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Locked Up

In Court, Rikers Officials Play For Time and Win Again

A federal judge held the Adams Administration in contempt of court for ignoring her orders on Rikers, then granted the City a two-month extension.

2:11 PM EST on December 15, 2023

A shot of the sign in front of Rikers Island.
(Hell Gate)

A federal judge excoriated NYC jail officials Thursday for their "lack of any sense of urgency" to make Rikers less dangerous for people held there. Then she gave jails officials an extension on a filing deadline, pushing back the next hearing on what to do about the department's intransigence to the middle of next year.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain also held the Adams administration and its Department of Correction in contempt of court Thursday, finding that jails officials had violated multiple court orders when they hastily established a new "arson reduction housing unit" on Rikers while assuring the court's monitor that any such unit was still in the early planning stages.

"The department's blatant failure to communicate here is unacceptable and in a word, contemptuous," said Swain, calling it "just one example that exemplifies a more general sustained pattern of the department's non-cooperation with the court-appointed monitor in violation of unequivocal court orders."

But in a pattern that has come to characterize the years-long legal proceedings surrounding the unconstitutional levels of violence in New York City's jails, the measures Swain told the City it must satisfy to get out from under the contempt finding overlap considerably with orders she has already given, and which the City has yet to comply with.

And while acknowledging the urgency of improving conditions on Rikers, Swain nevertheless acceded to a City request to delay legal arguments over whether to take the jails out of City control by a full two months. Lawyers for the Adams administration had argued that Adams's appointment of a new Correction commissioner, Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, should entitle the City to extra time so that Maginley-Liddie, who has spent nearly a decade as a lawyer and executive at the Department of Correction, can shape the direction of the City's arguments against receivership.

Maginley-Liddie, the newly appointed jails commissioner, addressed the court, promising that a new era of cooperation with the judge and her monitor was beginning. "Be assured there are plans underway to address violence and security issues," she told Swain.

Maginley-Liddie also praised Rikers staff. "Being a correction officer is one of the most difficult jobs in law enforcement," she told Swain. "Their passion for their work will be the vehicle for progressive and enduring change." 

The appointment of Maginley-Liddie represents the second time that the Adams administration has asked the court to reset the clock on the basis of new personnel. It made the same arguments for a clean slate and greater forbearance when Maginley-Liddie's predecessor Louis Molina was appointed. Molina, whose "exceptional leadership and dedication" Mayor Eric Adams continues to praise, is now Maginley-Liddie's supervisor, having been promoted recently to assistant deputy mayor for public safety.

Molina, whose leadership of the department over nearly two years included the deaths of 28 people in custody and the cultivation of a regime of secrecy and obfuscation that cratered relations with the court-appointed monitor to the point that a federal takeover is now a real possibility, managed on Thursday to somehow sprinkle in even more disorder and frustration. 

In a last-minute letter to the court, City lawyers informed the judge that Molina, whose attendance was expected, actually had a long-scheduled family commitment elsewhere, and so would need to attend the hearing virtually. As all the other parties sat in the courtroom, Molina's doleful visage loomed on a monitor, a low camera angle giving him the aspect of an Easter Island monolith. Molina's audio wasn't working, however, and so the monitor's presentation was interrupted for 15 minutes to address the problem. 

Proceedings were interrupted again when the judge invited Molina to explain why she shouldn't find his erstwhile department in contempt, and Molina couldn't be heard. When he finally addressed the court, via a City lawyer's cell phone held up to a microphone, Molina filibustered by giving a broad and generous assessment of his leadership. "​​I found myself committed to being a very action-oriented commissioner," he said. "I'd also like to share that I found myself—I believe, and I hope that this may come out at some point—very, very transparent on a whole host of a number of issues."

The judge finally interrupted Molina, and asked him to specifically respond to the matter at hand—his department's evident violation of multiple court orders in its hurried and secretive establishment of the new jail unit. "I felt that I personally, and my team, communicated with the monitor a great deal," Molina responded. "I'll leave it at that."

Given their chance to speak, lawyers for people held on Rikers urged the judge to hold the Adams administration in contempt. "This court's orders must matter," said Kayla Simpson of the Legal Aid Society. "They must hold weight. And we must break the cycle where the City's noncompliance with court orders, prompts further orders which are then ignored, and so on."

City lawyers representing the Department of Correction—including Corporation Council Sylvia Hinds-Radix, who attended the hearing personally—sought repeatedly to slow proceedings down. After requesting a 10-minute recess to confer over their position on the judge's intention to hold the City in contempt and her list of proposed remedies, the City emerged to ask if they could actually respond in writing, later.

Swain wasn't having that, and held the City in contempt on the spot. If it wants to stop being in contempt of court, Swain explained, the City will have to give a promotion to the DOC employee tasked with ensuring compliance with her orders, tell everyone who works at DOC that they're required to cooperate with the court monitor, and finally, develop a set of metrics for tracking violence that she had already ordered DOC to create by last September, but which isn't yet in place. 

If the City isn't in compliance with the conditions by February 16, Swain said, she would consider instituting a fine on the order of thousands of dollars a day.

As the hearing dragged into its third hour, Judge Swain painstakingly calculated the cascading delays that follow from the extension she was granting the City, which will push the next hearing on how to adjudicate the motion for receivership until mid-May of next year.

Some in the gallery began to leave. One woman called out into the courtroom as she left, her words hanging in the air as the door swung closed behind her.

"People are dying," she said.

If Judge Swain heard the outburst, she gave no sign of it.

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