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N.Y. DOC efforts to curb violence, improve safety at city jails ‘not enough,’ judge says

“Stabbings and slashing will exceed 300 this year with 6,000 uses of force — much high than other jail systems,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Powell said

Rikers Island

Todd Maisel

By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — New York City’s efforts to curb violence and improve safety at Rikers Island and other city lockups are “not enough,” a federal judge said Thursday as she set in motion a series of steps that could end with Mayor Adams’ administration losing control of the jail system.

Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain ordered lawyers for detainees and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office to file motions by Nov. 17 to hold the city in contempt of prior court orders and to make a case for the federal takeover.

“The defendants [city officials and the Department of Correction] hold a crucial public trust. They do not seem willing or able to make the changes that are necessary. I am not saying the progress is not positive. I am saying it is not enough,” Swain said in court.

Swain added her decision partly resulted from concerns about the Correction Department’s willingness to “engage productively” with a court-appointed federal monitoring team, which is tracking violence and conditions at Rikers Island and other jails as part of a class action lawsuit.

Under the schedule set by Swain, the city would have until Jan. 16 to file its opposition brief. The plaintiffs would reply by Feb. 15, setting up the possibility that Swain could order appointment of a receiver as early as next summer.

But the appointment of an outsider to run the jail system would have to overcome a series of hurdles — notably the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, a law which requires a finding that all other avenues of improvement to the system have been attempted.

The Clinton-era law has been wielded in the past by the city as an effective tool against other class action lawsuits. City correction unions also could bring legal challenges to a takeover.

Correction Commissioner Louis Molina made a last-ditch effort to avert the process with a lengthy defense of his department’s performance since he began leading it in early 2022. He cited one statistic after another that he claimed showed improvement compared to 2021.

“No receiver will make greater reform at a faster pace than what we have accomplished,” he declared.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Powell dismissed Molina’s assertion that things are better than two years ago.

“We don’t think that is a proper comparison,” Powell said. “Stabbings and slashing will exceed 300 this year with 6,000 uses of force — much high than other jail systems. Every use of force and violence indicator is substantially higher compared to 2016.”

“The proposals offered by the city have been underwhelming,” Powell said. “It has failed to offer novel strategies, just more of the same, such as issuing teletypes to remind officers of their basic jobs.”

Swain’s decision was a setback for Mayor Adams, who has stubbornly opposed receivership.

Anna Friedberg, the deputy monitor in the class action suit before Swain, noted that Molina created a high security unit for men two weeks ago inside the women’s jail at Rikers — known as the Rose M. Singer Center. Already in the new men’s high security area, eight stabbings and slashings have been reported, including blade attacks on victims in restraints, Friedberg said.

“Weapons have been found in this high security unit,” Friedberg said, adding that when she visited the Singer Center high-security unit, she witnessed guards looking on indifferently as detainees smoked illegal narcotics.

“They were highly intoxicated, some almost unable to stand,” Friedberg said.

Sixteen detainees rioted and took over a housing unit on Aug. 1, with two detainees even forcing their way into a control room.

On Tuesday, sources said, there were two near-fatal overdoses in the Eric M. Taylor Center at Rikers. One of the detainees was found at 8 p.m. in a bus in the sally port, the sources said.

That man was given 10 Narcan doses. He and the other overdosed man were at Elmhurst Hospital as of Thursday, the sources said.

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