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Jails Monitor: Rikers Island Under Eric Adams is ‘Incapable’ of Reform

Conditions continued to deteriorate in August and September, even as Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and staff visited London tourist sites.

Mayor Eric Adams on a tour of Rikers Island with Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina in July, 2022. (City Hall)

Manish Kunwar, 27, died Thursday morning on Rikers Island, the ninth person to die in a New York City jail this year and the twenty-seventh since Mayor Eric Adams took office. 

Later on Thursday, a federal court monitor, tasked with overseeing the City's ostensible efforts to bring jail conditions in line with the constitutional bar on cruel and unusual punishment, reported that conditions in which New York City cages people accused of crimes have continued to deteriorate even in the last few months, during which time Adams's Correction Commissioner Louis Molina took a party of his senior staff on a taxpayer-funded jaunt to England and France, where they were photographed posing in front of tourist monuments.

"The Monitoring Team is disturbed by evidence that suggests the alarming conditions reported to the Court during the August 10, 2023 Status Conference have only worsened," begins the latest report from the court monitor overseeing New York City jails. 

"It has been over two years since the Monitoring Team first raised concerns about the deteriorating conditions in the jails," the monitor notes—pleading italics in his original report—and in the intervening time, Judge Laura Taylor Swain has held many hearings and generated a great deal of paper, signed two remedial orders, approved the Adams administration's "action plan," and signed two more orders clarifying that yes, jail officials needed to comply with previous orders.

Through all this, the Adams administration's response continues, for the most part, to consist of shrugs. "Most recent proposals [from the administration] remain haphazard, tepid, and insubstantial," the monitor reports.

From when they first took office, the public line from Adams and Molina has been that the deaths, violence, and inhumanity in New York City jails are not their fault. True as far as it goes—these problems long predate the Adams administration—this line has been deployed constantly in press conferences, public hearings and court proceedings to excuse the current administration's failure to do anything about the problems they have inherited, and the ways in which they've made them worse. But this passing of the buck isn't just a public relations strategy, the monitor reports: It's also the prevailing rhetoric in how jail leadership talks to itself, and that's even worse. "This dominating focus on the historical context in statements made during internal leadership meetings and in comments to the Monitor and to the Court comes at the expense of a clear, unwavering message about responsibility for solving the problem," the monitor reports.

Levels of violence inside the jails remain terrifyingly high, and the Correction Department "does not have rigorous, effective, wide-ranging plans to reduce violence or to elevate the poor practices that contribute to it," the monitor reports. Doors that should be locked go unlocked. Guards are still frequently off-post entirely. When they are present, they fail to intervene in any useful way. When guards play an active role, it is often to inflict gratuitous and ill-advised ultraviolence on the people in their charge. The monitor's report describes one incident in which a guard escorting a person in custody suddenly slammed the man's head with full force into a metal railing, to punish him for writhing defensively in a likely reaction to the guard inflicting a painful wrist bend. 

Guards don't tour the blocks. Supervisors don't supervise the guards. Morale is in the toilet. Drugs and weapons are everywhere, and readily accessible. Stabbings and slashings, which had been creeping downward earlier this year, are roaring back up, with 91 in August in September. Even quantifying the levels of violence is fraught, because jail staff at every level misreport and juke the numbers to minimize the evidence of violence. Serious injuries and hospitalizations go unreported. Even after the monitor specifically flagged five stabbing and slashing incidents from the first half of the year that were not categorized as such, jails leadership still refuses to properly classify three of the incidents.

The jails system is plagued with churn of every variety. Facilities close and reopen, their residents uprooted again and again. Wardens are cycled in and out of jail leadership at speed. The Correction Department doesn't even have an acting replacement to its chief counsel, more than a month after the last one left

The stench of failure is now self-perpetuating. Jail officials told the monitor that "a number of individuals have elected not to work with the agency given its reputation and the potentially critical media reports that could be associated with their appointment." 

The monitor's latest report, which comes as Judge Swain prepares to hear arguments about whether to take the jails out of the city's control altogether and appoint a receiver to administer them, helps to clear the way for this option. "Conditions have appreciably deteriorated over the past two months such that the glimmers of progress that had been observed previously are unraveling," the monitor writes. "These are warning signs that reform is falling even further out of reach."

A Clinton-era federal law sets a very high bar for courts to take over failing jail systems, requiring judges to effectively find that everything else has been tried and nothing else will work. The monitor's report gives Swain strong material to make that finding. "The City and Department have repeatedly and consistently demonstrated they are incapable of effectively directing and managing the multilayered and multifaceted reform effort," the report concludes, "and continuing on the current path is not likely to alter the present course in any meaningful way."

But for all the judge's dutiful nods to urgency and the human lives at stake that she makes at the conclusion of every hearing on Rikers, there is no great haste in the process that could lead to a court takeover of Rikers. Lawyers motions on the questions won't be fully filed until February at the earliest, at which point the judge will decide whether to hold evidentiary hearings, which could stretch deep into 2024. It's entirely likely that if the jails are taken out of City control, it won't happen until 2025. If the track record of the first 21 months of the Adams administration holds, another 20 people will have died in New York City jails by then.

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