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Federal prosecutor asks judge to strip New York of control over Rikers

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 19: Rikers Island, home to the main jail complex, is situated in the East River between the Queens and Bronx boroughs as shown on October 19, 2021 in New York City. The notorious jail is under increasing scrutiny as more than a dozen inmates have died this year alone. Critics charge that staff shortages are to blame at the facility, which houses 5,700 inmates as they await trial. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  (Spencer Platt)
By Hurubie Meko New York Times

NEW YORK – The federal government Friday formally joined an effort to strip Mayor Eric Adams’ administration of control over Rikers Island, asking a judge to hand oversight of the troubled jail complex to an outside authority.

Joining lawyers who represent people detained in New York City jails, Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor, Damian Williams, wrote in a court filing that the appointment of an outside authority, known as a receiver, was the only solution to the persistent violence and chaos at Rikers.

Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, had previously called for a takeover in July. The day after that statement, the judge who will decide on a takeover, Laura Taylor Swain of U.S. District Court, wrote that the Adams administration had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails.” In August, she set a schedule for federal prosecutors and detainees’ lawyers to argue in favor of receivership; Friday’s filings were the first step in that lengthy process.

The Department of Justice has sought this kind of remedy in “only a handful of corrections cases and under exceptional circumstances,” Williams wrote Friday, adding that the city under two mayors and four correction commissioners had been “unable or unwilling” to make reforms that would reduce violence and “remedy the ongoing violation of the constitutional rights of people in custody.”

The parties also asked that Swain hold the city in contempt for violating a 2015 agreement that required it to make sweeping reforms.

A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, Nick Paolucci, said Saturday that the administration had made progress to address long-standing problems at Rikers and that receivership was not the solution to fix the jail system.

The filings from Williams, in addition to those from the Legal Aid Society and a private law firm that represents people detained at Rikers, come as the city faces mounting pressure to show improvements in jail conditions, and weeks after the administration announced that the embattled jails commissioner, Louis A. Molina, would leave his post by mid-November and become the assistant deputy mayor for public safety. Adams has not named a successor.

That receivership is on the table “reflects the enormity of the challenges that persist in the city jails,” said Hernandez D. Stroud, counsel in the Justice Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. The city will have a chance to respond to the filings, and then the plaintiffs will have another opportunity to answer, he said, adding that it could be well into next year before Swain makes a determination on the question of receivership.

To date, the city has failed to grasp the “urgency and severity” of the crisis it has created, said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

“A receiver is necessary now because there’s nothing more the court can do to compel the city to operate the jails within constitutional bounds,” she said.

Watchdogs and prisoners rights advocates have also criticized Adams’ administration for what they say are attempts to roll back efforts at transparency by past administrations. Under Molina’s tenure, the Correction Department has limited the public release of potentially damaging information, revoking a jails oversight panel’s unrestricted access to video footage from Rikers Island (it later restored the access) and reversing an earlier policy of notifying the public when deaths occur in custody.

As of last month, nine people have died this year in New York City jails. Nineteen died last year.

A federal monitor appointed to oversee the jails as part of the 2015 agreement has pointed to episodes that he said showed persistent dysfunction and dangers at the island complex in recent months, many of which he said correction officials had not mentioned to him and in some cases had hidden. The monitor, Steve J. Martin, wrote in a report this month that instead of making incremental progress, the department was demonstrating “sustained and chronic institutional resistance and recalcitrance toward court-ordered reform.”

Throughout his recent reports, Martin has stressed that the conditions in the jails and the risk of harm, for both detainees and correction officers, have not been improving.

In May, Martin described five “serious and disturbing” incidents over a two-week period that he said jail staff and leadership had failed to report, including the deaths of two people in custody. One detainee, Carlton James, was severely injured after being tackled by correction officers May 11.

James was tackled twice in one day, once while he was “rear-cuffed and in leg shackles,” according to the monitor, and was taken to the hospital, where he underwent multiple surgeries. Martin said his team was not aware of the severity of his condition until May 24, after an article by The City included a statement from the Correction Department.

In a declaration submitted with the filings Friday, James said that he was paralyzed from the neck down and remained in the hospital.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.