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Locked Up

Many People Are Saying: Take Rikers Out of City Control

As the court monitor reports more deception and chaos in NYC jails, a growing list of advocates and experts are urging a judge to put Rikers into receivership.

10:05 AM EST on December 5, 2023

Aerial view of Rikers Island.

An aerial view of Rikers Island. (USGS / Wikimedia)

As a literary genre, the formal reports of federal court monitors tend toward technical analysis and staid restraint, so the rising alarm and despair in the recent reports of Steve Martin, the court monitor overseeing efforts to reduce violence at Rikers, are an unusual, if entirely appropriate, stylistic innovation. Tasked with helping, advising, and coordinating with New York City's jail officials, Martin had, until a few months ago, attempted to remain optimistic in his reports about at least the potential for improvement. His most recent report, however, continues his pivot toward his increasingly firm belief that the Adams administration is incapable of running Rikers in a way that doesn't involve the constant threat of deadly, disabling, disfiguring, and traumatizing violence.

"Defendants' persistent interference, obstruction, and lack of transparency have eroded the Monitoring Team’s confidence that the City and Department fully appreciate the extent of the problems facing the agency and that they are in fact capable of advancing the reform," the monitor wrote in his latest report, issued Thursday. "While the Department has always struggled to provide a fulsome accounting of the jails' operations, in previous years, the problems appeared to stem from a lack of skill in assessing practice and compiling and analyzing information, rather than from deliberate attempts to interfere and obfuscate that characterize Defendants' more recent interactions with the Monitoring Team."

The latest instance of jail officials' weaselry to catch the monitor's attention is a restrictive housing unit that the DOC hastily opened on Rikers November 13, which the DOC began locking prisoners in without telling the monitor—telling the monitor, in fact, that while there were early-stage plans for such a unit, they were a long way from realization and Correction officials would consult with the monitor before putting anything in place. 

According to Martin, the unit, termed the "Arson Reduction Housing Unit," was created on short notice with minimal planning. "The unit’s operation guide, subsequently provided by the Department, is poorly written, haphazard, vague, and ambiguous," the monitor wrote. "The criteria for admission to the ARHU are unclear." Moreover, he noted, the ARHU might restrict the due process rights of the people jail officials were housing there. His report found that such was the thorough consideration that went into this unit that one of the guards assigned to it had been kicked off the department's ultra-violent Emergency Services Unit twice for being too violent.

Martin only found out about the creation of the ARHU because the day after it opened, he got an anonymous tip about it. After he asked jail officials what was going on, they immediately shuttered the unit, saying they were doing so because the monitor was mad about it. Later, in court filings, the DOC changed its story, claiming that actually it had been closed because they'd opened it without it having any fire safety infrastructure in place—itself a remarkable oversight for a unit meant to safely house people suspected of setting fires. 

Called to account for this mess in court at the end of November, Louis Molina evidently decided that it was better to swear that he had no idea the jail system he was overseeing had spun up an entirely new restrictive housing unit with dubiously adequate legal protections for the people held inside than to say that he'd actively deceived a federal judge and the monitor. In Molina's version of events, his senior deputy commissioner, Charles Daniels, launched the unit without Molina's knowledge. Besides, Adams administration lawyers argued, the court order requiring them to keep the monitor abreast of plans for special housing units isn't that clear. 

Wait, you might be asking yourself right now—what was Molina still doing as DOC head at the end of November? The Adams administration announced more than a month ago that Molina would be getting promoted to a position in City Hall, with a start date sometime in mid-November. But Molina told the court that he's still Correction Commissioner and he doesn't know of any search for a replacement. As far as the monitor can tell, after announcing that Molina would be getting a new job, the Adams administration and the Department of Correction haven't said anything to jails staff about when he's leaving or what plans are in place to lead the department when he does. "This has infused both speculation and confusion in an agency that is already struggling with adequate management and leadership," Martin wrote. (Asked about what's going on with Molina's promotion Friday, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Phil Banks III said only that "in pretty short order the mayor will be making an announcement in regards to that.")

The upshot, the monitor concluded, is that the City has proven a completely unreliable partner in the legal effort to make its jails conform to the baseline standards of the U.S. Constitution. "Sustained and chronic institutional resistance and recalcitrance toward court ordered reform is an insurmountable impediment to any Monitorship," Martin writes, in language that can only make it easier for Judge Laura Taylor Swain to decide that nothing short of a court takeover of the jail system can lead to a fix. "Defendant’s current approach to managing the Nunez Court Orders undermines progress toward reform." 

