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It’s Thursday, and Rikers Has Another Day in Court

Let’s find out if a judge thinks that a jail that has taken the lives of eighteen people this year needs more time.

9:49 AM EST on November 17, 2022

Rikers Island and the Flushing Bay. (Hell Gate)

Today in federal court, lawyers representing Mayor Eric Adams will argue that a jail that has taken the lives of eighteen people this year, where violence has run rampant in the face of a coordinated “sick-out” by Corrections officers (the very same officers who smuggle in drugs and harass visitors), is actually improving. 

In May, U.S. District Court judge Laura Taylor Swain gave the Adams administration more time to make Rikers safer, and to avoid federal receivership, as the Department of Justice was urging. Today, twelve more deaths in custody later, Swain is set to check in on how things are going, and possibly revisit federal control of the island. Federal receivership wouldn’t hand over control of Rikers Island to the federal government’s Bureau of Prisons, which has an equally loose understanding of the Eighth Amendment, but instead allow federal administrators to loosen the grip of the Corrections Officers union, and make swift changes to policies that the city has been dragging its feet on (the feds could also order a rapid depopulation of the jail, which has seen its detainee numbers rise under the Adams administration). 

All eyes today will be on Steve J. Martin, the federal monitor charged with reporting on conditions on the island and making safety recommendations following a settlement between the city and the DOJ seven years ago. Martin’s whole job was to make sure Rikers was getting safer, even as city officials worked on eventually closing the jail. That isn’t what happened—as WNYC/Gothamist’s Matt Katz reports:

“The city jails system is actually far deadlier and more dangerous than it was in the fiscal year before Martin arrived: The rate of fights and assaults per detainee has nearly doubled, according to annual reports from the mayor’s office. A person in custody is seven times more likely to be seriously injured by another detainee. Staff are almost twice as likely to be assaulted. And slashings and stabbings have increased each of the last four years.”

At the same time as the island was descending further into a Dante-esque hellscape, the city has paid the federal monitor $18 million—to do what exactly? 

The Legal Aid Society, the city’s Comptroller, City Council members, and the city’s last Department of Corrections commissioner are all calling for federal receivership of the city’s notorious jail facility. It presents a drastic step—but what has this drawn-out judicial process yielded besides more deaths?

Some links for the free and the caged alike: 

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