Rikers Island will remain under city control, as a federal court green-lit on Tuesday the mayor’s “Rikers Action Plan” that seeks to improve conditions inside the notorious correctional compound.
“I am grateful that the court today recognized our efforts to continue to address the dysfunction on Rikers Island and endorsed our Action Plan to make our jails safe for all who live and work there,” said Mayor Eric Adams.
The plan, which was Adams’ attempt to stop the federal government from taking over the management of the incarceration complex, promised “meaningful reform” at the prison, including actions to tamp-down violence and deal with shortages of staffing in the complex.
Judge Laura Taylor Swain, of the Eastern District of New York, sided with the city’s plan, allowing the government of the Five Boroughs to maintain control of the prison moving forward.
“This action plan represents a way to move forward with concrete measures now to address the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island,” Swain wrote in her decision.
The debate over the future of Rikers kicked-off after a series of reporting that highlighted the inhumane conditions on the island, which were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the slow push to vaccinate inmates.
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Established in 1932, the detention complex has developed a reputation as a place where inmates are prone to violence, and has been the subject of much debate from politicos and activists looking to shutter the prison.
The City Council has since passed a series of bills aiming to one-day reduce the population of Rikers and possibly close the facility, while transferring detainees to soon-to-be-opened jails spread between 4 of the 5 boroughs in the Big Apple, excluding Staten Island.
That was largely sparked by the death of Kalief Browder, who spent three years on the island while awaiting trial after reportedly stealing a backpack, before taking his own life inside his prison cell in June of 2015.
Adding to the public pushback, The New York Times reported a series of stories detailing alleged “fight clubs” inside the jail, which featured videos of inmates fighting for sport while correctional officers failed to maintain order.
Many inmates have registered complaints over lacking proper health care and other resources inside the facility.
After a series of deaths on the island this year, where at least six inmates have lost their lives since January, the public attention reached new heights, and the judge was rumored to be considering ruling against the city and passing control over the management of the facility to federal hands.
Adams vehemently opposed that idea, urging the court to allow the city to keep its stronghold over the prison.
“It says we can’t do our job,” Adams said, lamenting the idea of a federal takeover. “I’m not surrendering this city to anyone who believes we can’t do our job.”
In a last-ditch effort, Adams’ administration presented their plan, corrections head Louis Molina worked with an independent court-appointed monitor since to develop a plan to keep the prison under the supervision of City Hall.
“There are no quick or easy solutions to reforming Rikers, but in just a few short months, we have seen reductions in slashings and stabbings, reductions in use of force and assaults on staff, increased searches for weapons and contraband, and fewer officers out on sick leave,” Adams said in a statement. “It is a good start, but we must go much further.”
In hailing the win for city officials, Hizzoner promised that his plan would stop the “dysfunction that has plagued the jails” and better protect the inmate population.
“To the people in our care and to those officers and non-uniformed personnel working there: Know that I have your back and that the whole of city government has your back,” Adams said.
Sylvia Hinds-Radix, who serves as New York City Corporation Counsel, added that the city was “committed” to reforming the prison to ensure safety of all inmates.
“We are pleased that the court has endorsed the city’s Action Plan to address the longstanding problems at Rikers,” she said. “The city has already begun and is committed to continuing the hard work necessary for ongoing reform to create a jail system that is both more humane and safer for all.”
Advocates, meanwhile, who have long sought to shutter the complex, were less-than-enthused with the news, with the Legal Aid Society blasting the plan as “vague commitments” without “concrete actions.”
“More globally, the Plan is replete with vague commitments to revise policies in undefined ways, but it is almost silent on concrete actions or timelines for implementation of these new policies,” the organization wrote.
The Legal Aid Society declined to comment on Swain’s Tuesday ruling.
For now, though, the prison will remain under the control of the city, and the first-year mayor re-committed his administration to solving the problems plaguing Rikers Island.
“We will not rest until the dysfunction on Rikers is rooted out, these reforms are implemented, and the people in our care and working on the island are safe around the clock,” Adams said.