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Receiverships for Jails and Prisons, Explained

Since the 1970s, the federal judiciary has used the instrument to root out intractable problems plaguing detention facilities.

Last Updated: May 27, 2022
Published: May 25, 2022

New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island, is in crisis. So far this year, five people have died from causes ranging from suicide to a likely drug over­dose. And a state judge recently held the city’s correc­tion depart­ment in contempt for fail­ing to provide detain­ees with timely medical care.

In April, federal prosec­utors intim­ated more aggress­ive judi­cial treat­ment — namely, a receiv­er­ship — might be neces­sary. The city coun­ters that it has the will, expert­ise, and capa­city to dramat­ic­ally improve the complex. By June 10, the city must submit a revised plan to the court for address­ing the dysfunc­tion and viol­ence at Rikers.

A receiv­er­ship would denote a major devel­op­ment in the decades-long struggle to reform one of Amer­ica’s most infam­ous and expens­ive jail systems.

What is a receiv­er­ship? 

A receiv­er­ship is a legal remedy in lawsuits seek­ing to reform jails and pris­ons. Used when all other tactics have failed, it strips the govern­ment of control and puts a neut­ral, court-appoin­ted expert — the “receiver” — in charge. The Supreme Court has noted that a receiv­er­ship “is not an end in itself” — it’s merely a stop­gap designed to address egre­gious rights viol­a­tions. In cases striv­ing to remake public insti­tu­tions, receiv­er­ship is the most intrus­ive tool in a court’s arsenal, short of outright clos­ure. After a receiv­er­ship brings an insti­tu­tion into compli­ance with the law, the court will return control to the govern­ment.

Judges typic­ally give receiv­ers wide-ranging author­ity such as the power to manage staff, make contracts, access govern­ment records, conduct confid­en­tial inter­views, procure goods, and set budgets.

What is the history of receiv­er­ship? 

Receiv­er­ship is far from new. With origins stretch­ing back to the reign of Queen Eliza­beth I, the mech­an­ism made its debut in Amer­ican juris­pru­dence in the 19th century. It was used early on to protect prop­erty and monet­ary assets and occa­sion­ally to reor­gan­ize corpor­a­tions. But in the 1960s, courts repur­posed the tool to seize control of public school­houses determ­ined to resist the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Educa­tion ruling, which held uncon­sti­tu­tional the segreg­a­tion of school­chil­dren by race.

And it worked. Receiv­er­ships spurred a good deal of school integ­ra­tion, and that success inspired judges to expand the use of the tool to other prob­lem-ridden social insti­tu­tions, like mental health agen­cieschild protec­tion servicespublic hous­ingpris­ons, and jails

How does a correc­tional receiv­er­ship happen?

The road to a correc­tional receiv­er­ship is paved with several steps. After a class of people sue a prison or jail alleging it has viol­ated their rights, a court will often issue an order aiming to force the facil­ity to comply with federal law.

But some­times govern­ments fail. Perhaps a cash-strapped state legis­lature refuses to alloc­ate suffi­cient correc­tions fund­ing to one of its local­it­ies, prevent­ing the oper­a­tion of a consti­tu­tion­ally adequate jail. Or perhaps state offi­cials just think a federal court ill-suited to manage its local affairs. No matter the reason, courts have several tools to encour­age compli­ance, like enlist­ing experts to monitor the facil­ity or hold­ing the govern­ment in contempt.

Only when noncom­pli­ance persists can a court consider receiv­er­ship. A party can request it, or a court on its own can compel the govern­ment to “show cause” why it should­n’t appoint a receiver.

The decision to appoint a receiver is solely within the court’s discre­tion — but that discre­tion isn’t limit­less. Taking a jail or prison away from the govern­ment so that a court can manage it repres­ents a drastic depar­ture from a court’s typical work. For that reason, federal stat­utory law and decades of legal preced­ent require judges to show they’re impos­ing a receiv­er­ship as a last resort. Once a court opts for receiv­er­ship, however, it wields virtu­ally unfettered discre­tion in design­ing it.

Have receiv­er­ships been imposed on jails or pris­ons before?

Yes, but they are rare. Federal and state judges have ordered receiv­er­ships or a similar trans­fer of control for pris­ons and jails only about eight times. Judges have gener­ally placed pris­ons and jails into receiv­er­ship to deal with poor condi­tions caused by chronic over­crowding.

What are the advant­ages and disad­vant­ages of receiv­er­ship?

Receiv­er­ship can bring about some sorely needed improve­ments. A receiv­er­ship unchains a broken insti­tu­tion from fail­ing polit­ical and bureau­cratic systems. For example, a receiv­er­ship can take control of a public hous­ing agency the govern­ment refuses to prop­erly manage or adequately fund. A receiver can act unilat­er­ally and swiftly in ways that a judge and the govern­ment can’t. 

As court officers, receiv­ers are insu­lated from polit­ical pres­sure and can thus act in the best interest of an insti­tu­tion. They can also peti­tion a court to exer­cise its powers to remove obstacles imped­ing legal compli­ance. 

But receiv­er­ship isn’t a panacea; it also carries some risks. Although it displaces the govern­ment from control of a public insti­tu­tion, a receiver typic­ally still depends on legis­latures for fund­ing. A receiv­er­ship could fail if the receiver is a poor fit for the role. For example, a federal judge in Alabama recog­nized that the policy pref­er­ences of the state’s governor might well complic­ate the governor’s abil­ity to serve effect­ively as a receiver — and yet the judge appoin­ted the governor as receiver of the Alabama pris­ons anyway. The receiv­er­ship struggled as a result: the governor took several steps, such as oppos­ing a poten­tial court order to release pris­on­ers, that under­mined the court. 

And even when receiv­er­ship succeeds, it’s still an imper­fect tool. A receiv­er’s gains might erode when the govern­ment reas­sumes control. Finally, despite bene­fit­ting from the expert­ise of a receiver, judges lack the expert­ise to serve as long-term insti­tu­tional admin­is­trat­ors.

UPDATE: The number of receiv­er­ships ordered in the past has been clari­fied to say that it includes meth­ods that trans­fer control but are not tech­nic­ally receiv­er­ships, and the number was changed from seven to approx­im­ately eight.