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Federal Prosecutor Urges Court Takeover of NYC’s Rikers Island Jail

After eight years of struggling to improve deadly conditions behind bars, the city may lose control to an outside authority appointed by a federal judge.

July 18, 2023

Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor has lost faith that New York City can or will follow the law and protect the lives, safety, and well-being of people in its jails. To remedy this problem, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams is urging a federal judge to seize control of the troubled city jails through a process called receivership. That would strip Mayor Eric Adams of the power to run Rikers Island and require the judge to appoint an outside expert known as a “receiver” to temporarily manage the jails in hopes of improving conditions.

In 2015, to avoid a lengthy and costly trial in federal court, New York City conceded that its jails were so violent and dangerous that they violated the Constitution. As part of the historic agreement in that case, city leaders agreed to obey court orders mandating the implementation of a litany of far-reaching reforms to stem stunningly high levels of violence. The agreement also tasked a court-selected monitor with tracking the city’s progress in improving conditions.

But eight years later, conditions have barely improved — in many instances, they’ve worsened — nor have they become any less unconstitutional. The city’s jails have been mired in dysfunction for decades. Their problems are many, including crumbling infrastructure, severe overcrowding, and a corrections officer union that makes it hard to hold officers accountable for palpable misconduct. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, all these issues came to a head, leading to an explosion of violence and self-harm.

Last year, 19 people died in the city jails or just after their release — the deadliest year in almost a decade. Six more have died this year, with three deaths this month alone. As confirmed by the monitor’s latest report, the jails remain “dangerous and unsafe, characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff.”

Receiverships are essentially a vote of no confidence in the government’s capacity or willingness to comply with court orders designed to improve conditions behind bars. These transfers of control are extraordinary. Federal and state judges have imposed receiverships or approved similar transfers of control only 12 times in U.S. history, seeking to remake prison and jail conditions in states as diverse as California, Michigan, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

Receiverships for prisons and jails can be effective but are no panacea. Where they tend to see the most success is in renovating and constructing new physical facilities, increasing and professionalizing staff, adopting new policies and procedures, and improving recordkeeping and classification systems. Receiverships also often provide access to funding from legislatures that was otherwise unavailable for political reasons. What’s trickier to determine is whether a receivership can address some of the most ingrained, perplexing problems that a prison or jail may face, like a “deep-seated culture of violence,” impunity, and abuse, which often have complex and interlocking root causes.

Before deciding whether to appoint a federal receiver, both years of court precedents and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, a 1996 law that hobbled prisoner rights litigation, require judges to consider several factors. These factors include the risk of harm detainees face, whether there are less extreme alternatives (like fines) that could improve conditions, and whether the city has adequate leadership to turn the tide.

The Adams administration has long made clear its opposition to any sort of court takeover. Its main argument, which it debuted during the last federal court hearing, will likely be that stripping a democratically elected mayor and his appointed corrections commissioner of the power to run the city jails — and vesting that power in an unelected and unaccountable federal court — would be undemocratic.

To be sure, that argument at first blush holds some appeal. The United States traditionally charges state and local government officials with running prisons and jails, and with good reason. For one thing, elected and appointed political leaders typically have access to the expertise and resources it takes to manage prisons and jails. Federal judges don’t. And for another, Mayor Adams and Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina can be held accountable at the ballot box if the public doesn’t like how they’re running Rikers. Federal judges can’t.

But consider the reason that a federal judge would appoint a receiver: multiple New York mayoral administrations have effectively outsourced to the courts the task of running the city’s jails and treating the people there with basic human dignity. It’s hard to think of a more flagrant dishonoring of democracy.