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Locked Up

The Rikers Monitor Is Finally Fed Up With the Adams Administration

"Real harm is occurring to real people in real time," the monitor reminds everyone.

Rikers Island (Martin Lewison / Flickr)

The federal monitor in charge of oversight of New York City's jails has well and truly lost his patience with the intransigence of the Adams administration, calling for the City to be held in contempt of court for jail officials' intransigence in a report filed yesterday.

"The pace of reform has stagnated instead of accelerated in a number of key areas, meaning that there has been no meaningful relief for people in custody or staff from the violence and the unnecessary and excessive use of force," the monitor, Steve Martin, wrote in the blistering 288-page report.

The Adams administration is hardly the first New York City government to preside over a violent, inhumane, and incompetent jail system. As Adams and his jails commissioner, Louis Molina, remind everyone regularly, they inherited a system mired in decades of dysfunction. Administration officials point to "macro" factors like COVID and bail reform to suggest that on Rikers they are grappling with factors beyond their control. But the monitor isn't buying that excuse any more.

"These external factors did not change the City's obligation to provide safe and humane treatment to those within its jails," he writes. "The constitutional minimum that must be afforded to all incarcerated individuals has remained the same and continues to be the standard by which all reform must be measured."

By that standard, the Adams administration is failing. Statistically, in category after grim category, conditions on Rikers Island are even worse than they were nearly eight years ago, when New York City conceded that its jails were so violent and dangerous that they violated the U.S. Constitution and agreed to enter into the consent decree through which the monitor was appointed. 

The rate at which guards use force against people in custody is up 131 percent from eight years ago. The number of people who sustained "serious injuries" as a result of those uses of force last year was nearly six times greater than it was in 2016. The monthly rate of stabbings and slashings is 243 percent higher than it was at the start of the Consent Judgment. Assaults on staff are 39 percent higher. Fights are 58 percent higher. 

And while Department policy says guards should only hit people in the head to stave off the threat of death or serious bodily injury, guards continue to use head strikes all the time, 400 times last year, roughly eight times the rate of the Los Angeles jails, which have a higher population.

These numbers and the levels of violence they indicate "are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal," the monitor writes. But the monitor has also uncovered a pattern of misreporting, underreporting, and covering up incidents of violence that means even these grim numbers likely underestimate what is really happening in City jails. 

The monitor's team has identified at least five incidents this year in which people were stabbed or slashed, but which were not written up as stabbings and slashings, suggesting that the department's index of stabbing and slashing rates, already alarmingly high, could well be a severe undercount.

In another incident, on March 3 at a Brooklyn courthouse, a man in handcuffs and leg shackles refused to go into a holding pen, standing in the doorway. A guard held him a choke-hold from behind, slamming him to the floor and proceeding to punch him repeatedly in the head. Afterwards, according to video of the incident, the monitor says, "one officer can be repeatedly heard saying 'Good job.'" In their incident reports afterwards, none of the guards reported the chokehold, and none mentioned the head blows except one guard, who said he'd been aiming for the man's torso.

"Staffs' failure to adhere to reporting requirements for even the most serious events calls into question the overall veracity of reporting and commitment to transparency within the agency," the monitor writes.

The Department of Correction referred a request for comment to City Hall. "We take our obligation to keep people in our charge very seriously and remain committed to continued reform and working with the monitor," a City Hall spokesperson wrote. "While we are still reviewing this recently released report, we are prepared to fully defend against any contempt motion and the record will reflect the important and necessary steps New York City has taken to make continued progress."

It's not just that the Adams administration is failing to make the jails safe, the monitor's report makes clear—it's that in significant ways, it doesn't appear to be trying. The report describes a jail leadership that is not interested in data as a tool for improvement, but as a tool for propaganda.

"In the past year, the Department’s approach to using data devolved into one that appears to prioritize simply identifying discrete metrics and numbers to pinpoint areas of 'progress,'" the monitor writes. "With limited exceptions, Department leadership and staff simply state that numbers are 'trending down.' Such a conclusion, while perhaps serving a useful public relations function, is factually questionable."

Many of the monitor's observations of problems on Rikers blur the line between cruelty and incompetence. Armored emergency teams are increasingly using pepper-spray grenades on housing areas, but frequently rush into the spaces they've just thrown the grenades into before the spray has saturated the area, allowing people to throw the grenades back at them. Guards put people in painful "escort holds" when they transport them, a counterproductive practice the monitor says is likely responsible for so many routine escorts escalating into situations where guards end up using force.

Another key area where Commisioner Molina is failing is in accountability for staff misconduct, the monitor writes. Under the Adams administration, the report says, "investigators’ practices had regressed and substantively changed for the worse." The office responsible for investigating misconduct has been gutted. The number of staff assigned to investigate use of force against people in custody is down by half just since 2020. Investigators are finding fewer instances of staff misconduct, but the monitor writes that that's not because there is less misconduct, but is "instead due to a deterioration in the quality of investigations and the failure to properly identify misconduct when it occurred."

