Cover-Ups, Half-Truths, Secrecy and Contempt: Watchdog Report Shows How Rikers Officials Are Making Court Oversight Look Like a Joke
The monitor's latest report describes a jail system that tries to conceal its ongoing violence and blocks outside efforts to improve conditions.
1:57 PM EDT on June 9, 2023
If the legal settlement and court-ordered monitorship of Rikers Island were supposed to address the chronic violence that pervaded the jails in 2015, that process has been an unmitigated failure. That's the upshot of the latest report, released Thursday, from the federal court monitor tasked with overseeing New York City's efforts to reduce violence on Rikers. In it, the monitor reports that "the risk of harm in the jails remains grave and that the jails remain patently unsafe."
The court monitor, Steve Martin, has been remarkably patient and evenhanded with the jail system under Mayor Eric Adams and his jails commissioner, Louis Molina, signing off last year on their "action plan" to forestall more thorough intervention in the jails with a fresh plan to try to fix Rikers on the City's own terms. But in recent communications, Martin has grown increasingly frustrated with Molina.
Not only has the situation gotten worse in the eight years since a federal judge, Laura Taylor Swain, took responsibility for enforcing the consent decree under which the City committed to fixing its jails, the monitor's Thursday report suggests. In the picture painted by the report, Adams administration jail officials are so baldly misleading and misinforming the monitor meant to function as the court's eyes and ears that the entire premise of court oversight is becoming a farce.
"The commitment to effective collaboration as evidenced by the Department's recent performance has deteriorated," the monitor writes. "The Department's approach to reform has recently become characterized by inaccuracies and a lack of transparency." He continued, "These problems have grave consequences for the prospect of reform and eliminating the imminent risk of harm faced by incarcerated individuals and staff."
By many metrics, the amount of violence on Rikers—deadly violence, now-you're-paralyzed-for-the-rest-of-your-life-violence, skull-fractured, face-slashed-to-ribbons, ribs-broken, organs-removed violence—has only gotten worse since a federal court found that New York City was running a jail system so bloody and physically dangerous that it violates the U.S. Constitution.
Jail officials boast of the "success" of a decrease in stabbings and slashings since 2021, but in concrete terms, that means that the jails are on track to host almost 350 stabbings and slashings this year, more than all the slashings and stabbings that occurred in an entire three-year period from 2017 to 2019.
The fact that the jails have only become more violent since the court imposed a consent decree is a strike against Judge Swain's oversight. But as the monitor's report makes clear, Molina and his team are effectively refusing to fully cooperate with the court and its monitor, evidently calculating—so far correctly—that they can dodge court oversight without meaningful consequence.
At this point, Martin notes, he cannot even say how many people have died in custody this year, because he does not have confidence in jail officials' reporting. In May, Molina told the monitor that the Department of Correction would stop informing him when people die in custody.
Molina and his team have demonstrated "a lack of transparency, consultation, and collaboration that has impacted the Monitoring Team's work," Martin writes. "There are numerous situations in which only selective information is shared in response to a request that serves to blur the reality of the situation or to gloss over concerning facts."
In one recent example, jail officials told the monitor that Joshua Valles, 31, had been hospitalized after suffering a heart attack and that there was "no Departmental wrongdoing." As Hell Gate first reported, however, after Valles died in the hospital last month, an autopsy showed that he had suffered a fractured skull. The City's Department of Investigation and the New York attorney general are reportedly investigating the case.
Martin's report describes widespread intransigence from jail officials, both in terms of giving him the information he needs, and in terms of doing what it has promised him it will do. The monitor will ask for information, jail officials will give him a date by which they'll respond, and then they'll blow the deadline. In at least 20 instances, Martin has asked for information and received no response at all. Officials will tell the monitor they are going to do something, and then only do part of it, or do none of it at all.
In one instance, Martin explicitly instructed jail officials not to create a new jail admissions policy without consulting him—and then in April, Molina and his team did just that. The monitor didn't learn about it until 42 days later. He asked how such a thing could happen, and still hasn't gotten a response.
