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Legal Aid Society to file for federal takeover of Rikers Island

Rikers Island.
Rikers Island.
File photo

Ahead of a critical court showdown, the Legal Aid Society will ask the federal government to take over control of Rikers Island from the city, as they accused Big Apple’s leadership of allowing “extraordinary suffering” and unnecessary deaths among inmates. 

“Years of plans, revised protocols, and recommendations have not corrected the City’s intractable failures — subjecting incarcerated New Yorkers to extraordinary suffering, and in far too many instances, death,” said Kayla Simpson, an attorney with the non-profit organization.

The legal eagles are looking for a federal court to appoint a “receiver” that would oversee the running of the city’s jail system, with a meeting between the relevant stakeholders on the issue coming on Thursday. 

If their petition to the court is successful, it will set up a potentially cataclysmic shift in the operations and management of the notorious detention complex on Rikers Island. 

This is now the latest installment of an ongoing fight between reformers and city leadership, which began in 2011 with the case of Nunez v. City of New York that led to a federal monitor supervising the status of the prison complex. 

“The violence in the city jails is worse today than at the outset of the lawsuit because the City has persistently failed to follow court orders and protect the people in its custody,” said Simpson. “We can wait no longer.”

So far this year, 18 inmates have died on Rikers Island, which is the most in a single year in nearly a decade.  

Beyond the alarming number of deaths, there have been widespread reports of violence and deteriorating conditions there. 

In a recent report from late October by the court-appointed monitoring team, they said that the conditions on Rikers Island have not improved — and, indeed, have become worse. 

“The conditions in the jail remain dangerously unsafe and the Monitoring Team remains gravely concerned about the alarming number of in-custody deaths, violence among people in custody, lack of an effective restrictive housing model, and various facets of the Department’s use of force practices and operational practices,” the report said. 

The Legal Aid Society has pointed to those troubling findings, and is asking federal judge Laura T. Swain to snatch control of the complex away from the city’s Department of Correction, and turn it over to a federal worker. 

Swain’s decision is expected to come after a meeting between the relevant stakeholders sometime this week — when the city, as well as the reformers, can argue their respective cases.  

The federal Justice Department, which has been lock-step with the Legal Aid Society in the past, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether they believe time has come for a federal monitor. 

Swain, in May, had approved the City’s plan to improve the environment for inmates on Rikers, and scheduled the November meeting to get an update on the goals laid on in that plan. 

Activists groups, however, are urging her to rule that the City has not made significant-enough progress, and must be stripped of control. 

“The Department of Correction has left Judge Swain with no alternative. By any measure, they have failed to meet the goals she assigned them in May — with fatal consequences. Receivership is the only answer,” said DeRay McKesson, of Campaign Zero. 

Adams, Molina fight back

New York City leadership, under the helm of Mayor Eric Adams, however, has pushed back against federal attempts to take over control of Rikers.  

“You know what it says? It says we can’t do our job. That’s what it says,” Hizzoner said. “What’s next? Do they take over our school system? Do they take over our Department of Sanitation? Do they take over probation? What’s next?” 

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, who took office when Adams was inaugurated, has similarly resisted calls for a receivership to be implemented. 

“We are not at the point of exhaustion. We’re not at the point where there’s no return, that we need to think of receivership,” he said earlier this year. 

Department of Correction officials did not respond to a request for comment to the Legal Aid Society’s latest filing.

But, pointing to the notoriously porous conditions, the reformers, and lawyers with the Department of Justice have pushed for the implementation of receivership — noting that the appointed person would have special authority to cut through red tape, and make changes in a swifter manner. 

A deteriorating situation on Rikers

The notable complaints include a lack of proactive measures to help those inmates struggling with mental health issues, a failure to investigate use-of-force cases on the island, lack of staffing, limited data collection and inhumane conditions where inmates are kept. 

According to the Legal Aid Society, corrections officers used force 5,135 times between January and September — marking 10.24 uses of force per 100 people, compared to 3.96 per 100 people in 2016. 

Meanwhile, the staff on Rikers is dwindling — from 523 corrections captains at the beginning of 2021 to just 474 in September. 

And staff has employed force 5,135 times in the first nine months of 2022 — 10.24 uses of force per 100 inmates, rather than 3.96 in 2016, the legal eagles said. 

The judge overseeing the case will take all of this information into account later this week when she oversees a hearing involving the city, along with reformers and the U.S. Department of Justice. 

While that hearing is approaching rapidly, it may still take weeks, or even months, for Swain to reach a final verdict on whether to implement a federal takeover of Rikers, as both sides will be given time for their lawyers to respond to the various accusations and complaints.

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