New York City Has ‘Tepid’ Plans for Fixing Rikers, Monitor Says

If New York City officials feel any urgency about fixing the persistent problems at the Rikers Island jail complex, they are not showing it, according to a report filed on Monday by the federal official appointed to monitor the lockup.

The monitor, Steve J. Martin, writes in the report that the city Correction Department’s most recent efforts toward improving conditions at the Rikers complex have been “haphazard, tepid and insubstantial.”

In describing the dysfunction that has come to define the jails, Mr. Martin detailed two episodes that occurred at Rikers in the past several months. One involved a correction officer who stood by as a group of detainees assaulted a man in their unit. The other involved detainees who were pepper sprayed for no reason during an unofficial “hostage drill.”

The report’s findings are striking given the increasing possibility that the city could be forced to relinquish at least some control over its jails, which have been troubled for decades and plunged into their latest crisis in March 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. A hearing on the future stewardship of the jails is scheduled for Wednesday.

Last month, the United States attorney in Manhattan, Damian Williams, called for an outside authority to take over the jails. The problems at Rikers, Mr. Williams said, were a result of a “collective failure with deep roots.”

The day after his call, the federal judge who would decide on a takeover, Laura Taylor Swain, wrote that the current city administration, led by Mayor Eric Adams, had failed “to address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails.”

Despite the mounting pressure, Mr. Martin writes in his latest report, the ninth since June 2022, the city’s proposals in the past few weeks for addressing the dysfunction at Rikers do not reflect “the gravity of the current conditions.”

“The monitoring team has not yet observed evidence of the necessary change in perspective regarding either the severity of the problems that must be addressed or a sense of urgency to identify and implement concrete solutions,” the report says.

The city’s total jail population on Monday was 6,200, officials said. Most of the detainees were at Rikers and awaiting trial. The island complex, which Mr. Martin monitors under a 2015 consent judgment, is to close and be replaced by several smaller jails in 2027.

A Correction Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the monitor’s latest report. A spokeswoman for Mr. Adams cited remarks he made last month about whether the city should cede its authority over the jails.

At the time, the mayor insisted that the city’s approach to improving conditions at Rikers was “trending in the right direction” and that “you’re not going to find a person that’s more committed to turn around the Department of Correction.”

The Legal Aid Society disagrees. In a statement, a spokesman for the organization said the report showed that the city “does not grasp the magnitude of the problem it faces, and is incapable of administering basic jail functions.”

Among the most serious of the jails’ continuing problems, the report says, is the growing number of people who have died in the city’s custody, including two in the past month, for a total of seven this year.

The security failings that contribute to such deaths are by now entrenched, the report says.

“Alarmingly,” the report says, “many of these practices appear to have become normalized, and staff seemingly fail to recognize the resulting safety risks or the ways in which these practices elevate the likelihood of a tragic outcome.”

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