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Locked Up

Rikers So Broken Even the Monitor Whose Job Is to Know How Broken It Is Now Says He Has No Idea

In a new report, the court monitor overseeing NYC jails calls the Adams administration's resistance to reform an "insurmountable impediment."

Rikers Island (Martin Lewison / Flickr)

If you were wondering if things were getting any better in the island dungeons where New Yorkers lock the people awaiting their day in court, a new report released this week by the federal monitor overseeing Rikers makes it very clear that the answer is no, they are getting even worse.

The report describes a jail system falling apart in front of his eyes, so hobbled by its leadership's incompetence, feudal territorialism, short attention spans, secrecy, and mendacious deceptions that it is completely incapable of making even minor reforms that last for more than the blink of an eye.

"Instead of a reform trajectory characterized by incremental progress, the Department’s path has recently been dominated by deteriorating practices, failures to utilize policies and procedures that had previously been in place, and the inability to effectively implement the few new strategies that have been developed," the monitor writes in his report. "Sustained and chronic institutional resistance and recalcitrance toward court ordered reform is an insurmountable impediment."

The jail system to which New York City judges remand people every day is fundamentally unable to keep the people in its custody safe from grievous physical violence. Stabbings and slashings are up again over the past three months. "People in custody and staff in the jails continue to face a grave risk of harm on a daily basis," the monitor writes. "High rates of violence, high use of force rates, the continued prevalence of excessive and unnecessary force, and apathetic and slipshod security practices frequently produce chaos, trauma, injuries and in some cases, death."

If you ask Mayor Eric Adams and his handpicked Correction Commissioner, Louis Molina, Rikers under their care is a success story. Adams recently announced that Molina is being promoted to City Hall. But there's no transition plan for who will replace Molina at the Department of Correction, the monitor reports, "which has injected additional uncertainty into a system already roiling in chaos."

The jails under Adams have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis and expanded it into an empirical crisis, the monitor writes: Jail officials reporting of what is actually happening behind the walls of its jails is so slipshod, incomplete, inaccurate, and, frequently, intended to deceive and conceal, that the monitor can't even speak confidently anymore about how terrible things are inside. 

It's so bad that the monitor announced he is retroactively withdrawing all his recent estimates of the amount of slashings and stabbings to which people in custody have been subjected, because the Adams administration cannot be relied upon to accurately report them.

"On this present trajectory, the current state of affairs will continue, and likely worsen," the monitor writes. The report makes it ever more likely that the Adams administration will lose control of New York City's jail system entirely, as the federal judge to whom the monitor reports will soon consider arguments over whether to appoint a receiver to take the jails over. The legal standard for doing so is high—the judge must effectively decide that nothing short of a takeover can bring the jails into compliance with the law. But with her monitor declaring more urgently with each new report that New York City cannot be trusted to make even the most basic reforms to its jails, it is getting easier and easier for her to reach that conclusion.

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