False alarm, everything at Rikers is A-OK

The federal monitor calls the current conditions at the jail complex grave, but the New York City Council’s Common Sense Caucus visited and they think it looks fine in there.

From left, City Council Members Bob Holden, Joann Ariola, David Carr, Vickie Paladino and Ari Kagan hear from Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina.

From left, City Council Members Bob Holden, Joann Ariola, David Carr, Vickie Paladino and Ari Kagan hear from Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina. New York City Department of Correction

Two days before a key court hearing in which Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain is slated to again hear arguments for a federal takeover of Rikers, the New York City Council’s Common Sense Caucus embarked on a tour of the embattled jail complex.

Gathering for a press conference afterward, the seven City Council members said that conditions have “vastly improved” under Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, touting observations like “freshly painted walls,” air conditioning, “working locks” and programming geared toward young adults. Council Member Bob Holden, a Democrat who helped organize the visit, described the turnaround as “night and day” from the nightmare he’d observed during his last visit in September 2021, adding that “for anyone, any federal monitor, to say that the conditions have not improved – they're not telling the truth.”

Holden and his colleagues' observations contrast sharply with a string of reports from the federal official appointed to monitor Rikers Island. The most recent, which was released yesterday, described the department’s attempts to implement recommended changes in recent weeks as “haphazard, tepid, and insubstantial.”

“While hard work is commendable, it does not obviate the fact that substantially more progress is needed and on a more expeditious timeline than has occurred to date,” Monitor Steve Martin wrote, condemning Molina and DOC staff for failing to address “the gravity of the current conditions.” Seven people have died in the jail system this year. Nineteen died in the year prior. 

With the exception of City Council Minority Leader Joe Borelli (who couldn’t attend because he’s on vacation, a spokesperson said) all of the caucus members attended the Tuesday tour. That included Republican Council Members Joann Ariola, David Carr, Inna Vernikov, Vickie Paladino and Ari Kagan as well as centrist Democrats Holden and Kalman Yeger. For several members, it was their first time visiting. 

“Let me be clear here: Rikers Island is never going to be the Four Seasons, nor should it be,” Ariola, who visited for the first time Tuesday, said in an emailed response to City & State. “Compared to other facilities – and especially compared to what things were like here in the past – I would say that we are seeing services and amenities that certainly have more thought and humanitarian compassion put into them.”

Yeger, who was also visiting for the first time, said he was ultimately surprised by what he observed in the facility, given what he’s heard in the monitor’s reports.  

“When we talk about a jail facility, the broad starting point of the conversation has to be a recognition that there is a human tragedy behind every human that is at the facility. Pretending that all is fine is simply not accurate and I don’t think anybody does that,” he told City & State. “It’s a jail. It’s not a vacation. It’s not a beachfront property by any means.” 

Most criminal justice experts agree the jail complex needs to be replaced, its population reduced, and its culture changed. Many of those experts have also called for a federal takeover – a possibility that has grown increasingly likely as this Thursday’s court hearings draw nearer. New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who strongly opposes the prospect of control leaving city hands, has repeatedly argued that his administration should be given more time to reform the jail system. Caucus members emerged from their Tuesday visit striking a similar tone. Holden’s positive comments about improvements in particular stirred a swell of pushback on social media, including Democratic Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas who said there is nothing “commonsensical about the way Rikers has been operating” and socialist state Sen. Julia Salazar who condemned the remarks as dishonest. 

Socialist Council Member Tiffany Cabán, a public defender who has represented many people incarcerated on Rikers Island, noted that when she conducts oversight visits at the complex she doesn’t give DOC a heads up – she just shows up. 

“I go in and make sure I have a plan to extract as much information as I possibly can and that means also not giving them a heads up, because when you arrange a visit, they can sanitize it, they can walk you up to one of the program floors where it shows the best version of what is happening, they can make sure you have access to certain people and not others,” she told City & State, explaining that human rights violations occur at the complex every day. 

In an interview with City & State, Holden acknowledged that what he saw Tuesday might not have been “the whole picture,” but conditions were a far cry from his last visit.  He said the caucus’ visit was planned around a month in advance and that they did visit the same three facilities that he had back in 2021: The Eric M. Taylor Center, the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, and the Robert N. Davoren Complex.  

Asked about the pushback to his remarks, Holden said “he gives credit where credit is due.”

“It’s improved. Anybody that is saying it’s not improving over 2021 either has a political agenda or is lying,” he said. “Of course it’s not finished, but they are headed in the right direction. That’s the best way to describe it.”