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What a federal court takeover would mean for Rikers Island


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

Previous attempts to fix the notorious hang have failed miserably, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damien Williams said on Tuesday in a legal filing that raised the prospect that an “aggressive remedy” through a “federal receivership” might be needed.

“Receivership is a last resort,” said Hernandez Stroud, attorney at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“Professors call it ‘the nuclear option’ in terms of institutional reform and litigation because it’s the most…powerful tactic a judge can order in these kinds of cases.”

“Receivers” are usually impartial experts, given extensive powers by the judges who appoint them, including the same budgeting and hiring and firing authority over a government agency or entity that a mayor or commissioner would have.

They also receive separate budgets to hire outside staff and consultants to help ensure that defendants – in this case, the City of New York – comply with court orders that they have proven unable or unwilling to to respect.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damien Williams raised the possibility that “aggressive litigation” through a “federal receivership” might be needed at Rikers.
Alec Tabak for NYPost
Conditions at Rikers Island have caused outrage among affected community members.
Matthew McDermott for NY Post

The tactic has helped solve rooted problems in other prisons across the country, including the prison systems of Alabama, the District of Columbia and Wayne County in Michigan.

Williams raised the idea of ​​receivership in a letter to Manhattan federal judge Laura Taylor Swain, who approved a landmark October 2015 settlement, in which the city committed to sweeping reforms. scope at Rikers Island to resolve complaints of correctional officers using excessive force.

The settlement included the appointment of Steve J. Martin, a former top lawyer in the Texas prison system, as federal comptroller to help ensure the Department of Corrections complies with the agreement.

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

While monitors scour records, conduct interviews, and issue periodic reports to outline progress and make recommendations, they largely lack the authority of receivers. Besides Martin, the DOC is under the watch of monitors in two other settlement agreements, including a 40-year-old one over detention living conditions that remain abysmal.

Martin, whose records show he earned more than $10 million as a warden, released a scathing report in March saying the rate of violence in city jails is “seven to eight times higher than those observed in other correctional systems”. He also expressed frustration with the DOC’s inability to provide background information.

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

Surveillance video of Rikers 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 those seen in other correctional systems.”
A view of the Rikers Island buildings from the commissioner's office.
“Receivership is a last resort,” said Hernandez Stroud, attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU.
Stephen Yang for the New York Post

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

Swain’s order came a day after Martin filed legal papers claiming ‘conditions in prisons remain unstable and unsafe for inmates and staff and have not materially changed’ – even after the report of last month’s scathing situation.

“We are at a crossroads and extraordinary remedies must be deliberately considered,” the Monitor wrote.

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