Rikers Island

Federal monitor concludes DOC is incapable of running Rikers well

The monitor’s latest report finds that stabbings are up, deaths in custody are continuing and nothing will change so long as DOC is in charge.

Rikers Island

Rikers Island EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images

The federal monitor issued his latest report on Rikers Island on Thursday, and the conclusion is as grim as ever: “The jails remain dangerous and unsafe, characterized by a pervasive, imminent risk of harm to both people in custody and staff.”

Steven Martin, who was appointed by a federal court in 2015 to monitor conditions at Rikers Island, and his monitoring team are placing the blame for the violence squarely on the city Department of Correction, which it says has failed to rectify the ongoing problems plaguing the jails system despite being given plenty of chances.

“Over the last few months, the Department’s efforts have been limited and ineffective, with few concrete plans for solving the intractable problems despite clear direction from the Court to ‘make urgently needed changes’ and ‘to make up for lost time and increase the safety and rational and appropriate operation of the institution[s] as soon as possible. And that requires a pace faster than any that we’ve managed to achieve so far,’” the report states, quoting recent orders from Laura Taylor Swain, the federal judge presiding over the case.

Since the beginning of this year, according to the report, nine people have died while in DOC custody or shortly after being released, with the most recent death occurring on the same day the report was released. Violence also remains high in the jails, with 91 stabbings or slashings reported in the jails during August and September – an increase of 30% from the same period last year. Violence perpetrated by correction officers also remains high. In July and August, 31 correction staffers were suspended for incidents involving the excessive use of force.

Beyond the specific numbers, the report paints a disturbing report of a corrections department that is simply incapable of safely and effectively running the city’s jails, no matter how many chances they are given to improve their performance.

“It has been over two years since the Monitoring Team first raised concerns about the deteriorating conditions in the jails and issued a special report to the Court in which the Monitoring Team strongly implored the City and the Department to take immediate steps to address the various causes of harm to people in custody,” the report states. “The conditions that gave rise to the first Monitor’s Special Report on August 24, 2021 remain just as indisputable today.”

The monitor’s report will further strengthen the case for federal receivership of Rikers Island, which would entail Swain appointing someone to take over control of the city jails system from the DOC. Federal prosecutors, the Legal Aid Society, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, city Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and more than a dozen City Council members have all called on Swain to appoint a federal receiver.

On Aug. 10, during the most recent hearing in the case, Swain signaled that she was open to receivership if DOC was unable to demonstrate that it could safely manage Rikers. “The court made clear that should defendants fail to make progress, the court would agree to move towards receivership. Defendants have not demonstrated by willingness or action to engage with the monitoring team to ensure safety at Rikers,” she said.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for late November, though the earliest that a federal receiver could be appointed is next year. As she considers whether to move forward with federal receivership, Swain will need to consider the pessimistic conclusion expressed in the monitor’s latest report: “The City and Department have repeatedly and consistently demonstrated they are incapable of effectively directing and managing the multilayered and multifaceted reform effort, and continuing on the current path is not likely to alter the present course in any meaningful way.”

The DOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.