Feds, Rikers Detainees Have Green Light To Seek Receiver

By Stewart Bishop | August 10, 2023, 10:34 PM EDT ·

A New York federal judge on Thursday cleared the way for detainees at New York City's Rikers Island and Manhattan federal prosecutors to push for a receiver to take control of the notorious jail complex away from city officials, in the wake of increasingly dire reports of violence and mismanagement.

During a conference in a packed Lower Manhattan courtroom, Chief U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who has overseen a yearslong reform effort by New York City's Department of Correction with the aid of a court-appointed monitor, said while she hasn't lost all hope in city officials, they haven't yet shown they are willing and able to enact meaningful change to ensure the safety of detainees and staff.

"The current state of affairs is as tragic as it is unacceptable," Judge Swain said.

She also issued an interim court order proposed by the monitor, directing the DOC to implement a number of immediate reforms, including addressing the use of "excessive and unnecessary" force on detainees by DOC staff and dealing with the recurring problem of guards leaving their posts.

"The court is deeply concerned about the well-being of everyone housed at Rikers and all that work there," she said.

Judge Swain's supervision and the monitorship of Steve J. Martin are the results of a consent judgment reached in 2015 in a class action brought by the Legal Aid Society on behalf of current and former Rikers detainees who alleged a brutal culture of excessive force by Rikers correction officers. Yet conditions at Rikers have continued to deteriorate in the ensuing years, according to Martin.

The U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, made waves last month when he announced he was joining the Legal Aid Society's call for the judge to install a receiver to take control of Rikers from city officials.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Powell told Judge Swain the interim court order is insufficient to address "the overall constitutional violations" taking place at Rikers, citing rates of guards using excessive force that are "unheard of in any other system" and the DOC ceding control of sections of the jail to detainees.

"The department is not fulfilling its core obligations to follow basic security protocols and protect ... the population and staff from harm," Powell said.

If appointed, a receiver would have wide latitude to institute reforms at Rikers, including the power to hire and fire any personnel, set new disciplinary systems, make budgetary decisions and potentially change union contracts.

The administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams is vehemently opposed to a receiver taking control of Rikers and contends that it has made great progress since Adams took office in 2022 and appointed Louis Molina as DOC commissioner.

In court on Thursday, Molina defended the DOC's record during his tenure. He told Judge Swain that stabbings and slashings were down 30% since 2021 — a particularly bad year for Rikers — and use of force incidents that resulted in injury have also declined.

Molina said he has also increased disciplinary actions against staff who engage in misconduct, citing over 300 staffers on his watch who were fired, quit or were forced to resign. On multiple occasions during his statement to Judge Swain, Molina tied problems at Rikers to the administration of Adams' predecessor, Bill de Blasio.

"My team has taken the department from the precipice of collapse ... and put us on the path to reform," Molina said.

However, according to the monitoring team, the situation at Rikers is deteriorating. After previous reports of having a decent working relationship with city officials, Martin in May changed course and reported that the DOC had withheld information on four serious injuries and one death, in violation of court orders, and provided suspect information about the cause of some incidents.

In court on Monday, Martin and his deputy, Anna Friedberg, made clear that the DOC had shown little improvement, and reported that people in custody are at serious risk of harm due to a failure of the DOC to correct "flawed basic security measures."

Friedberg listed off a number of disturbing statistics, including several stabbings or slashings in the last month at Rikers' highest security unit, violent attacks by detainees on others that were witnessed by guards who did nothing to intervene.

She said during a visit to the high-security unit days ago, the monitoring team witnessed open drug use by people in custody, and met with the victim of a stabbing or slashing that was subjected to a "very painful" use of force by DOC staff after the attack and was left in the jail's intake unit for 20 hours.

"It was one of the most disturbing tours we've had since we've been on-site," Friedberg said.

Martin said unless and until DOC leadership embraces the idea that its most important function is to ensure the safety of the jail population and staff, "harm will flourish."

Legal Aid Society lawyer Mary Werlwas told Judge Swain that numerous reports and recommendations from the monitor about how to improve conditions at Rikers "have fallen to the ground."

"There remains a pattern and practice of excessive force. Staff and supervisors are able to abdicate their responsibilities with impunity," Werlwas said. "The DOC doesn't recognize the harm this does to people in custody."

The Legal Aid Society and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office are due to file their motions for contempt/appointment of a receiver by Nov. 17.

The government is represented by Jeffrey Powell and Lara Eshkenazi of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

The city of New York is represented by John Schemitsch and Alan H. Scheiner of the City of New York Law Department.

The plaintiff class is represented by Kayla Simpson, Mary Werlwas and Katherine Haas of the Legal Aid Society.

The case is Nunez v. the City of New York et al., case number 1:11-cv-05845, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

--Editing by Kristen Becker.

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