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Federal Monitor Chides City Jails Brass for Increased Violence, Lies

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By: Reuven Blau via The City

As pressure mounts for the city to turn things around at Rikers Island, Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and his staff tried to hide multiple assaults as jail conditions “have only worsened,” according to the latest report by a judge-appointed watchdog.

“The jails remain dangerous and unsafe, characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff,” wrote federal monitor Steve Martin in his 10th report evaluating operations at Rikers Island and other city lockups on Thursday.

The 64-page document chiding Molina comes as a federal judge overseeing the department in June agreed to hear arguments in November in favor of an outside takeover of the city jails system.

The report was filed in Manhattan Federal Court hours after a mentally ill detainee, Manish Kunwar, 27, was found dead inside a cell in the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers early Thursday morning, the Daily News first reported.

Kunwar is the ninth incarcerated person to die in custody so far this year, following 19 fatalities in 2022, the highest rate in decades. He was apparently homeless and awaiting trial on robbery and bail jumping charges, court records show. 

“Manish was dealing with a mental illness, and instead of getting the help he deserved, he was given a death sentence,” said Sharlene Melendez,  a member of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice. “The system failed him greatly.”

‘Impede and Obfuscate’

As for the federal monitor’s report, Martin and his staff, in place since 2015, slammed Molina for a “continuing lack of urgency to address basic security practices.”

That includes a lack of staff, giving detainees control of housing units, failing to identify and properly respond to staff misconduct, according to the report. Molina and his deputies have also continued to “impede transparency and obfuscate the work of the monitoring team,” the report said. 

Last summer, Molina launched a Jails Action Plan designed to reverse a spike in stabbings and slashings, along with high rates of uses of force by correction officers

Martin once again said Molina’s proposed reforms don’t go far enough.  

“While a few of the department’s recent proposals (if meticulously developed and properly implemented) could address problems in discrete areas, most recent proposals remain haphazard, tepid, and insubstantial and will not create the type of culture change and practice improvements that are prerequisite to effective reform,” the report stated. 

The number of stabbings and slashings this year has “significantly increased,” Martin noted. 

There were 91 such incidents in August and September — up from 69 over the same period last year, according to the report. That puts the DOC on pace to have 405 overall this year. 

And some stabbings and slashings aren’t reported for days — if at all — according to Martin. 

“Staff reporting of serious events continues to be unreliable,” the report said. “Reports of serious injuries are delayed, and in some cases, do not occur, and the department’s convoluted reporting conventions further compound the problem.”

Martin and his team identified at least five stabbings and slashings that were not properly reported between January and June, the report said.

DOC supervisors have for years downplayed or downgraded serious violence in order to avoid accountability.

One of the major factors is because jails staffers still primarily use handwritten logbooks to record basic information, including detainee counts and staff changes. The old books are not made public and are the de facto record system behind bars. They are still in use despite a Department of Investigation recommendation in 2019 that the department digitize all its records. 

Takeover Threat

As for the latest report, Martin also chided Molina for lying to the public about conditions on Rikers. 

“The commissioner continues to make public statements that obfuscate and distort the current state of affairs,” Martin said, noting Molina has denied a staffing crisis and was “distorting the facts of a recent serious incident.” 

The report comes as the Legal Aid Society will soon make its case in written briefs to Laura Taylor Swain, chief judge for the Southern District of New York, in favor of appointing what is known as a “receiver” to take over parts — or all — of the troubled Correction Department.

While not outright calling for a third-party receiver to take over the DOC, Martin said he has no faith in Molina and Mayor Eric Adams’ administration to turn things around himself. 

“The city and department have repeatedly and consistently demonstrated they are incapable of effectively directing and managing the multilayered and multifaceted reform effort,” Martin said, “and continuing on the current path is not likely to alter the present course in any meaningful way.”

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