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Judge: Fed takeover of Rikers ‘premature,’ city has ‘taken meaningful steps’

The judge ordered the city to submit a plan to allow the DOC to hire wardens for jails from outside the department

Rikers Island

Photo/Theodore Parisienne via TNS

By Graham Rayman and Leonard Greene
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Rikers Island is full of problems, but it’s still too soon to put the city’s violence-plagued jails into federal receivership, a federal judge said Thursday.

“The city has taken meaningful steps,” said Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain in response to a motion by The Legal Aid Society to hold the city in contempt of a 2015 court decree to improve the city jails.

Legal Aid lawyers were hoping a contempt citation would lead to a takeover by a federal receiver, but Swain said such a step would be “premature.”

Swain said it would at this stage be counterproductive to bring in an outside receiver “when there are concrete steps being taken by the city.”

In the meantime, the judge ordered the city and other parties in the case to submit a detailed plan to allow the city’s Department of Correction for the first time to hire wardens for individual jails from outside the department.

But a Legal Aid lawyer said that would not be enough to put out the “five alarm fire” that Rikers has become.

“Seven years ago, the city promised to take specific actions to reduce violence, and it hasn’t done so,” said Legal Aid lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas. “The jails are now more violent, more deadly and more lawless. The city does not have control of its own system.”

Werlwas said a receiver would take actions the city is not willing to take.

[RELATED: Federal takeover sought as Rikers death toll mounts]

“The system is a profound failure of city government and a human rights crisis,” Werlwas said.

Thursday’s hearing on whether a federal receiver should take over Rikers and other city lockups came days after a correction officer was brutally assaulted by a detainee.

Officials said the detainee began pummeling the officer during a contraband search, an attack that left a gaping wound in the officer’s head, and a bruised eye before he was knocked unconscious. The officer lost 10 teeth in the attack, officials said.

“This heinous, unprovoked attack on our officer who was simply doing his job comes at a time when over 1,200 officers have been assaulted and the Public Advocate and the City Council’s solution is to prohibit us from separating violent offenders from the general population,” said Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio,

“If their legislation passes, one of our officers may get killed and they will have blood on their hands. We are not this city’s sacrificial lambs.”

Kimberly Joyce, a lawyer for New York City, said the Correction Department is trying to fix the problems.

She said a federal receiver is “a last resort when government is not willing to take action” — but that in the case of Rikers, the city is “committed to making the necessary changes.”

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