By: Alexander Lekhtman via Filter Magazine
The political and legal battle over the future of New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex has reignited after publication of a damning report on August 7. Rikers is supposed to be shut down later this decade, to be replaced by smaller facilities throughout New York’s boroughs. But a continuing pattern of severe human rights abuses has brought demands that the city immediately relinquish control.
People currently and formerly held on Rikers Island originally sued the city in 2011, in a class-action lawsuit alleging a pattern and practice of unnecessary and excessive force. The suit, later joined by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, led to a consent judgement where the city agreed to be supervised by a federal monitor appointed by the court: Steve J. Martin. He is responsible for investigating the city’s jails in regard to detainees’ constitutional rights.
Back in June, Martin released a report showing that violence remains rampant behind bars, and accusing city officials of trying to cover up information about the jails.
On July 18, US District Judge Laura Taylor Swain responded—explaining how the report found the city is failing to comply with the consent judgement and court orders, and failing to address dangerous conditions for both people locked up and workers.
This suggestion hinted that the judge was considering appointing a receiver to take over the jails.
“These concerns raise questions as to whether Defendants are capable of safe and proper management of the jails,” Judge Swain wrote. “Indeed, these issues are serious, urgent, and call for specific responses and prompt, effective action by Defendants.”
In the legal context, this suggestion that the city may be incapable of “safe and proper management” hinted that the judge was considering appointing a receiver to take over the jails from the city government.
As the Brennan Center for Justice explains, a receiver is a person appointed by the court to manage operations for a jail or prison. They may work alone or together with existing government agencies, and they may be responsible for an entire jail or for a specific part of it, like its health care system.
It’s a rare step. Since 1979, federal and state courts have appointed receivers for just 12 jurisdictions; there are only three active receivers currently working in the US. As one notable example, in 2006 a federal judge appointed a receiver to oversee the entire California state prison health care system. This was due to a class-action lawsuit at a time when one person on average died every week in a California prison from medical neglect.
Martin’s latest report, filed on August 7, once again indicates the city’s failure to improve conditions.
Advocates reached by Filter explained that this option is very much on the table for Rikers Island. Because Martin’s latest report, filed on August 7, once again indicates the city’s failure to improve conditions, citing instances where people were assaulted in their own cells, or pepper-sprayed by officers for no apparent reason.
Judge Swain will now hear from the defendants—the New York City Department of Corrections—and plaintiffs, including the federal US Attorney and the nonprofit Legal Aid Society, on August 10. They will present arguments against and for appointing a receiver. If she decides to do so, Swain would also need to determine who would take the role and what their powers and responsibilities would be.
Advocates say it is past time.
“We’ve been demanding the federal courts appoint an independent receiver, an individual who is responsible for managing the jail complex and saving lives,” Melanie Dominguez, lead organizer at the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice, told Filter. “We understand the receiver could cut through the red tape and political obstacles and the ongoing cycle of chaos plaguing Rikers.”
“Right now, what’s happening is the gross mismanagement of city jails,” she continued, “where you have the correctional officers who are not showing up to work, not taking responsibility when it comes to abusing their powers, so there’s a lot of corruption going on and the receiver will have the power to alleviate that.”
Mayor Adams “has been committed to sending more Black and Brown folks [to jail] and overpolicing our communities, instead of taking the time to put money into things that bring true public safety.”
Dominguez said the city can’t be trusted to improve conditions in the jails, and connected this to the political priorities of the Mayor Eric Adams (D) administration.
Despite supporting a plan to close the Rikers complex, Adams has publicly cast doubt on being able to meet the timeline to do so by 2027. His corrections commissioner, Louis Molina, stated in March that it would be “physically impossible” to house all of the city’s incarcerated population in the new jails being built to replace Rikers. Molina said that for this to happen, the population must fall from its current level of about 6,000 to below 3,300 by 2027—instead, he expects it to rise to over 7,000 people by 2024. Meanwhile, Adams has failed to address economic and social inequities facing New Yorkers; his actions have included vetoing bills to increase aid for unhoused people.
“This is because of his approach of ‘jails first’ when it comes to issues plaguing our communities,” Dominguez said. “He has been committed to sending more Black and Brown folks [to jail] and overpolicing our communities, instead of taking the time to put money into things that bring true public safety, like housing, health care, education and jobs.”
Hernandez Stroud, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, explained that a receiver could act without regard for political considerations—unlike a corrections commissioner, who is worried about being replaced, or the mayor and City Council, who are worried about being voted out.
“One of the primary benefits is it allows the appointment of a temporary outside authority that is untethered from the political process, whose sole job it will be to figure out how to mix the many problems on Rikers Island,” Stroud told Filter. “That person will be granted by the court considerable authority toward remediating the unconstitutional conditions. That receiver will be able to create a plan based on the problems to assemble a team.”
Their powers might include hiring and firing staff, and re-negotiating union contracts, like that with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents corrections officers on Rikers. Any approach will inevitably require addressing workplace conditions and rules and negotiating with this union. A receiver could also propose a budget for the city jails—though like any other budget, it would have to be approved by the City Council.
“The problems on Rikers are entrenched and interlocking and complicated, and a receiver will confront serious challenges in trying to undo those.”
A receiver woudn’t have unilateral power to do whatever they wanted, and might need to get express permission from the court to get around state law and certain contractual obligations. And history tells us that often, governments can resist the changes receivers put in place.
“Another shortcoming is that often whenever the government regains control of the prison or jail, they might not fully commit themselves to the reform that the receiver instituted,” Stroud said. “That is evident in receiverships that govern prisons in Alabama, jails in DC and Wayne County [Detroit, Michigan]. There’s always a real question of the continuity of the receiver’s work, and if the government when it gets the keys back to these facilities will commit itself to the standards the receiver implemented.”
As the parties prepare to return to court, the possibility of a receiver overseeing New York City jails is very real. But no matter the outcome, there will be no quick and easy solution for deteriorating conditions faced by thousands of people behind bars.
“The problems on Rikers are entrenched and interlocking and complicated, and a receiver will confront serious challenges in trying to undo those very significant challenges,” Stroud said. “Even with awesome powers granted by the court, a receiver will still face an uphill climb. I think who the receiver is matters very much and could really determine if a receivership is successful.”