The Rikers Island jail complex is barreling towards what appears to be an increasingly likely federal takeover as court proceedings roll forward and more and more leaders voice their support for the prospect.
New York City jails have a long history of abuse and negligence. In 2022, at least 19 incarcerated people died in the city’s custody – the highest death rate since 2013 – and at least nine have died so far this year. Pointing to a rash of violence, disorder, and poor management, federal authorities seem on the verge of stripping the city of its control over Rikers and placing the jails system under a federal receivership. The building momentum comes eight years after the federal government entered into a consent decree with New York City and the Department of Correction, and federal monitor Steve Martin was appointed by the court to oversee the DOC’s compliance with reforms.
A growing number of New York City leaders and legal organizations have called for Rikers Island to be put in receivership. Here’s a brief tracker of where they stand on the issue. This article was last updated on Dec. 8, 2023.
Federal Monitor Steve Martin:
Since 2015, court-appointed monitor Martin has issued report after report calling out increased violence and other problems plaguing New York City jails – and DOC’s unwillingness or inability to solve them. “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,” Martin concluded in an October report. If Swain does end up appointing a receiver, he could be a top choice.
The Legal Aid Society:
The staunchest advocate for Rikers receivership, the Legal Aid Society has long argued that a federal takeover is necessary to ensure the city complies with court orders to reduce long-standing violence in city jails. The Legal Aid Society’s original class action lawsuit over correction officers’ poor treatment of detainees in 2011 has dragged on for years, leading to the appointment of federal monitor Steve Martin in 2015 and laying the foundation for the legal battle over receivership now playing out in the courts.
U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams:
Perhaps the greatest momentum builder for a potential federal takeover came this summer when Williams, Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor, said he would ask U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain to install a federal receiver over city jails. In a seering statement issued July 17, Williams said the ongoing harm at Rikers Island is a “collective failure with deep roots, spanning multiple mayoral administrations and DOC commissioners.” He submitted the court filing on Nov. 17, formally joining the Legal Aid Society lawyers representing people incarcerated in New York City jails.
New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams:
While New York City’s public advocate has acknowledged that receivership wouldn’t be a panacea for city jails, Williams officially called for a federal takeover in June after the federal monitor released a report sharply criticizing city officials for failing to properly investigate correction officers' lethal use of force and refusal to provide prompt emergency medical care. What we want to see is a commitment to close Rikers down. Whoever can do that is who I want to see running Rikers,” Williams said after touring Rikers in wake of the report.
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander:
Citing violence and the rising death rate, Lander was the first citywide elected official in New York City to call for receivership back in October 2022. “A receiver will not be able to magically fix what has been broken at Rikers for decades. But a receiver would be empowered to make decisions that the City has failed to adequately contend with for many years, whether by lack of will or through inability due to legal, regulatory or other barriers,” he said in a statement.
New York City Council members:
While the full New York City Council has yet to call for a federal takeover, the body led by Speaker Adrienne Adams has been adamant about ensuring Rikers Island closes by its mandated August 2027 deadline to be replaced by four new borough based jails. Banning solitary confinement and oversight of the embattled complex have also been among the council’s priorities. More than a dozen city council members have individually said they support receivership.
New York Attorney General Letitia James:
The state attorney general’s office threw its might behind the motion for federal receivership last week after years of raising concerns about conditions at Rikers. In a letter to Swain dated Dec. 1, James’ office wrote that the office sees receivership as the “way forward for the good of all the people who live and work in the NYC jails.”
New York City Bar Association:
An association that represents over 23,000 New York City lawyers and law students submitted a joint amicus brief with the Vera Institute of Justice in support of receivership on Dec. 4.
Former DOC Commissioners Vincent Schiraldi and Michael Jacobson:
Two prior commissioners of the city Department of Correction under former New York City mayors Bill de Blasio and Rudy Giuliani, Schiraldi and Jacobson have both said they believe receivership is at this point the best path forward to improve conditions at Rikers. “The only path I see to real change is for the federal court already overseeing the Rikers Island consent decree to appoint a receiver to run the system while we reduce its population,” Schiraldi wrote in a piece for The Marshall Project last year.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg:
The Manhattan district attorney publicly voiced his support for receivership on Dec. 6. “As someone who sends people to Rikers, I think we got to do something different,” Bragg said,
New York City Mayor Eric Adams:
The mayor remains firmly opposed to the prospect of a federal takeover. He has repeatedly argued that the Department of Correction has made strides in reducing violence and that stripping the city of its control would be a premature move. Last month, Adams told reporters that “he wants the job of repairing Rikers” and that the complex is better off in the city’s hands.
DOC Commissioner Louis Molina:
Molina’s days as commissioner of the city Department of Correction may soon come to an end after a tumultuous two years, but his opposition to receivership hasn’t wavered. Like Adams – who has firmly backed the commissioner amid outside criticism – Molina has claimed that under their leadership things have improved significantly at Rikers. Federal monitor Steve Martin has a very different view of the last two years, having accused both Molina and Adams of deliberately attempting to “interfere and obfuscate” efforts to reform Rikers.
Correction Officers Benevolent Association:
The union that represents correction officers opposes a federal takeover. “Just because a receiver comes in, it’s not like he or she are going to wave a magic wand and all of our problems will go away,” union president Benny Boscio told NY1 last year. If a federal receiver were appointed to manage Rikers, they could be given the power to fire corrections staff who are currently protected by union contracts.
New York City Council Common Sense Caucus:
Fresh off of a tour of Rikers in August, the City Council’s Common Sense Caucus, which is composed of eight Republican and conservative Democrat members, claimed that conditions have vastly improved under Molina’s leadership. “It’s improved. Anybody that is saying it’s not improving over 2021 either has a political agenda or is lying,” New York City Council Member Bob Holden said of what he observed. “Of course it’s not finished, but they are headed in the right direction. That’s the best way to describe it.”