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Rikers Island Might Be Put Under Federal Control After Recent Scandal

A recent report details how the city has broken its promise to improve the jail’s dangerous and unsanitary conditions.

People march to the federal courthouse to demand the closure of Rikers Island on November 17, 2022, in New York City.

An independent monitor in a federal court case investigating conditions at Rikers Island released a scathing report on Monday recommending that the administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) be held in contempt for failing to implement promised safety improvements at the jail.

The report alleges that the city has not made substantial progress in implementing the Action Plan that city officials agreed to last year as part of a consent decree from previous litigation. It also sheds light on a troubling pattern of violence and safety issues at the jail: In 2022, department staff used “head strikes” against incarcerated people nearly 400 times and, in recent months, nearly 60 staffers have been suspended for striking, choking, kicking, and body slamming detainees.

“The current state of affairs and rates of use of force, stabbings and slashings, fights, assaults on staff, and in-custody deaths remain extraordinarily high—they are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal,” the report says.

Incarcerated people, their families and abolition advocates have long condemned the city for the jail’s deteriorating infrastructure and dangerous living conditions, including recurring pooling water, ventilation system issues, mold and vermin infestations and the constant smell of sewage.

“Rikers is not just unsanitary, it is a collection of crumbling buildings rendered unfit for human habitation by the decades of accumulated filth on surfaces so neglected that many could not be adequately cleaned even if there was a will to do so,” said Veronica Vela, supervising attorney of the Prisoners’ Rights Project. “And, there is no evidence that DOC [the Department of Correction] has any will to address these issues.”

During an emergency court hearing in June regarding deaths and grave injuries of people incarcerated at the jail that officials failed to report, federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain said that she would consider establishing a federal receivership, which would strip the city of its control over the jail and put the facility under the control of a federal court-appointed receiver. Swain may consider receivership proposals as soon as August.

“The monitor has said plainly in this report that additional relief beyond the contempt proceedings themselves is necessary, and has said it’s up to the parties and the court to determine what that is,” said Simpson, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society, whose previous litigation prompted the city’s Action Plan. “And in our view, it’s clearer today than it’s ever been that — that’s an independent authority over the jails.”

Abolition and humanitarian advocates have been raising the alarm about the cruel conditions at Rikers for years. “Every single day the constitutional rights of people in city custody are being violated,” said Simpson.“The monitor is saying: ‘enough.’”.

In 2022, 19 people died at the jail, the highest number in a quarter of a century. “Rikers Island is a torture chamber,” said Jovada Senhouse, a board member and leader for VOCAL-NY who spent two months imprisoned on the island. “It’s the worst place you could be.”

NYC Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a coalition of activists working to promote human rights, dignity and safety for people incarcerated in NYC jails, held an emergency action on Tuesday to protest conditions at the jail.

“The most recent report, despite its substantial expense to the citizens of New York City, merely corroborates what individuals previously incarcerated … have consistently asserted on record,” Chaplain Dr. Victoria A. Phillips, a leading member of JAC, told Truthout.

JAC is demanding that the city direct resources toward underserved and marginalized NYC communities, suggesting that funds be used to establish peer-led respite centers and clubhouses and to provide comprehensive health care services and support.

“The legacy of Rikers Island is one of torture, despair, and the death of the mind, body, and soul,” Phillips said. “Our young people require mentorship and employment opportunities, rather than becoming victims of a corrupt system and subjected to the brutality of NYC DOC.”

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