The judge denies the Legal Aid Society’s motion to let the FBI take over Rikers Island

A federal judge in Manhattan dealt a blow to attorneys for the Rikers Island inmates Thursday by blocking the Legal Aid Society from seeking a state takeover of the Big Apple’s ailing prison system.

Judge Laura Taylor has denied a request from the city’s largest nonprofit legal aid organization to officially lobby for the appointment of a “recipient” — or third-party administrator — to oversee Rikers Island and other facilities of the city’s Justice Department.

While Swain said she remains deeply concerned about safety issues at Rikers, appointing a recipient could divert resources from inmate safety and be counterproductive, she noted.

It would be “premature and inconsistent with legal restrictions” to allow legal aid to argue for receivership, the judge added at the end of Thursday’s lengthy hearing.

The Legal Aid Society hoped to lobby for a third party to step in and oversee the Department of Corrections.
A federal judge struck out the Legal Aid Society’s request that federal agencies administer Rikers.
AFP via Getty Images

Legal aid attorney Mary Lynne Werlwas had asked Swain to look into the group’s case for a receiver, arguing that it had been seven years since a federal observer was appointed to initiate reforms in the prison.

“Continuing down the same path cannot and will not bring relief to the plaintiff class,” Werlwas, who represents prisoners at the prison complex, told the judge.

The attorney cited a number of concerns, including the use of force by staff, chronic absenteeism and the guards’ inability to prevent inmate suicides.

2022 saw a sharp increase in Rikers inmate suicides.
The attorney cited the use of force by staff, chronic absenteeism and the inability of guards to prevent inmate suicides.
Corbis via Getty Images

The crisis at the city jails – where 18 people have died this year – has continued in a series of city hall administrations swayed by politics and voter concerns, she argued.

A federal administrator, Werlwas said, would not be subject to political whims but would be accountable to the court.

“A receiver is an extraordinary remedy, but these are extraordinary facts,” she said.

However, Swain cited evidence from an October report by the Federal Monitor, appointed to assess conditions at the prison, that showed some progress had been made at the complex.

Molina has been criticized for a lack of action on the prison crisis.
Louis Molina said the DOC hired a self-harm prevention consultant to help stop suicides in Rikers.
NY Post/Chad Rachman

“The department’s leadership team has shown that they understand both
the big picture of what needs to be accomplished and the nuance and sequencing of all the things that need to change to achieve it,” the report says.

The DOC has successfully filled a number of senior positions over the past year, including an executive director and 11 deputy commissioners, the report said.

At the hearing, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina said they had also hired a self-harm prevention consultant who he hopes will help stop suicides at the complex.

Federal authorities for the Southern District of New York said they would not support Legal Aid’s current offer for a receiver but reserved the right to do so in the future.

SDNY attorney Jeffrey Powell said the office was “frustrated” by how long it had taken to make progress at the prison, but added some reforms had been implemented.

“There seems to be at least a glimmer of hope that progress is on the horizon,” he said.

In a statement, Legal Aid said it was dismayed by the judge’s decision.

“We are disappointed that the court will not allow plaintiffs to advance their case for the appointment of a receiver, but appreciate the court’s requirement that the city act quickly and seriously,” the statement said. “The Legal Aid Society will continue to hold the city responsible for the violence and abuse our incarcerated clients suffer every day.” The judge denies the Legal Aid Society’s motion to let the FBI take over Rikers Island


JACLYN DIAZ is a USTimeToday U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. JACLYN DIAZ joined USTimeToday in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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