LOWER MANHATTAN (PIX11) — A federal judge ruled at the close of the court day on Thursday that Rikers Island can continue to operate as it has for the last seven years, with the City of New York handling its day-to-day operations, under the observation of a federal monitor.
The city’s Legal Aid Society had petitioned the court to have the federal government assume all operations of the nearly 6,000-person facility and have the city’s Department of Correction no longer in charge.
Legal Aid’s argument had been supported by the city’s comptroller and at least a quarter of the City Council, as well as the federal monitor.
In an interview on Thursday before the decision was made, City Comptroller Brad Lander said that the mismanagement of Rikers by the city’s Department of Correction “has just turned what was a longstanding crisis into a humanitarian emergency.”
He sent a letter to the judge, the Hon. Laura Taylor Swain, the chief judge of the federal court of the Southern District of New York, called for a federal receivership, or total takeover, of the city’s corrections system.
In his letter, Lander pointed out that, in addition to the deaths of 18 people held or recently released from Rikers this year — the highest numbers in a decade — there are other problems.
He said that they include:
- the number of correction officers is down 30 percent since the start of the pandemic
- 12 percent of officers have called out sick consistently for the last four months
- use of force incidents up 80 percent from pre-pandemic levels
- stabbings in the same period being up 450 percent
The judge also received a letter signed by 10 members of the City Council. That’s nearly a quarter of the 41 members of the legislative body.
Councilmember Lincoln Restler led the letter-writing effort. He said that the situation over the last seven years, where the federal monitor observed conditions while the city continued to operate the facility, is inadequate.
“We’re still seeing ever-increasing rates of violence,” Restler said in an interview, “an ever-increasing influx of contraband.”
“34 detainees have died on Rikers Island in two years,” he continued. “We have an absolute disaster on our watch on Rikers Island. This administration is not up to the task.”
However, Dept. of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina argued in court that the city had made progress operating Rikers since Mayor Eric Adams appointed him to his position at the beginning of this year.
He said that he “understand(s) the court is frustrated,” but argued that his department is improving and reversing shortages of people in middle management and handling scheduling challenges that have left corrections facilities shorthanded.
Ultimately, Judge Swain agreed, despite protesters demonstrating outside of the courthouse.
One of them, Alfredo Perez, had been detained for a month recently at Rikers while awaiting trial. He said that a full federal takeover would enable the facility to operate in a manner far safer than he’d observed while he’d been behind bars.
“We see how the federal jails are run,” Perez told PIX11 News. “The federal receiver is going to run the jail, and it’s going to be run correctly. It’s sad to say that it’s come to this, but people are dying there, and we need structure.”
He’s active in the organization Katal Center for Equity, Health & Justice.
After the ruling, Katal Center spokesperson, Yonah Zeitz, said, in part, in a statement:
It is disappointing and frankly alarming that Judge Swain denied the request.
The violence at Rikers has escalated far beyond what the court found unconstitutional back in 2015.
We hope the court will hear the pleas of families in our city who have been harmed and even killed by Rikers and order a receiver to take control of Rikers now. And as we made clear in our protest today, we know that the best way to address the crisis at Rikers is to shut it down once and for all.