Federal takeover planned at Rikers prison complex

After years of failed attempts to reform Rikers Island, a federal judge in Manhattan will consider on Tuesday whether to place the sprawling and troubled New York prison complex under court control.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain appointed a federal comptroller in 2014, but Rikers, part of the New York City Department of Corrections, remains plagued by staffing issues, physical deterioration and violence. Court Comptroller Steve Martin said Tuesday it was time to make changes to Rikers Island and gave the city three weeks to submit a plan to avoid a federal takeover of the troubled prison.

More extreme measures may be needed, Martin advised.

Anna Friedberg, Martin’s deputy, cited several instances where legal hurdles — including city policies, existing contracts and union rules — have impeded municipal reforms.

The city must immediately reduce this bureaucracy and take dramatic action, including hiring outside experts, and allowing them to work from home, Friedberg said.

Friedberg also cited four areas of concern at Rikers: security, staffing, inmate management, and accountability. The City has until May 17 at 3 p.m. to submit its plan and a hearing will be held on May 24.

Before the judgment, New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ administration, in its own letter to the court, insisted it was making progress and asked for more time.

“The extraordinary measure of ordering a receivership is undeserved and the DOJ’s reference to it, less than four months into Commissioner Molina’s tenure, is unfair,” said Kimberly Joyce of the Legal Department. of New York City. “The commissioner has taken more drastic action than previously demonstrated.”

A city attorney said Tuesday that he was “in general agreement with the oversight team” on the changes. Part of that plan includes hiring 578 new correctional officers, which the mayor revealed earlier Tuesday.

Fifteen inmates died in custody last year, and three have died so far in 2022. There have been more than five dozen stabbings in March alone.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has admitted it is “seriously” considering seeking federal receivership of New York City prisons to address the “continuing, daily constitutional injuries inflicted on inmates.”

Damien Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, expressed alarm at the level of violence. He raised the possibility of a federal receivership to force change.

“Prisons are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now,” Williams said in a letter to the court. “Based on our experience over the past six years and the continued non-compliance with key provisions of the Consent Judgment and the three subsequent remedial orders issued by this Court, our office is gravely concerned about whether the Department and the city have the ability, expertise and willingness to quickly make the changes necessary to bring about real reform to this deeply troubled agency.”

Swain ordered Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina to attend the hearing, marking the first time all stakeholders will meet since the possibility of a federal takeover was raised.

Molina said reforms were already underway, adding he believed Bill de Blasio’s former administration was pursuing a “political argument” to shut down Rikers.

“I totally agree with the monitor’s recommendations,” Molina said. “My vision is to create a culture of discipline and service to incarcerated people.”

The Legal Aid Society said in a statement Tuesday that the city has yet to demonstrate its “ability to respond to this humanitarian crisis.”

“The continued violence and damage New Yorkers are experiencing on Rikers Island, and the city’s demonstrated inability to operate its prisons safely and competently despite years of technical assistance from an expert oversight team, cannot be solved by the status quo,” the nonprofit legal aid organization said. “… Independent leadership with authority and the will to enact bold and rapid change, such as those that can be achieved through receivership, is needed to end this quagmire.”

ABC News has previously documented the horror of Rikers. Exclusive material from the Diane Sawyer project aired in a full episode of “Nightline.”

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