Opinion: The feds must take control of Rikers and then close it

Should the city jails be put into receivership or should Rikers be closed? The only correct answer is both.

A Department of Corrections bus drives up to the entrance of the bridge that connects to Rikers Island.

A Department of Corrections bus drives up to the entrance of the bridge that connects to Rikers Island. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Shortly before construction began on the Rikers Island jails, city officials discovered a fire on the site that had been burning under 25 feet of garbage for 18 years – doubtless an omen for the decades to come. They built anyway, and since practically the day it opened as a “model prison” in 1932, Rikers has remained a dumpster fire. It took less than two years for its violence to make the pages of the New York Times: the 1934 story details a man caught after his escape from Rikers begging a judge through tears not to send him back because he “lived in fear of other prisoners, who had twice threatened to ‘knife’ him.” The subsequent nine decades have only brought further violence, rebellions, injustice and death as administration after administration has promised – and failed – to fix the jail complex. 

We have pushed from inside and outside the government – one of us from the New York City Council, the other from the Vera Institute of Justice and the Lippman Commission that recommended shuttering Rikers – as Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has both resisted its legal obligation to close Rikers and obstructed the court-appointed monitoring team that has been evaluating the jail complex and the city Department of Correction for the last eight years. It is clear to us and a growing chorus – now including Legal Aid and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York – that the only viable course of action is for a judge to place the DOC under a federal receiver, wresting control from the Adams administration – a last resort that has successfully reformed a number of correctional systems around the nation. However, this long-awaited opportunity will come to nothing unless Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is overseeing the case, also ensures that the receiver works toward the legally mandated closure of Rikers. 

The possibility of receivership stems from the 2011 class action lawsuit Nunez v. City of New York, which was brought by Legal Aid on behalf of all current and future people held in jails in DOC custody. A 2015 consent decree in the case resulted in the installation of a court-appointed monitoring team to assess the DOC's progress toward implementing reforms. After filing more than 50 reports over eight years, the monitor’s independent assessments have concluded that “the jails remain dangerous and unsafe, characterized by pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff.”

This year, Rikers Island is on pace to see more than 6,500 use-of-force incidents – 2,000 more than in 2016. Compared to 2016, the rates of stabbings and slashings are also almost 250% higher, and fights occur 58% more frequently. The island is a blight on our city: an expensive, noxious landfill, where crumbling infrastructure becomes makeshift weaponry. Since the Adams administration took over at the start of 2022, at least 28 people have died at the jail complex, while incarceration has increased citywide. Yet the administration has been openly disdainful of the monitoring team and may not even have a DOC commissioner after Louis Molina’s departure for City Hall. All of this should lead Judge Swain to believe that there is no choice but to place the DOC in the hands of a federal receiver.

Unlike politically appointed officials, a receiver can act without concern for employment or political recourse. Whereas the DOC has gone to great lengths to fire leaders praised by the monitor for making progress, the receiver will be empowered to hire, fire, promote and demote whomever they want. Whereas the DOC has been wary of disciplining staff after incidents of misconduct or altering staff schedules due to labor agreement restrictions and fear of the unions, the receiver will have no such concerns and will be empowered to overcome contractual provisions and renegotiate labor contracts as necessary. Whereas the DOC has failed to revise or implement many policies favored by the monitor over the past eight years, the receiver's job will be to immediately implement effective policies and procedures.

Despite these powers, there is no reason to believe that the DOC will ever be fully reformed so long as Rikers remains open. No matter the degree of improvement, it will remain an isolated penal colony based on the well-meaning but long-outdated idea that consolidating the city’s jails would improve justice. Ultimately, the court and receiver should facilitate closing Rikers as soon as possible. 

The current closure plan requires a smart, evidence-based reduction of the jail population; previous federal receivers overseeing change in other jurisdictions have successfully addressed overcrowding. The receiver should fully participate in the new population review program, work to reduce sentence lengths with the Local Conditional Release Commission and utilize the Early Release 6-A program, which was used during the COVID-19 pandemic to safely and smartly reduce the jail population. Further, the receiver can ensure that DOC dysfunction does not contribute to case processing delays that leave people stuck on Rikers for months and years. On average, people held pretrial at Rikers have been incarcerated for 280 days and counting. This keeps both them and crime victims waiting for answers and accountability. The receiver must commit to getting people to their court dates, ensuring technology is readily available for any virtual proceedings or legal meetings and working with the court systems to reduce lengths of stay among the pretrial population, which is one of the largest drivers of the jail population. 

Protecting people now on Rikers requires making it safer in the short term, but protecting people who will be incarcerated in the future requires shuttering the complex entirely. The receiver should steer clear of any major investments in the island's jail infrastructure or hiring sprees that would likely slow the closure. While avoiding such improvements might seem contradictory, we now know our jails need to be closer to the courts and where people live so that cases can be processed more quickly and people charged with crimes can receive support from their families and communities. In line with today’s best practices, the new jails currently being built in each borough are designed to keep both corrections staff and incarcerated people safe, with specialized facilities for mental health needs.

Ideally, the mayor and his DOC commissioner would be the receiver’s partners in this effort to close Rikers and reform the DOC. Adams not only has the power to lower the jail population, he also has a legal obligation to close Rikers. In the absence of his leadership, the City Council and the new Lippman commission should keep pressuring the administration and take whatever independent actions are possible to keep the city’s commitment to closing Rikers, including options to safely move people off the island, expand access to housing and expedite case processing. Nevertheless, the administration must redeem itself by speeding construction on new jails, opening hospital beds and restoring funding for programs that reduce jail violence and post-release returns to jail.

New York City has squandered many opportunities to close Rikers over the years, but for perhaps the first time, there is a clear and viable path to safely closing the wound. Even if a receiver successfully changes the DOC’s culture, that alone will not address the totality of conditions that have rendered the jail complex so deadly for so long. And simply closing Rikers without addressing that culture would surely mean exporting the DOC's entrenched dysfunction to four smaller locations. But if these two tasks are undertaken together, we can preserve the dignity and safety of people incarcerated in our city – and by extension, the safety of all New Yorkers.

Lincoln Restler is a New York City Council member representing Brooklyn and a member of the Council’s Committee on Criminal Justice. Nicholas Turner is the president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice and a member of the Independent Commission On New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

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