal prosecutor argued that not enough progress was demonstrated with such reforms. 

Keli Young, VOCAL-NY Civil Rights campaign coordinator, remains a cautious proponent of receivership and says improvement is dependent on who is appointed. 

“There are just so many unknowns,” she said. “It is so important that whoever comes in comes in and is working in tandem with the folks who are trying to hold the city in compliance with a law that requires that Rikers be closed by 2027. And so we get a receiver who isn’t committed to that. Then that just harms the work that we’re doing.”

Earlier this year, doubt was sowed towards meeting the four-year deadline as a contract to build one of the borough-based jails replacing Rikers ran through 2029. But a receiver could provide relief for those currently in custody. 

At Thursday’s rally, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams argued that any potential receiver should take direct input from community voices with lived experience. He also lambasted recent comments commending alleged improvements to Rikers conditions by “Common Sense Caucus” city council members.

“If you deal with people who believe Rikers Island is a great environment, particularly if it’s filled with Black and brown bodies who are awaiting trial, you will understand why we are still here fighting to shut Rikers down and now pushing for receivership,” said Williams. “This is the mentality that people have, particularly when it comes to Black and brown bodies. Rikers Island, to them, is a great environment. That’s absurd. 

“What I want the administration to do is stop viewing this as an attack. What I want you to do is view this as a way out, to make everything better.”

A spokesperson for Councilmember Robert Holden—who commended Rikers’ atmosphere following the visit—said the comments stem specifically from recreational activities like ping-pong tables at the renovated Robert N. Davoren Complex jail. Holden himself responded to Williams’ comments over email.

“While there’s still work to do, anyone with no political agenda who visits Rikers Island can see a marked difference since this administration took charge,” he said. “Shutting it and moving it to the boroughs isn’t the real fix. When you hear the folks who are all gung-ho about closing Rikers, with quasi-religious fervor, you realize it’s not just about the place or the system: They want a society with zero accountability. Now that’s absurd.”

Six of seven people who died in or immediately after DOC custody this year were held on Rikers Island. At least two deaths went initially underreported due to a new department policy curbing proactive press notifications. Advocates tally 26 city jail deaths since the Adams administration took office. 

To be clear, the NYC Comptroller’s Office dashboard on DOC custody data points to marked reductions in uniformed absenteeism, slashings/stabbings and length of stay compared to last year. But Comptroller Brad Lander told the AmNews earlier this summer that the department’s lack of transparency on the death count—which his office initially deemed “unknown” and now marks with an asterisk—detracts from any reported gains. He currently supports receivership.

“After a year of closely watching the numbers, this much is clear, without significant changes to management, the dysfunction on Rikers Island will persist,” said Lander in his statement. “The city has proven unable and unwilling to overhaul its jail operations on its own. That’s why I support the appointment of a federal receiver, who would have the authority to implement reforms to jail operations, improve accountability and conditions in our jails, and get us back on the path to closing Rikers.”

After Thursday’s hearing, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina remained optimistic about his department’s chances of avoiding receivership, also mentioning the aforementioned improvements and calling it “his life’s work.”

“I think we have done significant work over the last 19 months,” said Molina. “And I think when you compare our work over the last 19 months, there has been an impact. And I think if you historically look at receiverships of the past, there has not been one receiver appointed to any large jail or prison system that has had that much progress, as we have had over the 19 months. I am still very committed to this work, as is the mayor, who has given us tremendous support to see this through.”

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