New York City

Federal takeover of Rikers Island is off the table, for now, judge says

Southern District Judge Laura Taylor Swain approved the city’s plan to reform Rikers in an order filed Tuesday.

A federal judge today approved the city’s plan to make long-sought changes on Rikers Island.

A federal judge today approved the city’s plan to make long-sought changes on Rikers Island. ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

A federal judge approved the city’s plan to make long-sought changes on Rikers Island, essentially eliminating the threat of a federal takeover for at least the next several months. The order filed Tuesday marks a win for the city and the Department of Correction and comes days after the federal monitor in the case expressed doubt about the city’s willingness to follow its recommendations for the proposed action plan. 

“This action plan represents a way to move forward with concrete measures now to address the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island,” Southern District Judge Laura Taylor Swain wrote in the order, while making clear that the case could turn depending on the city’s progress in implementing the plan. “The Court has approved the proposed measures contained within the action plan, in full recognition that further remedial relief may be necessary should Defendants not fulfill their commitments and demonstrate their ability to make urgently needed changes.”

The city filed the proposed action plan in late May after federal monitors appointed to oversee the department threatened to take control of the system if the city failed to comply with their recommendations. The jail system has been under federal supervision since a class action lawsuit in 2015 alleged rampant abuse and dysfunction.

The plan filed in May outlines timelines for proposed reforms, which include tamping down on abuse of sick leave policies among correction officers, hiring new leadership under a modified chain of command, improving infrastructure at the jail facilities and expediting correction officer disciplinary proceedings.

The department submitted an updated version of the plan on Friday after Swain gave it two weeks to come up with a more detailed proposal. During that time, a dispute over the hiring of wardens outside of the department became a point of contention between the monitors, along with the Legal Aid Society, which represents the jail population in the case, and the department. The monitors wrote in a letter to Swain on Friday that the city refused to agree to their recommendation to hire wardens outside of the department, and was unwilling to seek special permission from the court to circumvent city and state laws prohibiting it from doing so. 

Swain indicated that the department has committed to seeking special permission from the court if it encounters other legal barriers that prohibit it from implementing recommendations. She also denied Legal Aid’s request to set a briefing schedule for a possible contempt motion to trigger the federal takeover.

Zachary Katznelson, the executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, explained that the city has said it will not follow the recommendation to hire wardens outside of the department. The monitor and the plaintiffs in the case, however, have said that this is a crucial step toward changing attitudes among staff, but one that would require special permission from a court to sidestep state and city laws that mandate hiring from within. “There’s a fundamental disagreement as to whether or not that outside hiring should take place at all. And so, obviously the city thinks it is not necessary, so they don’t need any change in the law,” Katznelson said.

Mayor Eric Adams, in a statement, said he is “grateful that the court today recognized our efforts to continue to address the dysfunction on Rikers Island and endorsed our Action Plan to make our jails safe for all who live and work there.”

Benny Boscio, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, released a statement saying that the union has "for months" advocated that outsourced management of the jails wasn't needed. Instead, "the focus should be on improving working conditions and enhancing safety in the jails, and that a federal receiver would only take us backwards. Today, Federal Judge Laura Swain agreed." The statement adds that receivership was avoided, "despite an intense misinformation campaign" led by former jail officials, "scapegoating" union members for the jail's problems.

Legal Aid declined to comment on the order.

The judge ordered the monitoring team to file a report by Oct. 28 on the city’s progress and scheduled a status conference for Nov. 17.

“Unless something egregious or really cataclysmic happens between now and then, the city now has until the end of October, effectively, to show that this plan is really going to make a difference,” Katznelson said.