Federal prosecutor asks judge to take away control of Rikers from Mayor Adams administration

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By Dan Sears

The federal government is asking a judge to remove control of Rikers Island from Mayor Eric Adams and the city’s Department of Correction.

The filing – submitted by a Manhattan federal prosecutor on Friday – is the latest in a growing call to turn jurisdiction of the city’s largest jail over to an outside entity, otherwise known as a federal receivership. The filing also calls for the city to be held accountable for not fulfilling reforms to Rikers dating years earlier.

Both inmates and staff at Rikers “face a grave risk of serious harm on a daily basis because” of the city’s failure to comply with its orders, Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, wrote in the filing addressed to federal judge Laura Swain.

The court filing comes amid growing calls for the city to make good on the city’s vow to shut down Rikers Island by 2027 – a promise that many are worried that the mayor will be unable to fulfill before the deadline. A number of advocacy groups – including the good government group Citizens Union – have joined the Legal Aid Society in calling for a federal receivership of Rikers Island.

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Williams’ filing also comes mere weeks after the Legal Aid Society lambasted the city’s jail system for a recent report detailing vermin infestations among other unsanitary living conditions for prisoners. It’s only compounding other recent reports that Commissioner Louis A. Molina – who heads Rikers – is expected to leave his post before the end of the year.

The jail – located in the East River in the Bronx – continues to be plagued with reports of troubling conditions on its grounds: including sexual assault and a mounting toll of inmates who die while detained at Rikers.

As of October, nine DOC detainees have died in New York City Department of Correction custody this year. A total of 19 people died in DOC custody last year.

Rikers staff “use force against incarcerated people at an extraordinarily high rate, often utilizing high impact force and head strikes” and “a pattern of unnecessary force,” Williams writes in the filing. The prosecutor later adds that the continued reports of worsening conditions at the jail mean that the federal government does not have “any basis to believe this will change in the near term.”

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The mayor’s office and the Legal Aid Society did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Gothamist. But in a statement on Friday, Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society, expressed support for the federal receivership.

“A receiver with the authority and mandate to make the difficult decisions the City will not is needed to secure the progress that two administrations and multiple Correction commissioners have all failed to achieve, and protect the constitutional rights of all people incarcerated in New York City jails,” she said in a statement.

The federal government previously asked the city of New York to make good on numerous changes “correct the violations of the constitutional rights of people incarcerated” at Rikers in 2015. These changes were needed in order to reduce the incidents of violence at the jail and ensure the safety of its inmates.

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