By: Alexander Lekhtman via Filter Magazine
federal judge is demanding that New York City take rapid action over conditions in its Rikers Island jail complex. The jail is supposed to be shut down by 2027, but remains rife with severe violence, abuse, and other human rights concerns. All eyes are now on New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who despite campaigning on a promise to reform the city’s jails, has shown little willingness to follow through.
On October 10, Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the federal court for the Southern District of New York issued an order, related to a lawsuit brought against the city by a US Attorney and justice advocates. She ordered that senior NYC corrections department officials meet with a federal team monitoring the jails no later than October 18, and agree on a plan “to ameliorate the unacceptable levels of harm in the New York City jails.”
The city will then have until October 25 to create its plan to improve reporting of incidents and other information to the federal monitor, Steve J. Martin. By November 8, Martin must report to the court whether city officials are complying with this order, and will be able to make further recommendations for how to hold officials accountable. The court warned that New York City officials could be sanctioned if they ignore the order.
“Instead of receiving the help he needed, he was sent to Rikers and pretty much given a death sentence.”
On October 5, Rikers Island recorded its ninth death of 2023, either in custody or just after release. Manish Kunwar, 27, was found dead in his cell. He had entered the facility just eight days prior.
“This is an individual who was dealing with mental illness, and instead of receiving the help he needed, he was sent to Rikers and pretty much given a death sentence,” Melanie Dominguez, lead organizer with the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice, told Filter. “We all know that Rikers Island has become the largest mental health facility in the city, and more than 50 percent of people held there are diagnosed with a mental condition, but have little access to meaningful care while they’re locked up.”
Judge Swain’s order came days after Martin’s federal monitor team had issued a new report on conditions at Rikers. The team was appointed in 2015, as part of a settlement between New York City and federal officials to resolve a 2011 class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of people incarcerated at Rikers facilities.
“The Monitoring Team remains extremely concerned about the current state of affairs. The jails remain dangerous and unsafe, characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff,” the recent report read.
The monitors found a consistent pattern of high violence and fear for detainees and staff in city jails, as well as easy access to weapons and drugs, poor staff recruitment and attendance, low staff morale, and unreliable reporting of incidents. They found that city and jail officials are failing to cooperate in their investigation, and lower-ranking staff are reportedly reluctant to come forward with information for fear of retaliation.
Martin’s team reported many examples of violent incidents, warning that these were not isolated events but show how normal violence has become. In one case, a group of people in custody were walking on January 2, when one turned to grab another resident. Several other people joined in and were seen assaulting and stabbing the victim. The victim’s injuries included cuts to their face, scalp, ears, back and forearm—but jail officials didn’t report this as a slashing incident until nine months later. The monitors counted five cases where someone was slashed or stabbed but jail officials didn’t immediately report it as such.
Altogether, the Monitor team counted 91 slashing or stabbing incidents just in August and September, with cases growing. They also counted around 380 cases of self-harm or attempted suicide from April to July, and found excessive use of force by staff against residents “with alarming frequency.” Of the nine recorded deaths this year, the monitor has linked at least five to negligence or incompetence by jail staff.
In August, Judge Swain announced that she would hear arguments in court over whether to appoint an independent receiver to manage city jails. Those arguments were scheduled for November 28, but have now been moved to December 14, according to Dominguez.
Receivership would mean the court hires someone not employed by the city to manage some or all city jails, who may report directly to the judge. The city is opposing this step, but advocates like the Katal Center and the Legal Aid Society—which is in court suing the city—are demanding it.
“The end is shutting down Rikers Island. We’re continuing to push the mayor, and he has not committed.”
The chaos and suffering continue after city lawmakers have promised to shut down the entire Rikers Island complex later this decade, replacing it with several smaller jails spread throughout the five boroughs. Former Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) first committed to a plan to close the Rikers facilities, with two City Council votes sealing the deal in 2019 and 2021. Mayor Adams promised to follow through on it during his 2021 election campaign. According to the plan, Rikers must close by August 31, 2027.
But Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina has raised doubts about the city meeting that commitment, projecting that the jail population will rise to over 7,000 by 2024. Groups like the Katal Center are working to ensure that voters will take notice if Adams ultimately backs off.
Even if Judge Swain appoints a receiver and takes control of Rikers away from the city, Dominguez believes that the underlying problems with the jails are beyond fixing.
“Yes we are pushing for the judge to appoint an independent receiver to improve conditions, but we know that’s not the be-all end-all,” Dominguez said. “The end is shutting down Rikers Island, but that’s something that is under the jurisdiction of the mayor and the city. That’s what our biggest demand is—we’re continuing to push the mayor to shut it down, and he has not committed.”