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Locked Up

Federal Government: It’s Time to Take NYC’s Jails Out of Eric Adams’s Control

The long-expected filing comes as both a federal monitor and prosecutors have lost all faith in Eric Adams to manage the city's jails.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams tours facilities on Rikers Island on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams tours facilities on Rikers Island on Wednesday, June 22, 2022. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

In 2015, the federal government settled a lawsuit with New York City, entering into a consent decree that included a court-appointed monitor to oversee Rikers Island and make sure the City was taking steps to end the systemic brutality and routine civil rights violations seen in New York City's jail system. Eight years later, federal prosecutors have finally admitted in court that this has not worked, and have asked a judge to take control of Rikers Island away from the City of New York.

In a letter filed in support of federal receivership on Friday, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Southern District of New York wrote that the Adams administration has been "unable or unwilling to implement the sweeping institutional reforms necessary to address the pervasive culture of violence in the jails and remedy the ongoing violation of the constitutional rights of people in custody."

For years, the federal judge overseeing New York City's compliance with the terms of the settlement, Judge Laura Taylor Swain, has resisted even entertaining the idea of a court-appointed receivership, where the federal government would take over the City's jail system, giving it tremendous power to shape policies, staffing, and conditions on Rikers. (The settlement stemmed from an original lawsuit launched by detainees being held on Rikers against the city of New York, which was then joined by federal prosecutors.) In recent weeks, even after giving months-long delays to allow the Adams administration to get its act together, the monitor appointed by Swain to oversee conditions has essentially thrown up his hands, writing in a report earlier this month that "sustained and chronic institutional resistance and recalcitrance toward court ordered reform is an insurmountable impediment" to any progress on the island. 

Since Eric Adams came into office in January 2022, 28 incarcerated people have died while in custody or immediately after being released from City jails. Currently, there is no individual leading the Department of Correction, after Adams promoted Louis Molina to a job in City Hall last month. (The Adams administration said they would name a replacement by mid-November, but that hasn't happened.) Molina lasted just short of two years in the position, years that were marked by misdirection, excuses, and outright refusal to fully comply with requests for data made by the federal monitor, with what the monitor described as “persistent non-compliance” on following through on internal investigations into misconduct on Rikers. 

The letter from prosecutors comes in support of a filing from lawyers representing detainees, detailing a recurring cycle for City jails in which successive mayoral administrations begin pilot programs and stopgap measures to try to reduce violence, only to abandon these initiatives without informing the court. "The ongoing patterns of starting and stopping various near-identical initiatives, failing to properly implement plans, regressing in areas where progress was once made, and failing to effectively deploy valuable resources such as DOC’s large staff, drain all of the actors involved and leave DOC unable to achieve necessary changes," the lawyers for the detainees wrote. 

In a statement to the New York Times, the City's law department said it had made progress on Rikers in recent months, a claim the court's monitor undercut in his report earlier this month. 

Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's office asked the court not to kick the can further down the road, and to begin hearings regarding a federal takeover immediately. 

"Additional Court orders—or further admonishments from the Court directing Defendants to act more urgently or engage more productively with the Monitoring Team—would be futile," they wrote.

But of course, nothing with this case has been done with life-or-death urgency, which federal prosecutors, lawyers for incarcerated people, and the court's own monitor all believe to be the case for detainees on Rikers. Written arguments are expected to stretch into 2024, with a final decision not likely until next spring or beyond. 

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