New York City should be held in contempt over conditions in Rikers Island jail, federal monitor says

Jul 10, 2023, 9:34 AM | Updated: 2:22 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A court-appointed monitor is urging a judge to begin contempt proceedings against New York City over conditions at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, setting the stage for a potential federal takeover of the jail system in the nation’s most populous city.

In a report filed Monday in Manhattan federal court, the monitor said the city had failed to comply with a series of court orders that aimed to curb violence and mismanagement inside Rikers Island.

The report comes less than a month after a federal judge indicated that she would consider placing the jail in receivership, an extraordinary intervention that would end New York City’s control over one of the nation’s largest and most famous jails. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has vigorously opposed a federal takeover. The judge’s decision could come as soon as next month.

In a nearly 300-page report, the court-appointed monitor described a “disturbing level of regression” since the city agreed to follow an action plan intended to stabilize the jail system last June. The Department of Correction repeatedly failed to consult the monitor, displaying an “unwillingness and inability to acknowledge the myriad of issues,” the monitor Steve Martin said.

“The pace of reform has stagnated instead of accelerated in a number of key areas,” Martin noted, “meaning that there has been no meaningful relief for people in custody or staff from the violence and the unnecessary and excessive use of force.”

A spokesperson for City Hall said they were still reviewing the report, but planned to defend against any contempt motion.

Advocates for detainees have long believed a federal receivership is necessary to stem the violence on Rikers Island, where 19 people died last year, the highest number in a quarter of a century. Many believe a finding of contempt would be the first step toward a federal receivership.

“Every single day the constitutional rights of people in city custody are being violated,” said Kayla Simpson, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, which represents detainees on Rikers Island. “The monitor is saying: ‘enough.’”

Adams, meanwhile, has repeatedly touted the success of his efforts to improve conditions on Rikers Island, pointing to a reduction in slashings and staff absenteeism since he took office and appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina in January 2022.

But those gains have also come alongside questions about whether jail officials have sought to reduce transparency – with both the public and the federal monitor – around what happens inside Rikers Island.

In recent months, the monitor has detailed numerous violent incidents that jail officials allegedly neglected to report, including the death of a detainee who was originally said to have suffered a heart attack, but was later discovered to have died from a skull fracture.

Another man who attempted to flee from correction officers was tackled and paralyzed from the neck down, an injury the monitor said also wasn’t properly reported.

“Staffs’ failure to adhere to reporting requirements for even the most serious events calls into question the overall veracity of reporting and commitment to transparency within the agency,” the monitor wrote in the most recent report.

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New York City should be held in contempt over conditions in Rikers Island jail, federal monitor says