By: Alexander Lekhtman via Filter Magzine
On December 14, a federal judge held the New York City Department of Correction in contempt of court, as Gothamist reported, for failing to inform a federal monitor that it had placed detainees accused of arson in a specialized unit with no sprinklers in cells. “The blatant failure to communicate here is, in a word, contemptuous,” said District Judge Laura Swain.
This came on the day of a court hearing to determine the future of the Rikers Island jail complex, notorious for human rights abuses and deaths in custody. The city previously committed to shutting it down by 2027, although Mayor Eric Adams has cast doubt on this timeline. Advocates have long been demanding that until this happens, the city’s jails should be placed into receivership—stripping the city of control in favor of an independent oversight official appointed by the court.
The city opposes this, and on December 14 Judge Swain granted its request for a two-month extension to respond to a filing demanding receivership by the Legal Aid Society.
“It’s past time to close Rikers, and we cannot continue to see delay tactics put in place.”
“I don’t think receivership is a foregone conclusion here,” said newly appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie following the hearing.
Outside the building in Foley Square, and despite the cold, activists were rallying to say enough is enough.
“It’s past time to close Rikers, and we cannot continue to see delay tactics put in place,” said NYC Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams, in a statement shared with Filter. “We must close Rikers Island in the name of all who have suffered injuries and lost their lives out of sight and out of mind, and to prevent future pain. Every day Rikers remains open, the state of crisis continues. There are a number of steps we can and must take to protect people on both sides of the bars, but the best thing for everyone on Rikers is to close it down.”
The protest included local activists, representatives of community organizations and elected officials, according to organizers. Speakers included both elected officials and directly impacted people.
“One of our members shared that her son, who has been incarcerated at Rikers Island, told her how terrible it is in there,” Melanie Dominguez, lead organizer at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice, told Filter. “He went from 176 pounds when he first went in to 126. That’s happening because he can’t sleep at night. He’s terrified, in a constant state of fear that anything can happen, so he needs to look out, watch his back. That’s no way for anyone to live.”
A federally appointed receiver would be responsible for managing the city’s jails and their employees, and for the wellbeing of staff and incarcerated people. Receivership is a rare step for courts to take, but not unheard of.
A notable example is the California state prison system, which since 2006 has had an independent receiver in charge of its prison health care. That court ruled that California was providing such poor care to incarcerated people that it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the Miami-Dade County jail is also currently under a receiver; in Mississippi, the Hinds County jail was ordered to be placed under receivership, but the process is currently tied up in appeals.
The federal District Court in Manhattan has heard testimony from the Legal Aid Society and the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who are suing the city. The case stems from a lawsuit originally filed in 2011, alleging a pattern and practice of unnecessary and excessive force. This led to the federal court ruling against the city in 2015 to order a “consent decree”—a legally binding agreement for the city to change certain policies and be evaluated on whether obligations are being met.
The courts appointed a federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, whose job is to investigate the city jails and question city officials. His reports have been damning, and the city has put up roadblocks to his investigation. In October, Judge Swain ordered city officials to meet with Martin’s team and come up with an immediate plan to improve safety conditions, under threat of sanction.
In the two years since New York City Mayor Eric Adams took office, at least 28 people have died either in custody or immediately after release from Rikers Island, including nine in 2023.
“City Council members want it to be shut down, but what we’re seeing now is they don’t really want to agitate and confront the mayor.”
Days before the latest court hearing, Mayor Adams appointed Maginley-Liddie as corrections commissioner, who is currently responsible for the jail complex. Despite the outcry over jail conditions, her predecessor, Louis Molina, has landed a new role as assistent deputy mayor for public safety.
Public Advocate Jumaane D. Williams has meanwhile worked with City Council members to introduce a resolution in support of receivership for the jails. So far, the bill has 18 cosponsors among the Council’s voting members. But it has yet to be brought to a floor vote.
“City Council for the most part is aligned with the fight to shut down Rikers,” Dominguez said. “They want it to be shut down, but what we’re seeing now is they don’t really want to agitate and confront the mayor. Standing by a federal receivership is standing by the fact that under this mayor, things have gotten progressively worse and he’s not committed to doing anything about the crisis. And so instead of saying that, they’re choosing not to come forward.”
Yet support for appointing a receiver is growing. It’s backed by New York Attorney General Letitia James and City Comptroller Brad Lander, as well as various state lawmakers. Organizations like the New York Civil Liberties Union, City Bar Association and even the New York Correctional Association are in support. And media backing has come not only from the likes of the New York Daily News, but also from the conservative New York Post.
A receiver, once appointed and on the job—which could take months—could bring rapid changes to safety conditions in the jails.
But Dominguez made clear that receivership would still not address the fact that city officials have committed to shutting down Rikers. This goal still seems far off. In March, former Corrections Commissioner Molina estimated that the Rikers population would need to decline to under 3,300 by 2027 for new borough-based jails to have sufficient capacity—instead, it’s projected to surpass 7,000 in 2024.
If no receiver is appointed, “the alternative for the city would be to continue holding Mayor Adams accountable,” Dominguez said. “The City Council will have to make sure they focus on alternatives to incarceration. Right now, the population on Rikers Island is over 6,000. That is way over what it needs to be in order to shut down the jail complex. There is a long way to go.”