NYC given 3 weeks to develop Rikers Island plan to avoid federal takeover

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A federal judge in Manhattan considered Tuesday whether to put New York City's sprawling and troubled Rikers Island jail complex under federal control before ultimately granting the city more time.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain in 2014 appointed a federal monitor, but Rikers, part of the New York City Department of Correction, remains plagued by staffing problems, physical deterioration and violence.

Fifteen inmates died in custody last year, and three have died so far this year. There were more than five dozen stabbings in March alone.

The monitor, Steve Martin, said there is time to make changes to Rikers and gave the city three weeks to submit a plan to avert a federal takeover.

If not, "more extreme measures will be necessary," Martin said.

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Anna Friedberg, Martin's deputy, cited multiple instances when legal barriers -- including city policies, existing contracts and union rules -- have stymied city reforms.

She said the city must cut that red tape immediately, must take aggressive and dramatic action, must hire outside expertise, and must allow them to work from home.

She cited four areas of concern at Rikers, including security, staffing, management of incarcerated people, and accountability.

The city has until 3 p.m. May 17 to submit its plan, and a hearing will be held virtually May 24 at 2:30 p.m.

A city lawyer said they are is "in general agreement with the monitoring team" on changes.

Part of that plan includes the hiring of 578 new correction officers, which Mayor Eric Adams revealed earlier Tuesday. Correction Commissioner Louis Molina said reforms are already in the works.

Molina said he believes the former de Blasio administration was pursuing a "political argument" to close Rikers, explaining current conditions.

"I want to first acknowledge the frustration of the performance of the department since the inception of the consent judgement," Molina said. "My vision is to create a culture of discipline and service to those incarcerated. I truly believe the monitor and I are aligned...I assure this court, you will see change. We have not passed a point of no return. You and I together can get this done."

The U.S. Attorney's Office admitted it is giving "serious consideration" to seeking federal receivership of city jails to address the "ongoing, daily constitutional injury to the inmates."

Federal prosecutors believe Mayor Adams is committed to reform, but a monitor could overcome existing legal barriers.

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Damien Williams, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, expressed alarm at the level of violence, frustration with the lack of progress and raised the possibility of federal receivership to force change.

"The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now," Williams said in a letter to the court. "Based on our experience over the last six years and the sustained non-compliance with key Consent Judgment provisions and the three subsequent Remedial Orders entered by this Court, our Office is very concerned about whether the Department and City have the ability, expertise, and will to swiftly make the changes necessary to bring true reform to this deeply troubled agency."

The Adams administration, in its own letter to the court, insisted it is making progress and asked for more time.

"Fixing Rikers is critically important, a moral imperative, and we need to get it right, but to do that, we need the opportunity to implement our plan," the letter read. "These are generational challenges, deeply ingrained, and no administration can solve them in less than four months. We look forward to continuing our close collaboration with the federal monitor and all other stakeholders."

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