When summoned to court for periodic hearings on the jails' oversight in April, Molina insisted that he "support[s] the monitoring team being able to speak to any employee or staff member that they feel they need to speak to understand, to get a nuance of the situation," but in practice, he has obstructed the monitor's access to DOC employees, Martin writes: "One month later, on May 26, 2023, the Commissioner stated that the Monitoring Team would not be permitted to speak with certain staff to obtain a briefing because '[b]riefings on ongoing investigations are hardly the norm,' and because the Commissioner '[doesn't] know what [the Monitor] would expect [from a briefing].'"
Meanwhile, DOC staff are telling the monitor that they're scared of what their bosses will do if they talk with him: "Some DOC staff reported that they did not feel comfortable speaking openly and candidly with the Monitor because of fear of reprisal by the then Deputy Commissioner of Investigations were he to learn of such communications."
Martin's most recent letter also follows up with new details on the five alarming cases of serious injury to people in custody that prompted an unscheduled emergency report last month, including two deaths and one person paralyzed. "At least four of these five incidents reflect serious concerns about the veracity with which staff report incidents involving serious injuries," the monitor writes.
In the case of the man now paralyzed, a DOC deputy commissioner "unequivocally" told the monitor that the injury "was due to a pre-existing condition that was exacerbated when he fell trying to tie or put on his shoes." But when the monitor finally got his hands on video evidence, that wasn't what had happened.
When the monitor's team asked the deputy commissioner why he had told them the man was injured tying his shoe, the deputy commissioner cited an interview with the man from 12 days earlier, in which the man said he had bent down to tie his shoe, but did not say that was the cause of his injury. He then conceded to the monitor that guards used force against the man, and that it was not officially reported. "He was taken to the floor by two staff," the monitor summarizes. "During the take-down, the individual hit his head on a bench, partition and the floor. The individual's body was limp as the probe team lifted him on to the gurney."
Why didn't correction officials initially disclose this to the monitor? "It appears that there was an effort to either deflect responsibility," the monitor concludes, "or there was a level of carelessness that resulted in the reporting of information that was inaccurate or incomplete in light of the available information at the time the reports were made."
Since the monitor's previous report highlighting the five disturbing incidents, the Correction Department has pledged again to make some changes. Last month, the monitor began asking questions about an incident in which a man in a crowded intake cage was assaulted by multiple people, then left naked and alone for three hours without medical assistance. Eventually, staff gave him underwear, and he finally was taken to surgery to address multiple broken ribs and a ruptured spleen that had to be removed. Since he reported on the incident, the monitor says, the department has told him it "intends to promulgate a policy that people in custody should not remain unclothed for an extended period absent exigent circumstances." The timing for when such a policy would be promulgated is unknown.
It's conceivable that this portrait of chaos, incompetence, intransigence, and naked disregard for the federal court to which the Correction Department is answerable might finally persuade Judge Swain that it's time to at least allow lawyers for the people held on Rikers to make an argument for why the jails should be taken out of City control. It's an argument they've been asking to present for more than a year, without success. As the monitor's report makes clear, the current arrangement isn't working. The court mandate to reduce violence on Rikers, he writes, "is stymied by the issues outlined in this report."
But Swain has so far appeared entirely content to do as little as possible with regard to the rolling human rights catastrophe on Rikers, beyond scheduling a few hearings a year at which little if anything is accomplished. The legal threshold for a court taking over a jail system is high, she has noted. And while the monitor is clearly frustrated with Molina and his department, he nevertheless has given the judge an easy out: His report includes a draft order for the judge, recommending what she should do. That order instructs Molina and his department to do better at complying with all of the court orders and conditions that they've been flouting up until now.
What, if anything, the court is prepared to do to improve conditions on Rikers will become clear Tuesday, when Swain presides over a hearing to discuss the monitor's emergency report.
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