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Locked Up

Ahead of Crucial Hearing, Rikers Monitor Says Adams Administration’s Jail Reforms Are ‘Haphazard, Tepid and Insubstantial’

The report will likely strengthen calls to take the jails out of the City's control.

3:22 PM EDT on August 7, 2023

(Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)

A new report from the federal court monitor overseeing efforts to reduce violence in New York City jails adds to the growing momentum of calls to take the jails out of City control.

The report will be central in steering a court hearing scheduled for Thursday, at which Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the Southern District of New York will consider whether to allow lawyers for people held on Rikers Island to ask for the jails to be put under the control of a court-appointed receiver.

The Adams administration, its jail officials, and its lawyers have been arguing for more than a year that such a step is unnecessary, and that the City is perfectly capable of running its own jails, but the monitor's report pours cold water on those assertions, noting that even in the weeks since the court ordered jail officials to present a plan to address the serious problems identified in recent monitor's reports, "little progress has been evident."

The Adams administration has long sought to forestall a court takeover by arguing that the crisis on Rikers has been years in the making, predating the current administration by decades, and that reversing the long slide into crisis will take time. That's true, the monitor acknowledges, but it "cannot be used as a defense or excuse for continued poor performance."

Essentially, the monitor reports in language that will give fuel to the people arguing that a more drastic court intervention is necessary, City officials seem either incapable or unwilling, even in the face of direct court orders, to take the crisis on Rikers seriously. "The Department’s current pace is not commensurate with the ongoing and serious level of harm occurring in the jails," the monitor writes. "Given the gravity of the current conditions, the Monitoring Team has not yet observed evidence of the necessary change in perspective regarding either the severity of the problems that must be addressed or a sense of urgency to identify and implement concrete solutions."

After the monitor's last report, the court ordered the Correction Department to come up with specific plans showing how it would fix the ongoing problems identified in the report. Those plans have been submitted, and, in the monitor's assessment, they're no good. "Few appear to contain an adequate level of detail, substance or intensity," he writes. Most of the plans submitted by jails officials "merely focus on revising policy, reading teletypes at roll call (which, notably, not all staff attend) or reiterating existing practices or trainings."

If the Adams administration was hoping that its plans might mollify the monitor and reassure the court that the City is capable of running a jail system, the report dashes those hopes. "The Department’s efforts over the last few weeks have been haphazard, tepid, and insubstantial," the monitor writes. In the few weeks since that last report, two more people have died, bringing the total number of deaths of people held in city jails this year to seven.

Meanwhile, the chaos of a poorly-run jail presided over by ineffective leadership and badly trained guards continues to spiral out. The monitor's report describes an episode from July in which cameras captured a gang of incarcerated people rushing into a man's cell as a guard looked on, making no move to intervene or even call for help. For minutes, the man was attacked and kicked in the head as the guard did nothing. Afterwards, the man was seen leaving his cell with a battered, swollen face, his shirt torn and covered in blood. A medical visit found that he was concussed and had a broken nose.

The monitor has long been concerned that jail leadership is promoting deputy wardens who are clearly unsuitable for the job. One of the recently promoted deputy wardens that the monitor had expressed concern about recently decided to stage a hostage drill, the monitor reports, enlisting incarcerated people to take part by blocking the view of facility cameras. Other jail staff knew nothing of the drill, however, and, concerned about what was going on, tried to force their way into the unit, using pepper spray. According to video, the monitor says, "The [jail managers] who had orchestrated the 'drill' appeared to smile and laugh in response."

Jail officials are still trying to hide the ball when it comes to transparency with the court, the monitor writes. They told the monitor on May 30 that there is no written policy on guards' use of force against incarcerated people who refuse to leave their cells for court appearances. In fact, the monitor has since learned, a written policy had been distributed just two weeks earlier. Jail officials told the monitor that guards only use "soft hand techniques" to force people out of their cells for court dates. The written policy contradicts that.

That's not the only recent instance in which the monitor says jails officials provided him with information that was revealed to be false when he continued to dig. When it was reported that the Department of Correction was buying 30 submachine guns, the monitor asked why. Jail officials answered that the weapons were for exclusive use by specialized Emergency Service Unit teams "should there be an issue at the airport." On further digging, the monitor writes, it became clear that's not the case. The new weapons are simply classified as "service long arms" under the Department's Firearms Directive, which places no restrictions on when and where such weapons can be used.

The Adams administration is continuing to try to keep information about what's happening in the jails from the monitor to allow "Department leadership to control the narrative of the current state of affairs," the monitor writes, calling this M.O. "the antithesis of advancing reform."

The problem with the Adams administration's approach to Rikers, the monitor concludes, is that it doesn't want to give up control of the jails, but neither does it appear to want to take responsibility for them. "The City and Department are the actors responsible for operating the jails and, notably, who continue to insist that they are best positioned to do so. This claim stands in stark contrast to their defensiveness regarding certain practices and lack of resourcefulness when asked to devise concrete, specific solutions to address the problems identified by the Monitoring Team and to meet their responsibilities to operate safe, secure jails."

Coming as it does from the eyes and ears of the court, this assessment will make it more difficult for the Adams administration to convince the judge to simply give it more time to improve conditions on Rikers. 

Lawyers for people held in City jails, joined by federal prosecutors for the Southern District of New York, want to schedule arguments to take the jails out of City control. Under their proposed schedule, they would file their arguments by November 17. The City would have until January 16 to file their counterarguments, and a response to those counterarguments would be due by February 15, at which point the judge would decide how to proceed.

Whether this schedule will be adopted, and, indeed, whether the court is prepared to consider taking New York City's jails out of city control to protect the constitutional rights of the people being held inside them will likely be revealed in court on Thursday.

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