In a pivotal hearing on Nov. 17, a Manhattan federal judge ruled against a request from detainees’ lawyers to strip New York City’s control of Rikers Island and give it to a federal receiver, siding instead with city leaders who’ve argued that doing so would be a premature decision.
Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society and several others representing incarcerated people had filed a brief in hopes of holding the city in contempt of a court decree issued in 2015 to improve New York city jails. While advocates argued that stripping the city of its control of the embattled system is necessary to fix its violent and dangerous conditions, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain said the legal threshold for receivership has yet to have been met. Swain also said the city has made signs of progress, adding that Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina deserves more time to reform the system.
The decision struck a major blow for the growing number of criminal justice advocates and elected officials who’ve long urged the courts to appoint a third-party federal receiver to oversee the system. Still, Thursday’s decision isn’t necessarily permanent – Swain did order all sides to return to court in April for a second review.
More than 5,800 people were housed at Rikers as of Oct. 2, according to data from the City Comptroller’s office. The four borough-based jails that would replace the complex when it closes would hold 3,300 people.
Rikers, the infamous island jail complex, which opened in 1932, has a long history of abuse and negligence toward inmates. The facility was heavily criticized in the 1970s and ’80s for overpopulation, dangerous conditions and unhealthy practices toward adolescent prisoners. Under then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch, the public began calling for the island to be closed.
In recent years, those calls have amplified amid similar concerns related to the violent and inhumane nature of Rikers Island, which has been plagued by understaffing, gang violence, crumbling infrastructure, an influx of contraband and deaths of inmates. Eighteen people have died in the city’s custody so far this year as of Nov. 18 – the highest death rate since 2013.
De Blasio came around to support the closure of the island and introduced plans to begin the process. Getting there was not without its own share of complications. Here is a brief timeline of the recent calls to close the jail complex and the steps taken so far.
The U.S. Justice Department released a report after an investigation of Rikers Island found “a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.” The department learned there was a “deep-seated culture of violence” that was pervasive among adolescent youth and that staffers frequently used force “not as a last resort, but … as a means to control.”
Following increased calls for action, de Blasio and then-city Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced a 14-point plan to create a safe environment for inmates on Rikers Island.
New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced his support to close Rikers Island.
In her State of the City address, then-New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called for reforms to reduce the inmate population at Rikers Island and, ultimately, to shut down the island. Mark-Viverito’s call for the island’s closure gained support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, while de Blasio shot down the proposal.
De Blasio pledged to shut down Rikers Island alongside Mark-Viverito in an announcement at City Hall.
De Blasio released a roadmap for the jail complex’s closure, including safety protocols, reduced capacity and reduced isolation for inmates.
Alongside New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, de Blasio announced four borough-based jails in every borough except Staten Island to replace Rikers Island and introduce fairer and smaller criminal justice system.
Gothamist acquired planning documents that showed delays would stretch the closing of Rikers Island well into 2027.
The city officially delayed the plan to close Rikers Island and build new jails until 2027.
New York City Department of Correction officials announced the city would shut down the Manhattan Detention Complex, commonly known as “The Tombs,” in Lower Manhattan and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island.
The New York City Board of Correction approved new rules aimed at reducing the use of solitary confinement in city jails. The rules require inmates in punitive segregation to spend at least 10 hours outside of their cells a day and limit the length of stay in the most restrictive tier of punitive segregation to 15 days in most cases. Advocates said the rules fell short of de Blasio’s promise to completely ban the practice.
New York City Congressional Democrats called on President Joe Biden to launch a civil rights investigation into the humanitarian crisis at Rikers.
Then-mayoral candidate Eric Adams expressed support for closing Rikers Island, telling NY1 he believes it should be closed and replaced with borough-based jails. “Yes, I do,” he said when asked by anchor Errol Louis if he agreed with the plan promised by de Blasio. “And I believe we need to change the ecosystem of our incarceration system.”
Gov. Hochul and de Blasio announced that nearly all women and trans individuals incarcerated at Rikers Island would be transferred to state custody, amid safety and staffing concerns.
Advocates and community leaders expressed concern that Adams’ plans for Rikers Island are unclear. He had said repeatedly that he supports closing the island jail complex, but his comments on how the city would go about that – and whether borough-based jails would be a part of his plan – were described as “intentionally ambiguous,” Tracie Gardner of the Legal Action Center told Politico.
Inmate William Brown was found dead at the Anna M. Cross Center, marking the 16th death at Rikers Island in 2021 – more fatalities than the last two years combined and the most since 2016.
Adams appointed Louis Molina, chief of the Las Vegas Department of Public Safety, to lead New York City’s jail system as commissioner of the Department of Correction.
Hundreds of inmates staged a days-long hunger strike in protest of abhorrent conditions at the island jail complex, including a lack of heat and hot water in some units, inconsistent medical care, rampant fighting, and issues with security and sanitation.
More than 8,400 inmates missed medical appointments in city jails in February alone, according to city data released in April. That’s up from 1,600 missed appointments in January 2022, what advocates called “further proof that DOC remains unwilling to protect the health and safety of the New Yorkers in its custody,” the Legal Aid Society, Brooklyn Defender Services and Milbank law firm said in a statement “We once again call on the courts, prosecutors, and elected officials to use every avenue to effect immediate decarceration.”
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 city missed its deadline for transferring unused Rikers facilities to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, as required by the Renewable Rikers Act of 2021, The City reported. “We are not in a position to transfer (the Otis Bantum Correctional Center) to DCAS. Population estimates that were made under the prior administration, that we would only have only 4,000 or less people in custody, have not not borne out,” Molina said in a statement to the outlet.
Michael Nieves became the 13th inmate to die on Rikers Island this year in a suspected suicide, The New York Times reported. A Department of Correction captain and two guards were suspended for allegedly watching him bleed for 10 minutes after he slit his throat with a razor, The Times wrote, citing sources familiar with the incident.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams expressed doubt that Rikers Island could close by the 2027 deadline set during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, because, Adams said, the jail was full of violent criminals who couldn’t safely be let out.
Later in the month, three men died either while they were held in city custody or shortly after being released. Kevin Bryan, 35, was suspected to have died by suicide on Sept. 14 and Gregory Acevedo died nearly a week later after jumping into the East River from a recreation yard on the roof of a barge. Elmore Robert Pondexter died at a hospital a few days later after he’d complained to family members that he was having chest pain and trouble breathing. The Daily News reported that Molina appeared to have told staff to grant Pondexter compassionate relief shortly before his death in order to keep him off the Department of Correction’s growing list of people who’d died in city custody.
Erick Tavira, 28, was suspected to have died by suicide and Gilberto Garcia died from a suspected overdose about a week apart. The federal monitor that’s investigated New York City jails since 2015 issued its latest report, which found they remain “dangerously unsafe” and “trapped in a state of persistent dysfunction,” with “a few glimmers of progress,” according to Gothamist. That progress largely came in the form of fewer fights and assaults on guards and the fact that staff are replacing broken cell doors.
The Board of Correction issued a report analyzing nine of the recent deaths in city jails the night before the Nov. 17 court hearing, which found each individual had missed medical appointments leading up to their death.