NYC feds threaten Rikers Island with independent takeover


As the Rikers Island crisis continues to go unaddressed, prosecutors are floating the idea of a federal takeover.

In a letter filed in federal court on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District said federal prosecutors remain alarmed by the “level of violence and disorder” at Rikers.

The letter says prosecutors have repeatedly asked the city and the Department of Correction for specific steps on how they will address the problem. But they have received no details.

Ultimately, the letter reads, “absent a commitment to expeditiously make the dramatic systemic reforms identified by the Monitor and to bring in corrections experts from outside the Department to revamp the agency’s operations and staffing practices, we will be left with no other option but to seek more aggressive relief, which could involve seeking the appointment of a receiver with independent authority to implement sweeping reforms.”

Criminal justice experts said the step was significant.

“It’s a huge deal,” Elizabeth Glazer, the founder of policy journal Vital City and former head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Mayor Bill de Blasio. “This really is the most drastic step that can be taken.”

The U.S. Attorney’s letter was written as part of a longstanding federal court case which resulted in the appointed of a federal monitor to oversee Rikers seven years ago.

Repeatedly, the monitor has found the jail complex continues to be overrun by mismanagement and violence.

A federal receiver could be the next step.

“A receiver stands in the shoes of the commissioner,” Glazer said. “A receiver really has complete authority to put in place personnel policies, to change operations, to completely revamp the management of the department.”

Experts say it would not be unprecedented.

“Since 1970, judges have resorted to receiverships to pull some of the nation’s worst of the worst prisons and jails in line with the constitution,” said Hernandez Stroud, counsel of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “Alabama is another example. Their entire prison system, back in 1976, was placed into a 13-year receivership.”

It’s unclear if it will get to that point. The judge in this case would have to determine it’s necessary. A hearing is slated for next week.

Asked on Tuesday for a reaction, the mayor said he is reviewing the letter.

“I will look over the letter and find out exactly what’s taking place,” Adams said. “We can run our jails. We can run a jail system that has been a mess for decades.”

Patrick Rocchio, a spokesperson for the Department of Correction, also sent NY1 this statement:

“We remain deeply committed to the idea of reform and to working with all stakeholders to improve conditions. We take the Monitor’s and U.S. Attorney’s concerns seriously and are working hard to address their concerns. We are reviewing the letter and will respond accordingly.

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