What a federal court takeover would mean for Rikers Island

A push to bring the city’s embattled prison system under the control of a federal court is a legal tool of last resort — one that would give sweeping powers to an independent agency tasked with finally ending the violence on Rikers Island.

Previous attempts to fix the infamous lockdown failed miserably, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said Tuesday in a lawsuit that raised the prospect that “aggressive relief” through “federal receivership” may be required.

“Bankruptcy administration is a last resort,” said Hernandez Stroud, attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

“Professors call it the ‘nuclear option’ in relation to institutional reform and litigation because it is the… most powerful tactic a judge can order in such cases.”

“Bankruptcy trustees” are typically unbiased experts who are given broad powers by the judges who appoint them, including the same budgetary and hiring and firing powers over any agency or government agency that a mayor or commissioner would have.

They also get separate budgets for hiring staff and outside consultants to ensure defendants — in this case the City of New York — comply with court orders they demonstrably cannot or do not want to comply with.

Damien Williams
Manhattan US Attorney Damien Williams raised the prospect that Rikers may require “aggressive facilitation” by “federal receivership.”
Alec Tabak for the NY Post
Protesters block traffic on Broadway expressing anger at conditions at Rikers Island Jail, there were no arrests.
Conditions on Rikers Island have sparked outrage among affected community members.
Matthew McDermott for the NY Post

The tactic has helped solve deep-rooted problems at other prisons across the country, including prison systems for Alabama, the District of Columbia and Michigan’s Wayne County.

Williams brought up the idea of ​​receivership in a letter to Manhattan federal judge Laura Taylor Swain, who in October 2015 approved a landmark settlement in which the city committed to sweeping reforms on Rikers Island to address claims by correctional officers using excessive force to settle.

The settlement included the appointment of Steve J. Martin, a former top attorney in the Texas prison system, as a federal monitor to ensure the Department of Correction honors the agreement.

Steve J. Martin, former general counsel of the Texas prison system
Steve J. Martin was the former General Counsel of the Texas prison system.
Ilana Panich-Linsman/Redux

While monitors comb through records, conduct interviews, and issue regular reports to outline progress and make recommendations, they lack much of the authority of recipients. In addition to Martin, the DOC is under observer oversight in two other settlement agreements, including one that dates back 40 years and addressed the still appalling living conditions in prison.

Martin, who is recorded as earning more than $10 million as a monitor, released a scathing report in March saying the rate of violence in city jails is “seven to eight times higher than that observed in other correctional facilities.” He also expressed frustration with the DOC’s inability to provide basic information.

Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement Thursday that he felt his administration, which began in January, deserved a chance to fix Rikers. He said DOC Commissioner Louis Molina is “laying the groundwork for long-term change” and that prisons under her oversight have seen “a reduction in the use of force” among inmates, “attacks on staff,” and “increased searches for weapons and contraband.” . ”

Surveillance video of Riker's fight at Rikers on October 19, 2021
A March report by the Federal Monitor found that the rate of violence in city jails is “seven to eight times higher than other correctional facilities.”
A view of the buildings of Rikers Island from the Commissioner's Office.
“Bankruptcy administration is a last resort,” said Hernandez Stroud, attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.
Stephen Yang for the NY Post

The issue of receivership will ultimately be decided by Swain, who ordered Molina to attend a conference on April 26 “given the seriousness and urgency of the security situation” in city jails.

Swain’s order came a day after Martin filed legal documents saying “conditions in the prisons remain unstable and unsafe for both inmates and staff and have not changed significantly” — even after the damning status report of the last month.

“We are at a crossroads and extraordinary remedial action must be consciously considered,” the Monitor wrote. What a federal court takeover would mean for Rikers Island


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