Rikers still in flux: Judge declines a federal takeover of correctional facility – for now

A jail on Rikers Island.
A jail on Rikers Island.
File photo by Dean Moses

The future of Rikers Island remained in flux Thursday as a judge declined to allow the federal government to take over management of the notorious detention center — at least for now.  

Federal District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain heard arguments on Aug. 10 on an effort by federal authorities to wrestle control of Rikers Island away from the city, but punted on any final resolution of the matter. 

Instead, Swan set another conference between city and federal officials for Nov. 28 — keeping Mayor Eric Adams and the city’s Department of Corrections in charge of the jail for at least the next three months.  

Fight over Rikers Island management

U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York has been petitioning to install a court-appointed federal receiver that would take over management of Rikers, saying that conditions inside the facility have reached a boiling point, and city leadership has failed to meaningfully address the situation. 

“Rikers Island has been in crisis for years. This is a collective failure with deep roots, spanning multiple mayoral administrations and DOC commissioners,” Williams said in a statement last month. “But after eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize.”

According to Williams, along with other advocates for a federal takeover of Rikers, the jailhouse has become detrimentally unsafe, and basic living conditions for detainees continue to be disastrous. 

Rikers is currently being managed by the city’s DOC, while being overseen for the past eight years by a federal monitor serving as a watchdog that produces reports and makes recommendations on the situation. 

In the latest 56-page report released on Monday, the monitor, Steve J. Martin, detailed how “little progress has been evident” to address historic problems at Rikers, where seven detainees have died this year, and incidents of violence are still rampant. 

“While hard work is commendable, it does not obviate the fact that substantially more progress is needed and on a more expeditious timeline than has occurred to date,” the report reads. “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.”

The U.S. Attorney’s office was hoping to convince Judge Swain on Thursday to relinquish city control of Rikers — a move that Mayor Adams fiercely opposes. 

“I am the best person to finally turn around the Department of Correction,” the mayor said at a press conference on July 18. “I have personally committed myself to doing so no matter how busy my job has been.”

Opponents of a takeover

On Tuesday, a group of conservative-leaning Council Members in the “Common Sense Caucus” toured Rikers Island, and collectively supported the mayor, while claiming that advocates for a federal takeover are acting in a “politically motivated” manner. 

“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.”

The union representing Department of Corrections, which is a politically potent force that has donated significant amounts of money to local electeds, including Adams and several members of the Common Sense Caucus, is also vehemently opposed to the idea of a takeover, as the potential federal receiver.

But many progressive-leaning officials in the city see receivership as a way of improving the conditions at the complex, including Comptroller Brad Lander, who released his own report earlier this month — detailing an increase in physical fights, lacking medical care, and severe staffing shortages at the prison. 

“Based on a year of closely watching the data on the Department of Correction, this much is clear: without dramatic changes to management, dysfunction and violence at Rikers will persist. The City of New York has proven unwilling or unable to overhaul its jail operations on its own,” Lander said. “Without real change, the costs of injustice and mismanagement to New Yorkers, their loved ones, and our city will only grow.”

Other progressives, in response to the court hearing on Thursday, chimed in to advocate for wrestling control away from the city. 

“As the conditions at Rikers continue to worsen, it’s clear that the federal government must step in and take control of this humanitarian crisis,” said Brooklyn Council Member Lincoln Restler. “We need to swiftly close Rikers Island, but in the interim a federal receiver can cut through intractable issues and start addressing this disaster.”

Judge Swain was critical of the city’s lackluster efforts on Thursday, but did not appoint a receiver. Instead she set the next conference on the issue for Nov. 28.