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The Way Forward for Rikers Island: Receivership

The alternative is more needless human suffering — and even death — at the New York City jail.

Last Updated: January 4, 2022
Published: January 4, 2022

This article first appeared in the New York Daily News.

It has been more than six years since Kalief Browder killed himself. His suicide galvan­ized the public, the press, activ­ists, experts, advoc­ates, politi­cians and others to demand the clos­ure of Rikers Island, perman­ently, no more reforms. The jails’ prob­lems and suffer­ing they caused were too enorm­ous to fix. Yet the jails continue to oper­ate, trap­ping thou­sands who’ve been convicted of no crime in horrendous condi­tions which have deteri­or­ated with COVID-19. Indeed, the jail system is setting a record in 2021: the highest in-custody death toll since 2013, now at 16.

This extraordin­ary moment calls for someone else to be put in charge, an extraordin­ary inter­ven­tion known as a receiv­er­ship. The polit­ical process — includ­ing and espe­cially court orders direc­ted at govern­ment offi­cials — has failed. For six years, federal Judge Laura T. Swain has attemp­ted through vari­ous means, includ­ing court order and appoint­ment of a monitor, to marshal New York City to undo the scan­dal­ously uncon­sti­tu­tional condi­tions on Rikers. And for six years at nearly every turn, the city has not complied with the judi­cial mandates. 

Mayor-elect Eric Adams, it’s true, has pledged to shut down Rikers for good; so too has the City Coun­cil. But that pledge (if it comes true) will take several years to mater­i­al­ize. What of the people who are subject to the revolt­ing condi­tions until then?

Receiv­er­ships are designed for situ­ations like this. When a local or state govern­ment proves unable or unwill­ing to improve a distressed public insti­tu­tion that has long defied federal law, a federal court can take the troubled entity out of the govern­ment’s hands and appoint a “receiver” — a nonpar­tisan expert — to assume direct control, with an eye towards reform.

Receiv­ers inherit complex, intract­able prob­lems. Which is why judges grant them wide latit­ude to fash­ion solu­tions. Receiv­ers can fire and hire person­nel (often the only way to elim­in­ate entrenched dysfunc­tion that new jails alone can’t address). And they set and control their own budgets, based on what’s needed. That free­dom from bureau­cratic morass is partly why receiv­ers, answer­able only to the court, usually make progress where agen­cies simply can’t. After a receiver brings an insti­tu­tion up to consti­tu­tional snuff, control returns to the state or local­ity.

To take an example, for decades, high suicide rates, wide­spread tuber­cu­losis, and repre­hens­ible AIDS treat­ment besieged the District of Columbia Jail. And for more than 20 years, federal Judge William B. Bryant tried through court orders to improve circum­stances.

But he failed. D.C. lead­ers disreg­arded his orders. The offi­cials, to Bryant’s mind, just “d[id]n’t give a damn.” So believ­ing he had no choice, in July 1995, he ordered the jail’s medical and psychi­at­ric system into a receiv­er­ship.

Bryant gave the receiver — Dr. Ronald Shansky, a former medical jail director of Cook County, Ill. — sweep­ing powers, the same as those possessed by the mayor, jail director and other muni­cipal offi­cials. Shansky at the outset had a robust, detailed blue­print for better­ing the jail. And under­stand­ing that court involve­ment of this stag­ger­ing vari­ety could­n’t last indef­in­itely, Bryant set the receiv­er­ship to expire after five years.

This was strong medi­cine, yes, but five years delivered some rock-solid improve­ments. Suicides stopped. Tuber­cu­losis was controlled. And new medical staff and equip­ment were saving lives.

D.C. isn’t alone. Since the 1970s, judges have resor­ted to receiv­er­ships to pull some of the nation’s worst-of-the-worst pris­ons and jails in line with the Consti­tu­tion. After six years of noncom­pli­ance with his orders, federal Judge Frank M. John­son Jr. in 1976 ordered a receiver for Alabama’s entire prison system, and despite some initial resist­ance, 13 years later, the pris­ons showed remark­able enhance­ments in secur­ity, health care and educa­tion. And back in 1989 in Michigan, state Judge Richard Kauf­man placed Wayne County’s jail into a receiv­er­ship, which remedied unsan­it­ary condi­tions, improved food and discharged incom­pet­ent lead­er­ship.

Rikers is ripe for a receiv­er­ship. Without more aggress­ive judi­cial treat­ment, if history is any guide, offi­cials will keep flout­ing court direct­ives. That will keep caus­ing need­less human suffer­ing, even death.

To be sure, a receiv­er­ship won’t cure every ill, and once its stric­tures come off, the muni­cip­al­ity might well back­slide. So, for instance, although Shansky made admir­able progress, the same degree of dignity-shat­ter­ing deprav­ity that once beset the D.C. Jail has since returned with spec­tac­u­lar vengeance (though today’s prob­lems are differ­ent). And last year, the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice sued Alabama for myriad uncon­sti­tu­tional prison condi­tions.

But the point of a receiv­er­ship isn’t to cure everything. It is a tour­ni­quet for flag­rant consti­tu­tional abuse when all other solu­tions have fallen short. And when receiv­er­ships stop insti­tu­tional bleed­ing, it’s ulti­mately up to us, the people — work­ing through our polit­ical repres­ent­at­ives — to never again permit unabated cruelty to carry the day in our names.