NYC councilmembers declare ‘complete turnaround’ at Rikers after touring troubled jail

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By Dan Sears

In stark contrast to a recent federal monitor report on Rikers Island, a group of mostly right-leaning City Council members toured the city’s troubled jail complex Tuesday and declared it “a complete turnaround” from when they last visited in 2021.

The tour comes a day after a report from the federal monitor, Steve Martin, that said city officials failed to grasp the severity and urgency of the problem.

“I couldn’t believe the difference. Freshly painted, shiny floors, better lighting,” said Robert Holden, a Queens councilmember who vacillates between the Democrat and Republican parties. “They had not only video games, but they had a pretty nice movie theater – this is all new under Commissioner [Louis] Molina – even pingpong, which one of the councilmembers got involved with playing one of the detainees.”

Molina had given Holden and other members of the council’s Common Sense Caucus, composed mostly of Republicans, the tour of Rikers on Tuesday.

“Anybody that tells me that this place hasn’t really turned the corner and is now coming back, they’re either lying or it’s a political maneuver because they really want the place closed,” Holden said.

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Holden, who opposes federal receivership of Rikers and believes that Mayor Eric Adams has turned the jail around, said he had not read Monday’s 56-page report detailing two troubling incidents in Rikers in recent months. In one incident a correction officer “stood passively” by and watched a group of detainees bloody another for “a full three minutes” and “did not immediately call for assistance” and “did nothing to intervene.” This officer was later suspended for 30 days.

A second incident, in May, included a “hostage drill” involving incarcerated men. The report says not all correction officers were told it was a “drill” and sprayed detainees with pepper spray.

The report says that the officer “who had orchestrated the ‘drill’ appeared to smile and laugh in response.” This officer was later promoted, according to the monitor’s report, and the person pepper sprayed did not immediately receive medical treatment.

Similar incidents have persisted in Rikers.

Incarcerated people say correction officers fail to bring them to medical appointments, defense attorneys say their clients are not brought to court, officers have been issued procedural violations and suspended when officials said they failed to make rounds and render aid when detainees were sick or in distress.

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Seven detainees have died this year.

A federal judge will hear arguments as soon as this week over whether to appoint a federal receiver of city jails following a series of scathing court filings that described escalating violence and correction officials hiding information about violent incidents, including deaths.

When informed that the monitor’s conclusion about the city’s efforts to turn Rikers around was “haphazard, tepid, and insubstantial” Holden said “They’re just not seeing what I saw.”

The city’s Law Office said it is still reviewing the report.

Frank Dwyer, a Department of Correction spokesperson, said, “The Department appreciates the opportunity to show our elected officials the significant progress and improvements this administration has made in its jails.”

In reconciling his view of Rikers with that of the federal monitoring team, Holden acknowledged that the federal monitoring team likely has had more access to the facility than he did.

“And they’re experts, so that could be it,” he added.

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