Federal takeover sought as Rikers death toll mounts

"The multitude of plans, programs and promises the City has announced have not worked," the Legal Aid Society said


By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Lawyers with the Legal Aid Society are calling for the federal government to take over city jails.

Ahead of a key federal court hearing this Thursday, the attorneys formally moved to hold the city in contempt and seek a federal receivership, saying that NYC jails are more dangerous and in worse shape than they were in 2016, when City Hall agreed to wide-ranging reforms.

The society and lawyers for the city and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan are slated to appear Thursday before U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain in a class action case over endemic violence in the jails.

“Years of plans, revised protocols, and recommendations have not corrected the City’s intractable failures – subjecting incarcerated New Yorkers to extraordinary suffering, and in far too many instances, death,” said Kayla Simpson, staff attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society.

“The violence in the city jails is worse today than at the outset of the lawsuit because the city has persistently failed to follow court orders and protect the people in its custody. We can wait no longer.”

Citing the federal monitor’s Oct. 28 report, the society said staff uses of force are still “rampant,” happening at a far greater rate per capita than in 2016. There are huge backlogs in internal probes and staff discipline, a wide range of security failures and staffing dysfunction remains an issue, on top of the total 18 deaths so far this year, the society said.

“The multitude of plans, programs, and promises the City has announced have not worked,” the organization added.

[PREVIOUS: Man dies while in custody on Rikers Island; 16th death at jail this year]

Since Swain approved the city’s “action plan” on May 24, 13 people have died in the jails. And a Board of Correction report issued in October found a “pervasive” pattern of breakdowns by staff in 10 fatal overdoses and suicides in 2021.

“The Department of Correction has left Judge Swain with no alternative,” said DeRay Mckesson, director of pro-receivership group Campaign Zero. “By any measure, they have failed to meet the goals she assigned them in May. Receivership is the only answer.”

The city opposed Legal Aid’s motion.

“The city shares the monitor’s concerns about the work that remains to be done. It is precisely this concern that continues to drive Mayor Adams and [Correction] Commissioner [ Louis] Molina to take bold steps to effectuate necessary change throughout the department,” wrote Kimberly Joyce, a lawyer for the city.

“While the City’s jails are not yet where they need to be, the city has taken significant steps towards fulfilling the requirements of the action plan.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan reserved the right to join Legal Aid’s motion or submit a separate motion at some future point.

In April, federal prosecutors threatened to move for receivership if things did not substantially improve in the jails, saying six months ago that the jails were in “a state of crisis” and “action is desperately needed now.”

Meanwhile, the federal monitor in its letter does not state a position, instead focusing on a long-delayed DOC move to hire wardens from outside the agency.

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RELATED: NYC's Rikers more violent than jails, prisons elsewhere in US, Correction Department testifies

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