Even when an investigation does result in discipline, it's sometimes reversed by top jails officials for no evident reason.

In April of 2021, when Rebecca Hillman, a Rikers captain, was arrested and charged with negligent homicide for forbidding guards to cut down a man who was hanging himself to death, jail officials suspended Hillman for 28 days without pay. Hillman was convicted, but last year, jail officials rescinded the suspension and paid her back pay.

"The Department’s ability to impose timely and meaningful discipline for use of force related misconduct occurring now has been severely compromised," the monitor writes.

The monitor has not always been so critical of the Adams administration's management of Rikers. The monitor supported its bid to stave off more thoroughgoing reforms last year with the implementation of an "action plan." But the monitor's willingness to go along has come to an end. "An assessment of the totality of the circumstances after eight years of monitoring and after one year of the Action Plan’s implementation is such that the cautious optimism that characterized prior reports and testimony can no longer be maintained," he writes.

The monitor expresses alarm that, especially in the past year, the administration has seemed to normalize a background level of violence, death and suffering on Rikers that is in no way normal. "Real harm is occurring to real people in real time," he writes. "Real people are experiencing real trauma and pain and, in some cases, are suffering irreparable injuries and death."

Reading between the lines of the monitor's report, it seems that his lack of faith in the administration is pegged to a sequence of events in May and June, in which jail officials downplayed several serious injuries suffered by people in custody, neglecting to inform the monitor about them, and when pressed, stonewalling him and misinforming him about them. When the monitor, clearly alarmed, issued a report on the incidents, Adams and Molina responded with leaks and interviews with cooperative media outlets in which they defended guards' use of violence and questioned the motives of the monitor, an impartial agent appointed by a federal court.

The logic behind this media strategy was hard to discern—Adams and Molina appeared to be making a play for public opinion, when the immediate threat to their control of Rikers lay in the monitor and the federal court to which he answers—parties whom it seems these press appearances served only to anger.

Time and again, Molina and the Department of Correction neglect to inform the monitor of important decisions, and then blow him off when he asks for an explanation. In January, Molina promoted 26 staff members to the position of Assistant Deputy Warden. The monitor noted that nearly half of them had been identified by DOC's own process as unsuitable for promotion, and asked for a detailed accounting of why they'd been promoted anyway. Molina answered simply that " it was appropriate to give each individual an opportunity to succeed in their new leadership role."

In another incident, jails officials told the monitor that guards with excessively violent work histories had been removed from a special unit, even though some of them weren't removed at all.

Without consulting the monitor, jail officials authorized guards to use "soft hand force" against incarcerated people who did not wish to be taken from their cells to a court appearance. In May and June, jail officials also instituted a policy allowing one category of people held on Rikers to be shackled in three-point restraints, again without consulting the monitor. They then rescinded the policy because the monitor hadn't been consulted—only to reinstate it this month, again without consulting the monitor. 

In May, Molina told the monitor he would not allow staff to speak to the monitor about a recent use of significant violence by guards, adding that going forward he would not provide the monitor with notification about in-custody deaths. Dragged into federal court to explain himself two weeks later, Molina sang a different tune, telling the judge that he urges his staff to always confer with the monitor for any issue even remotely related to the monitor's mandate. The very next day, the monitor writes, he learned that Molina had gone ahead with a round of promotions and a new training program without so much as notifying him. 

The only hope of getting the Adams administration to recall that it is legally bound to listen to the monitor and to make real improvements in the levels of violence on Rikers, the monitor says, is to begin civil contempt proceedings. This would force the City to speed up its reforms, improve security, listen to the monitor, and give him complete and accurate information—all conditions to which the City is already bound by the terms of the consent agreement.

In the meantime, Rikers remains profoundly unsafe for staff and people in custody alike, so the priority has to be: reverse the recent trend of growing jail populations and get more people off of the island entirely.

"Reducing the jail population is necessary to support the overall reform efforts because it would reduce the number of people exposed to the dangerous conditions in the facilities," the monitor writes. Given the imminent risk of harm to those incarcerated in New York City’s jails, all stakeholders must continue to maximize every possible avenue to reduce the population, by reducing the number of people sent to jail, expeditiously processing court cases, or via release to the community."

But holding the City in contempt of court won't be sufficient to make meaningful change on Rikers, the monitor writes. That will require, in his words, "additional remedial relief." These words will likely add momentum to the push by lawyers for people held on Rikers to take the jail system out of City control entirely by appointing a federal receiver, empowered to cut through many of the legal obstacles and labor contracts that make reform of the jails so difficult. 

It's a dramatic step, and one Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who presides over the case, has resisted even considering until recently. But Swain has scheduled a hearing on the issue for next month, and she may be more open to considering drastic measures having read the monitors dire assessment of the current trajectory: Adams and his top jails officials, the monitor writes, "have repeatedly and consistently demonstrated they are incapable of effectively directing the multilayered and multifaceted reform effort and continuing on the current path is not likely to alter the present course in any meaningful way."

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