A federal judge agreed Thursday to begin a process that could wrest control of New York City’s troubled jail system from Mayor Eric Adams and place a court-appointed outside authority in charge of Rikers Island.
The decision follows a series of reports from a court-appointed federal monitor that outlined a ” disturbing level of regression ” inside the jail system, with nearly every category of violence now higher than when the monitor was appointed to oversee reform efforts eight years ago.
At a hearing in federal court in Manhattan, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain said the latest reports of violence and dysfunction inside Rikers Island had raised “profound questions” about the city’s ability to manage the jail complex, suggesting the incarcerated population is “at great risk of immediate harm.”
She ordered federal prosecutors and attorneys representing detainees to begin preparing arguments in support of a court-ordered receivership, a critical step that could culminate in the appointment of an outside authority to govern the notorious jail complex by early next year.
Recent visits to Rikers Island have only intensified those concerns, the monitor, Steve Martin, told the judge on Thursday. He accused the Adams administration of touting minor policy changes that amounted to “nothing more than facile window dressing,” while seeking to withhold key information from the public about abysmal conditions inside the jail.
On Tuesday, the same day that a group of conservative-leaning city officials toured Rikers Island and praised the Democratic mayor’s oversight of the jail, there were more than two dozen use-of-force incidents, seven fires and two allegations of staff assaults, according to the monitor.
Adams, a former New York City police captain, has fiercely resisted the notion of an outside intervention, pointing to a drop in certain types of violence since the pandemic low-point, when widespread staff sick-outs plunged Rikers Island into chaos.
“My team, with the help of Eric Adams, has taken this system from the precipice of collapse,” Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said on Thursday. “No receiver will come to the Department of Correction and induce greater reform at a faster pace than what we have accomplished.”
The Adams administration finds itself increasingly alone in that view. Last month, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Damien Williams, said his office would seek to strip control of Rikers Island from the city, joining a growing chorus that includes the jail’s independent oversight board, detainee advocates and dozens of local elected officials.
During the hearing, Jeffrey Powell, the assistant U.S. district attorney, said the federal prosecutors had met with jail officials in recent weeks to discuss plans to reduce violence inside the jails. Their response, he said, was “underwhelming, to say the least.”
The process of a federal takeover is expected to last months, with each of the parties scheduled to present their arguments between November of this year and February of 2024.
Outside the federal courthouse, advocates and individuals formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island called on the government to initiative an immediate federal takeover of the system.
Henry Robinson, a 38-year-old who spent time on Rikers Island in 2017, said he long believed that public officials were intentionally ignoring the crisis in the city’s jails. The looming threat of a takeover had given him a rare glimmer of hope, he said.
“They’ve been out to lunch for a long time,” Robinson said. “It’s time for some new management.”