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Opinion: Rikers Crisis Demands Federal Receiver

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By: gabriel sayegh via City Limits

Like a fire out of control, the crisis continues in New York City’s jail system, especially at Rikers Island. So far this year, 18 human beings have died in the city’s jails—the most since 2013, when twice as many people were behind bars there.

The New York Times now maintains a “death count” tracker. On Thursday, a hearing in federal court could decide whether or not the city, under Mayor Eric Adams, will maintain control of Rikers. The feds should take over.

The city jail system is a violent hellhole where people are increasingly in danger—and so far, Adams has spent his time as mayor trying to cage more people there. In a city reeling from the catastrophic impact of COVID, a severe affordable housing crisis, and a growing wealth gap that makes the rich richer while leaving low-income families “under water,” the mayor’s public safety priority is rolling back bail reform so he can lock up more poor people on Rikers.

Exacerbating the crisis at Rikers is the gross mismanagement of the jails system under Mayor Adams. Absenteeism among officers is a widespread and well-documented problem. Back in February, a local NBC News 4 investigation about correctional officers found that “the magnitude of their collective absenteeism is breathtaking.”

Officers skipping work while on the public’s dime raises concerns. But not for Louis A. Molina, Mayor Adams’s commissioner of the Department of Correction. His approach to the problem was to fire the DOC’s top internal affairs investigator, Sarena Townsend, allegedly after she refused to “get rid of” 2,000 disciplinary cases to hold correctional officers accountable. Last week the U.S. Department of Justice arrested three correctional officers and charged them with fraud, for “lying to stay on sick leave for over a year.” Perhaps firing the widely respected investigator was a bad idea.

But Mayor Adams seems drawn to bad ideas, especially when it comes to Rikers and public safety. Study after study shows that bail reform has advanced justice, and strengthened public safety, without causing an increase in crime. These facts haven’t deterred the mayor from his crusade to blame bail reform for upticks in some crime categories, all so he can jail more people.

You don’t have to be an expert to see the pattern here, and it raises alarms about the plan to close Rikers. To shut down the jail complex, the population there has to go downBut under Adams, the jail population has gone up by nearly 600 and will rise further if the mayor has his way. This imperils people’s lives and the closure of Rikers. So, too, does the mayor’s refusal to follow the closure plan passed in 2019 by the de Blasio administration and the city council. Instead of closing Rikers, the mayor now says the city needs a “plan B.” Nobody should be surprised.  

This Thursday, November 17, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan will hold a hearing where Judge Laura Taylor Swain may order a federal receiver to take over the Rikers Island jail complex. Given the well-documented horrors of Rikers, the endemic mismanagement and corruption, and the mayor’s drive to jail more people there, the feds should step in. A growing number of advocacy groups, elected officials—including NYC Comptroller Brad Lander—local papers, and lawyers for people detained at Rikers support a federal takeover.

But while a federal receiver can work to reduce the chaos and death cycle at Rikers, that entity is unlikely to be tasked with closing it. For that, Mayor Adams must take action. Stop the fearmongering. Cut the number of people detained pretrial at Rikers, starting by working with legal system stakeholders to reduce the outrageous delays that leave people jailed for a year or more before their day in court. Meet or even speed up the deadlines in the 2019 plan to close Rikers. And make deep investments in real public safety—housing, health care, education, and jobs.

On Thursday afternoon, community groups and elected officials will be outside the courthouse, calling for Rikers to be shut down. It’s way past time to put out the fire.

Gabriel Sayegh is the co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health, and Justice, a community organization with members who have been impacted by Rikers and mass incarceration.

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