NYC jails fail to comply with decree to curb violence, Justice Department lawyers say
The federal monitor that oversees the city’s compliance with the decree has expressed concern about the Emergency Services Unit’s propensity for violence
By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News
NEW YORK CITY — A Justice Department lawyer said Thursday that New York City’s jails remain out of compliance with several key goals of a 2015 federal court consent decree meant to address violence and excessive force in the city jails.
Jeffrey Powell, an assistant US attorney in Manhattan, gave the office’s most detailed assessment in many months of the situation at Rikers Island and other city lockups during a hearing in Manhattan Federal Court. But Powell stopped well short of proposing a federal takeover of the jail system.
He said nearly eight years since the decree took effect, the city Correction Department has yet to comply with the decree’s mandates to curb correction officers’ use of excessive force, improve use of force investigations, provide adequate care for younger detainees and improve management of the Emergency Services Unit, which quells disturbances and conducts special searches.
The federal monitor assigned to oversee the city’s compliance with the decree has repeatedly expressed concern about the Emergency Services Unit’s propensity for violence. Powell noted that after 50 ESU officers were removed in 2021 because of previous disciplinary records, 16 of those officers were returned to the unit.
“We still don’t understand why that happened,” Powell said.
In April 2022, the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office suggested appointing a receiver was an option if things didn’t improve. But federal lawyers did not raise that issue at all Thursday. Nor did lawyers with the Legal Aid Society or those representing the initial plaintiff in the class action, Mark Nunez.
Correction Commissioner Louis Molina listed a series of statistics he said showed the jails are getting safer, staff are coming to work and conditions are improving compared to recent years.
But Powell poked holes in the city’s assertions that things have improved. He said, for example, that there were 434 uses of force in 2022 that resulted in serious injury — a rate twice that of 2020 and six times that of 2016.
“The statistics present a mixed picture,” he said.
Molina described as “bumps in the road” his problems in use of force investigations — cited at length by the monitor in two reports this month; a two-month delay in replying to the monitor’s concerns, and the resignation of his investigations boss, Manuel Hernandez.
Powell took issue with the “bumps in the road” characterization, noting pointedly that Molina himself appointed Hernandez.
“We’re not satisfied with the commissioner’s explanation,” Powell said.
Molina touted his appointment of 25 new assistant deputy wardens last year, but Powell pointed out that 12 of them were considered “unsuitable” for promotion based on their prior histories by the agency’s own officials.
One of those, according to Kayla Simpson of the Legal Aid Society, was Assistant Deputy Warden Vaughn Grinnage, who was on the verge of being appointed as head of Emergency Services even though he body-slammed Kalief Browder on video in 2012.
Correction officials backed away from Grinnage’s appointment on April 20, the day The News ran a story about it, Simpson said.
Simpson also called on the city to explain why Correction Department veteran Antoinette Cort was appointed to a new warden’s position even though she was suspended in 2021 for not acting while a mentally ill detainee bashed his head repeatedly against a wall.
“We don’t think that the record encourages optimism. Uses of force are entrenched in the system,” said Kayla Simpson of the Legal Aid Society. “Uses of force are a feature, not a bug. What is considered a major event in other systems is routine here.”
Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor set another court date in August and urged the parties to move with a sense of urgency. “I will be unpleasantly surprised if I hear from the monitor the recommendations are not being seriously considered,” she said.
Molina later appeared Thursday at a live-streamed City Hall public safety meeting, where he received kudos from Justin Meyers, chief of operations for the mayor’s office of public safety.
“His leadership has been continually moving the ball forward and making necessary systemic changes needed to move past this difficult time in the correction Department,” Meyers said.