The monitor isn't the only one smoothing the way for court-ordered receivership. A newly filed lawsuit brought by the former DOC associate deputy commissioner of investigations paints a detailed and damning picture of Molina's efforts to hobble the DOC's internal accountability mechanisms, illegally obstruct the City's own Department of Investigation, and undermine the court monitor. According to the lawsuit, Molina, in ordered his team to "find a way to replace or remove Steve Martin as the Federal Monitor."

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)

Meanwhile, a host of organizations and experts are now asking the court for permission to file friend-of-the-court briefs supporting a court takeover. This list includes New York Attorney General Letitia James, former jails oversight officials, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and a host of public defender organizations.

"The DOC is unable to maintain a safe and secure environment for people in its custody," the Attorney General's office wrote in a letter dated December 1, citing the AG's own investigations into multiple deaths on Rikers that found guards failing to make their required rounds and lying about it. "Despite years of oversight by a federal monitor and scrutiny by the press, oversight agencies, and elected officials, New York City jails remain dangerously unsafe."

Also on December 1, Liz Glazer, the former head of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice under Bill de Blasio; Martha King, the former director of the Board of Correction; and Sarena Townsend, the former head of investigations for DOC, filed a proposed amicus brief in support of a federal receiver. They argued that receivership has three key features that are necessary to reform the City's jails: A receiver will stay on the job across mayoral administrations; a receiver is not beholden to political considerations; and a receiver will be legally empowered to restructure contracts, like those of the guards' unions, that make reforms difficult. 

As the likelihood of a court-appointed receiver taking over the City jails increases, the question of how such a receivership would affect the City's legally mandated commitment to close Rikers for good in 2027 becomes more salient. In its proposed brief, the New York Civil Liberties Union offers an answer: Receivership and the closure of Rikers play well together. Closing Rikers depends on reversing the trend of increased jail populations under the Adams administration and instead reducing the jail population, a goal the court's monitor has already identified as necessary if the City's jails are to be reformed. "The ultimate resolution for the dangerous and unconstitutional conditions at Rikers Island is the closure of its jails, and compliance with the timeline for closure by August 31, 2027, aligns with the reform goals of an independent receivership in this case," NYCLU argued. 

After years of obfuscation and secrecy around conditions on Rikers, a court-appointed receiver offers an opportunity to make what happens in NYC jails more transparent, NYCLU noted. A receiver should regularly publish "information and databases on misconduct complaints, investigations, disciplinary proceedings and outcomes, and all uses of force."

The Legal Aid Society is already a party to the lawsuit and will be the prime mover in court arguments for a receivership. But the city's other public defender organizations—the Bronx Defenders, Brooklyn Defender Services, Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, New York County Defender Services, and the Queens Defenders—have now filed their own proposed brief in favor of receivership as well, highlighting stories of the violence suffered by their clients because of the City's unwillingness to take steps to reduce violence in its jails.  

In one instance highlighted in that brief, guards threw one man to the ground while he was handcuffed and beat him about the head because he asked them a question. A few months later, it happened again. Now, they wrote, he has nightmares and is so nervous around guards that he won't take food or water from them. Another man was in an intake cage on Rikers when guards made him squat naked while they made sexual comments about him. When he was finally stood from his squat they pepper-sprayed him, cut his leg, causing him to bleed, and shackled him in a shower for hours before finally letting him see a doctor for his wounds; afterwards, they put him in what amounted to solitary confinement without so much as a disciplinary hearing.

Another man was handcuffed and then tackled to the floor, breaking a tooth, as guards began to search his cell. Guards kneeled on his back and sprayed pepper spray into his eyes and nose at close range. The search of his cell didn't turn up any contraband. 

The accounts go on: Men with asthma locked in spaces as guards saturate the air with pepper spray; a man beaten and stabbed so badly his lung collapsed after guards put the word out about the charges he was facing; and men and women carrying lasting trauma from what they have witnessed and endured in custody. 

"These grave harms are felt primarily by people detained pretrial," the defender organizations conclude in their proposed brief, "most of whom simply cannot afford bail and are presumed innocent as they await trial."

It is a state of affairs that has existed on Rikers for many years now, and, barring dramatic changes, is likely to persist for many more. The next hearing before Judge Swain is scheduled for December 14. Arguments for and against receivership won't be fully briefed until the middle of February.

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