A group of conservative-leaning council members toured Rikers Island on Tuesday, where they touted supposed improvements to the notorious detention complex — standing in direct contrast to a recent report from a federal watchdog that sharply criticized the conditions at the facility.
The electeds, who are part of what is known as the Common Sense Caucus, inspected Rikers Island amid an ongoing debate over the future management of the facility, as federal officials are seeking to take control away from the city.
“I just toured Rikers Island with the Common Sense Caucus after last visiting in 2021,” said Queens Council Member Robert Holden, a caucus member. “What a change!”
Holden, along with his caucus colleagues, sought to highlight improvements to the prison made by Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina and Mayor Eric Adams, as part of an attempt to fend off the federal government’s takeover plans.
“Under [Eric Adams] and Commissioner Louis Molina, the conditions have vastly improved from the abysmal state we saw under Bill de Blasio and [former Commissioner Vincent] Schiraldi,” Holden said in a statement. “There’s still work to do, like increasing correction staff, addressing double and triple tours, and bringing back punitive segregation — but a federal receivership isn’t the answer.”
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams is leading the federal government’s charge to take over Rikers Island, asking a federal judge to appoint a “receiver” to transition management of the facility away from Adams and the city government.
According to Williams and other advocates for a federal takeover, the conditions inside the detention complex have reached a breaking point — with high numbers of deaths and violence, and poor living standards for detainees.
Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain is slated to make the official decision about the appointment of a receiver on Thursday — a move fiercely opposed by the mayor.
So far in 2023, seven people have died in the facility, or shortly after being released.
The prison is currently being overseen by a federal monitor, Steven J. Martin, who is tasked with making advisory recommendations and producing reports on Rikers Island.
In his latest 56-page report, released on Monday, Martin excoriated the city’s Department of Corrections, saying that “little progress has been evident” in remedying the problems at Rikers.
“The Department’s current pace is not commensurate with the ongoing and serious level of harm occurring in the jails, nor has the regression in the Department’s performance in certain areas been adequately addressed and remedied,” Martin wrote. “In other words, given the gravity of the current conditions, the Monitoring Team has not yet observed evidence of the necessary change in perspective regarding either the severity of the problems that must be addressed or a sense of urgency to identify and implement concrete solutions.”
But, on their fact-finding mission just one day after Martin’s latest report, members of the Common Sense Caucus questioned those findings, and claimed the situation is not as dire as many claim.
“After touring the facility myself, I can honestly say that I am impressed with the state of the facility and how well it functions,” said Queens Republican Council Member Vickie Paladino. “Simply put, Rikers Island is not the terrifying, dangerous place that the progressives would have you believe.”
While progressive-leaning electeds in the city, like Comptroller Brad Lander, have advocated for receivership, Paladino brushed off those calls as “politically motivated.”
“The motivation to put Rikers under a federal receivership and to close it entirely is completely politically motivated. It has nothing to do with the men and women of our Correction Department or with the inmates being held there,” she said. “The fact is that this facility has really been turned around, and there is much to be proud of.”
Democrat-turned-Republican Council Member Ari Kagan, a fellow member of the Common Sense Caucus, agreed, saying Rikers Island is moving in the right direction.
“Jail is not a resort, it’s not meant to be. I have noticed many significant improvements in Rikers that Commissioner Molina & his correction officers deserve credit for,” Kagan said. “I strongly oppose federal receivership. We need targeted investments in proven programs for detainees.”
For his part, the mayor has also defended the progress his administration has made, saying he can continue fixing the issues laid out by the U.S. Attorney in his takeover bid.
“I respect the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District. I know that his goals are the same as mine, to make sure Rikers is functioning,” Adams said during a press conference last week. “And I believe that I’m the best person to make the Rikers that we all desire.”
Progressives hit back over Rikers conditions
The conditions, however, are the subject of fierce debate.
In response to the Common Sense Caucus’ defense of continued city-control, Manhattan Council Member Keith Powers spoke about his time visiting the island in recent months, and the degrading environment at the detention complex.
“I’ve been to Rikers Island many times — cell doors don’t lock, units don’t have air conditioning, and people have been stashed in gyms and intake units without basic services,” Powers tweeted. “Even by the standards of a jail, it’s not a place worth celebrating.”
Progressive Bronx Council Member Kevin Riley fired back at the Common Sense Caucus, noting the majority-minority makeup of the detainee population at Rikers.
“Most inmates at Rikers are from Black and Brown communities. How can you even claim that the conditions aren’t severe? If this were happening to any other group, those posts would be considered hateful,” Riley said of his colleagues’ praise for Rikers leadership. “But somehow, it’s acceptable for us to endure these Rikers conditions.”
Meanwhile, the Legal Aid Society, which advocates for the rights of detainees, echoed the concerns laid out in the monitor’s report, and demanded the appointment of a federal receiver.
“This report further confirms that the City does not grasp the magnitude of the problem it faces, and is incapable of administering basic jail functions and correcting the suffering inflicted on incarcerated people every single day,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, the group’s Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project.
Judge Laura Taylor Swain will preside over another conference on the matter on Aug. 10, where she could potentially rule in favor of the federal government’s takeover attempts.
“The need for an independent authority, such as a receiver, is required now more than ever, and we look forward to this week’s court conference to detail the urgent need for this relief,” Werlwas said.