Judge could determine future of Rikers Island as NYC implements reforms

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A federal judge could determine the future of Rikers Island during a hearing Tuesday afternoon on the city's plans to reform the troubled jail amid a possible federal takeover, citing a crisis dating to last year.

Among the possible outcomes of the hearing are a full federal takeover of the jail system, in which a receiver would be appointed with broad power over the operations of the Correction Department, or a partial takeover, in which the city retains some control.

The city submitted an aggressive 26-page plan to reform Rikers Island to the judge last week, promising to tackle the Correction Department's staffing crisis, revising sick leave and absence control policies, and promising a leadership reshuffle, which has already started.

Judge Laura Taylor Swain in 2014 appointed a federal monitor, but Rikers remains plagued by problems. Sixteen inmates died in custody last year, and five have died so far this year.

(Previous coverage in video player above)

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Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina was set to appear Tuesday to provide an update on progress, which he said is "in alignment" with recommendations from the federal monitor, Steve Martin.

In a recent report, Martin said about 30% of the workforce at the jails was not coming to work or not available to work with inmates.

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.

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 in April. "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 Eric 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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