News & Politics

As federal takeover of Rikers Island looms, Mayor Eric Adams insists jails conditions are improving

The mayor credited outgoing DOC commissioner Louis Molina with moving things in “the right direction.”

Mayor Eric Adams senior administration officials hold an in-person media availability at City Hall on Tuesday, November 21, 2023.

Mayor Eric Adams senior administration officials hold an in-person media availability at City Hall on Tuesday, November 21, 2023. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

New York City Mayor Eric Adams appears convinced that the situation at Rikers Island is fine – even as it’s become increasingly clear that the city’s jails system is headed for a federal takeover. On Friday, Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor asked a judge to strip the city of its authority over Rikers Island, citing persistent violence and chaos. But on Tuesday, Adams said that he still does not believe the embattled jails system is beyond repair.

During his weekly off-topic press conference, the mayor claimed that the city has made great strides in tackling the longstanding issues in New York City jails that led to the appointment of a court-ordered federal monitor in 2015. Adams and Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Phil Banks credited outgoing New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina with the improved state of the city’s jails system, insisting that the commissioner had moved things in “the right direction” by changing the atmosphere and “partnering with outside entities to provide services” under difficult circumstances. 

Banks pointed to declining rates of correction officer absenteeism and a decrease in the number of fires, assaults and broken locks as evidence that the city is making the necessary progress. He also suggested that Rikers would fare even worse under federal receivership than under the city’s control. “Show me a receivership. Point to one receivership – Mississippi, Alabama. Chicago – where a receivership came in and did a better job than that particular city,” Banks said. “I would love to see that because if there is one I would love to take a look at that particular issue here because our job here is to make sure Rikers is operating as efficiently as it possibly can.”

But both U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams and Federal Monitor Steve Martin have painted a far less rosy picture of conditions in New York City jails. Martin and his team in particular have extensively documented the rising violence on Rikers Island and the DOC’s lack of transparency. The monitor’s most recent report noted that “security and violence indicators remain alarmingly elevated” and “reflect significant dysfunction and result in a high risk of harm to staff and incarcerated individuals.” In his court filing calling for a federal takeover, Williams wrote that the city has long been “unable or unwilling” to make the needed reforms to “remedy the ongoing violation of the constitutional rights of people in custody.”

Williams’ court filing came just a few weeks after Adams announced that Molina would be leaving his position as corrections commissioner by mid-November to become the assistant deputy mayor for public safety. 

City Hall has described Molina’s appointment as a promotion and said it has nothing to do with the ongoing federal court proceeding that could end with the DOC being held in contempt of court and a federal receiver being appointed to manage New York City jails. 

On Tuesday, Adams declined to say who would succeed Molina as DOC commissioner. “He’s going to cycle into a new role, but at the same time we are going to have someone there who is going to continue to do that great work that those men and women are doing at the Department of Correction,” Adams said of Molina. “That’s a tough job.”