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Locked Up

The Adams Administration’s Clumsy Campaign to Downplay Violence on Rikers Island Backfires

A federal judge no longer trusts jail officials to give an accurate picture of violence in City jails, and may weigh taking the jails out of City control altogether.

DOC Commissioner Louis Molina testifying at a City Council hearing last fall.

DOC Commissioner Louis Molina testifying at a City Council hearing in October (Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

For a year and a half, Eric Adams and his jails commissioner Louis Molina have managed to stave off calls for more drastic action to address the unconstitutional levels of violence that permeate City jails on Rikers Island. But their days of running the jail system may be numbered. 

In a hearing on Tuesday, Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who oversees a consent decree under which the City is obligated to reduce the violence, said her confidence in the City's leadership to tackle problems on Rikers "in good faith and in candor, has been shaken."

After more than a year of putting off calls to take the jails out of City control, Judge Swain cracked the door Tuesday to the possibility of putting Rikers into federal receivership, telling lawyers for the parties to the consent decree—people locked up in City jails, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, and the City itself—that they should brief her on how to approach the question of receivership in a letter due August 7.

The promise to read a letter in two months that offers preliminary thoughts on how one might structure a discussion about taking more aggressive action to reform the jail system may not seem like momentous action on Swain's part. But by the sclerotic standards of the court, under whose supervision violence has only gotten worse in the eight years since it began presiding over the consent decree, with 22 people held in custody dying last year alone, the willingness to even consider receivership constitutes a sea change.

A year ago on Wednesday, Mayor Adams and Molina managed to beat back calls for a federal court to take control of Rikers by convincing Judge Swain, with the help of her monitor, Steve Martin, that they could fix Rikers themselves, given a chance.

By every indication, Adams and Molina brought today's reversal of fortune on themselves, not only through failing to stem the mortal, maiming, life-altering violence to which people awaiting trial in New York are subjected, but by losing the trust of the federal monitor, and by attempting to play politics with a federal court through a hamfisted media campaign.

"The lack of accurate information renders this entire process unworkable," Mary Lynn Werlwas of the Legal Aid Society, told the judge. "This process cannot work if we cannot trust what the City is saying." The City's reliable and accurate reporting of what happens on Rikers has long been an issue, Werlwas said, but recent incidents show concrete examples of "the outright misrepresentation of material facts." 

One example: In multiple sworn statements in recent months, Werlwas said, jail officials asserted they had not made any recent changes to the procedure for jail admissions. But as the monitor's recent report made clear, those sworn statements weren't true: A new policy was promulgated April 10.

"For the court and parties to have such fundamental doubts" about whether City officials are even telling the truth about what's going on on Rikers, Werlwas said, makes "a mockery of the judicial process." 

Molina touts his incremental reduction in some violence statistics from their high point in 2021, Werlways said. But if, as the monitor's recent reports suggest, jail officials aren't even logging uses of force accurately, she asked, "Are these numbers even trustworthy?"

"We have exhausted the limits of this process," Werlwas said

Alan Scheiner, a Lawyer for the New York City Law Department representing the Department of Correction, told the judge that mistakes had been made. "Absolutely no intentional misrepresentations have been made by the City," he said. "Some misrepresentations are just errors."

Recently, Molina and Adams took the unusual step of pushing back on the federal monitor in the press, showing favored reporters selected video of one incident in which armored and helmeted guards slammed a handcuffed man's head into the floor and other objects before he was taken to the hospital and pronounced paralyzed from the neck down—video that they have neither made public nor even shared with parties to Tuesday's court hearing.

Judge Swain pressed the City on these media appearances, in which Adams and Molina told the public that the monitor's report was "not completely accurate," "erroneous," "unfair," and "created the wrong message," and in which Molina, even before any investigation into the incident is complete, "adamantly denied his officers committed any wrongdoing."

Scheiner did not appear eager to discuss the media appearances. "The Law Department was not part of those statements," he told the judge.

Commissioner Molina told the judge that while an investigation into the incident that left a man paralyzed is ongoing, his preliminary assessment is that the injury was inadvertent. "I don't find it concerning as of yet," he said.

"You don't find it concerning that a person who was cuffed and in shackles was taken down to a concrete floor?" Swain asked him.

"It is an option," Molina replied.

Swain also pressed Molina on his efforts to convince the monitor not to tell the judge about five recent incidents involving death and grievous injury to people held on Rikers. "Any reason I should not be disturbed that you commented to the monitor that the report should not be made to the court?" she asked. 

"Our perception of the incidents is different," Molina answered. "What I was trying to convey to the monitor is that we have to look at this on a macro level."

Judge Swain concluded the hearing by issuing an order proposed by the monitor, reiterating many of the obligations to which the City's jail officials were already bound under the consent decree

Less than an hour after the hearing before Judge Swain concluded, the City's own jail oversight body, the Board of Correction, found itself hurriedly rewriting its meeting agenda because Molina had declined to appear. This complicated the board's efforts to interrogate the Department of Correction's decision to slash $17 million from its contractor budget, eliminating virtually all contracted programming for incarcerated people. 

The mayor has justified the cuts by saying that work previously done by expert contractors will be taken up by Correction employees themselves. Pressed by the Board to explain what training, if any, guards are getting to take up that work, Robert Gonzalez, the DOC's deputy commissioner for training and development, conceded that "I'm not going to say our officers are clinicians in any shape or form."

Speaking to the board, DOC Deputy Commissioner of Legal Matters Paul Schechtman shrugged off the cuts, calling them the regrettable consequence of the mayor's demand for four percent across-the-board cuts from virtually all City departments. "Would I be happy if $17 million came back? For sure," Schechtman said. "There are things in life that are beyond one's control."

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