After years of terse arguments and reports detailing violence that’s long permeated Rikers Island, a federal judge opened the door to stripping New York City of its control over the embattled jail complex.
“The people incarcerated at Rikers are at a grave risk of immediate harm,” Federal District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain said at a key Manhattan court hearing Aug. 10. “The defendants have not yet shown me that they are willing and able to make the rapid, radical changes in the administration of the jails that are necessary to protect the people who are in their custody.”
Her ruling is the latest in a string of movements building momentum for a takeover of New York City jails. Whether Swain ultimately decides to appoint a federal receiver is not guaranteed at this point, but her motion will allow federal prosecutors and lawyers representing incarcerated people to argue in the prospect’s favor. Swain’s decision is likely months away with the first legal filing due in November.
Adams has long resisted the prospect of a federal takeover, arguing that change is most likely when it comes from within city leadership. He has also attested that the Department of Correction has made strides in reducing violence and that stripping the city of its control would be a premature move.
At the same time the Adams administration has cast doubt on the likelihood of Rikers Island closing by 2027 to be replaced with four borough-based jails as legally required. Construction has already begun on the new jails, which will be able to hold a total of 3,300 people. Rikers will not be able to close if there are more than 3,300 people incarcerated at the jails complex at the time it’s supposed to be replaced.
Rikers, 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 violence against 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. Nineteen people died in the city’s custody in 2022 – the highest death rate since 2013. Eight people have died so far in 2023.
Then-New York City Mayor Bill 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. This article was last updated on Aug. 29, 2023.
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.
An independent commission led by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman released an in-depth report pitching borough-based jails.
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 a 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. Kathy 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 “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 in 2022 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 release 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.
A Manhattan federal judge ruled against a request from detainees’ lawyers to strip New York City’s control of Rikers Island and transfer it to federal oversight, siding with city leaders who’ve argued that doing so would be premature. 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. The judge’s decision struck a major blow to the hopes of criminal justice advocates and elected officials who’ve long urged the courts to appoint a third-party federal receiver to oversee the system. The decision will be revisited in April.
Edgardo Mejias, 39, became the 19th person to die in city jails and hospitals in 2022, officially bringing the death rate to the highest it's been in at least 12 years. While the correction department provided few details about how he died, sources told the Daily News he likely died of a drug overdose.
A few days later at an oversight hearing, Molina told members of the City Council that Rikers Island’s population is growing at a rate that indicates that, without changes, the number of people incarcerated will exceed 7,000 in less than two years. He said this is likely to prove problematic as there will be more than 3,300 people incarcerated there in 2027 – the number the complex is legally required to be at in order to close as mandated.
Marvin Pines, a 65-year-old man, was the first person to die in city custody in 2023 on Feb. 4. According to a report from the Board of Correction later in the month, several correction staffers were suspended following Pines’ death, with the Board finding that Pines had been sick in a bathroom, where he was later found unresponsive, for more than an hour without an officer checking on him, and that officers had failed to properly tour his housing unit.
In her State of the City address, New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams carved out time to renew the council’s commitment to shutting down Rikers by 2027. It’s a goal that Adams’ late mother, a former correction officer, called a long time coming. “When I asked my mother what she thought about closing Rikers when we held a Council hearing a couple of years ago – I still had her with me – she said to me, ‘Baby, we should have closed that place a long time ago,’” Adams recalled at the March 8 speech.
But with less than five years to go before that deadline, there are new reasons to doubt that it will happen on time. According to a public notice posted in mid March and first identified by the the Daily News, a proposed city contract to build a new jail in Brooklyn – one of four borough based-jails meant to replace Rikers – wouldn’t finish until 2029, two years after the 2027 deadline to close Rikers. A mayoral spokesperson attributed the 2029 completion date to supply chain delays and construction costs.
Manuel Hernandez, the head of the city correction department’s investigation division, resigned in wake of questions about how he handled probes into excessive force cases, the Daily News reported April 2. According to sources, Hernandez opted to close several extreme use-of-force cases instead of charging the offending officers or after he filed lighter, reduced charges.
On May 29, federal monitor Steve Martin filed a special report that highlighted five “serious and disturbing incidents” involving incarcerated people who’d been harmed over a two-week period. The report slammed Molina and his team for suppressing information about the incidents, questioning whether they are “capable of managing such serious incidents.” One of the incidents involved an individual named Rubu Zhao, 52, who died May 16 after suffering a skull fracture from an apparent fall, according to the Times. Another was Joshua Valles who died at Elmhurst Hospital on May 27. While the Correction Department said Valles died of a suspected heart attack and it wasn’t a “use of force case,” the monitor said it couldn’t independently verify the claim due to a lack of information.
The Daily News reported that Molina urged the federal monitor not to release the report because it would “cause great harm to the department when we are making great strides.”
Swain, the federal judge tasked with deciding whether to appoint a federal receiver, said that recent reports raise profound questions about the city’s ability to protect incarcerated people and correction department staff. While she said during a hearing that she’s not ready to hear arguments on the matter yet, she said her faith is significantly shaken, signaling that she may be open to considering a federal takeover.
Four incarcerated men died throughout July: William Johnstone, Ricky Howell, Felix Taveras, and Curtis Davis. According to the Daily News, four Rikers Island staffers were suspended in wake of Tavaras’ death, believed to be caused by a drug overdose – two of whom were correction officers accused of failing to act quickly enough to save him.
In a significant shift that could persuade Swain to strip the city of its power over Rikers Island, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams called for a federal receiver to assume control of city jails on July 17.
A day after William’s remarks, Swain wrote that the Adams administration had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails and imperil those who are confined and who work there.” While her words don’t necessarily prove she will end up appointing a receiver, it suggests it could be likely in the months ahead.
While momentum for a federal receiver continued to build in the first few weeks of August, the jail complex gained a handful of defenders: members of the New York City Council’s Common Sense Caucus who went on a tour of the complex Aug. 8. The group’s positive remarks about observed conditions – “freshly painted walls,” air conditioning, “working locks” and programming geared toward young adults – garnered a wave of pushback.
A few days later, Swain began the process of potentially stripping the city of its control during a key Aug. 10 hearing. Amid Martin’s arguments that pointed to “real, abject harm” happening every day at Rikers, Swain said “transformative change” is needed if the city is to maintain its stewardship.
On Aug. 22, Donny Ubiera died in his cell on Rikers Island, becoming the eighth person to die in DOC custody this year. The department reported that Ubiera received immediate medical care after being found unconscious, but two people detained in the same unit on Rikers told City & State that correction officers didn’t respond to Ubiera’s calls for assistance in the hours before his death.
With four years left before a 2027 deadline, the Adams administration has again suggested there’s a need to revisit the plan to close Rikers Island and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails. In a conversation at New York Law School on Aug. 29, Adams suggested that the City Council needs to revisit the plan it approved in 2019, in part because of Rikers’ growing population and the smaller capacity of the borough-based jails.