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The Department of Justice on Tuesday threatened to take over New York City’s Rikers Island and other city jails from Mayor Eric Adam’s control, citing an “extraordinary level of violence and disorder.”
In a letter addressed to U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain Tuesday, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams reiterated the “systemic failures” within the New York City Department of Correction outlined in a special report filed March 16 and “numerous” prior reports from a court-appointed monitor.
“We remain alarmed by the extraordinary level of violence and disorder at the jails and the ongoing imminent risk of harm that inmates and correction officers face every day,” the letter, also signed by assistant district attorneys Jeffrey Powell and Lara Eshkenazi, said.
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They continued: “The continuing failure to follow basic security protocols, dysfunctional staff deployment practices, inexplicably high staff absenteeism levels, deficient management and supervision of frontline officers, and the failure to hold staff timely accountable for the use of excessive and unnecessary force against inmates have resulted in an unsafe environment and non-compliance with the core provisions of the Consent Judgement and the three Remedial Orders entered by this Court.”
The scathing 78-page report filed March 16 detailed worsening violence and safety issues at Rikers Island, inmates that miss thousands of medical appointments each month and 30% of uniformed staff calling out sick or otherwise unavailable for duties, most of whom are believed to be gaming the system.
Tuesday’s letter asked the court to order a representative from Adams’ office and New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina a status conference scheduled for April 26 so that they “are available to directly respond to any questions” on the progress of adopting the report’s recommendations.
Williams said that neither the commissioner nor corrections department operational staff bothered to attend meetings on April 5 and April 14, showing they were “not prepared or willing to discuss implementation plans” despite claiming to agree with most of the recommendations.
“The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now,” Williams wrote Tuesday. Citing more than six years of noncompliance, the letter asserted that without a commitment to “expeditiously make dramatic reforms” and bring in corrections experts from outside the department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office “will be left with no other option but to seek more aggressive relief, which could include the appointment of a receiver with independent authority to implement sweeping reforms and take necessary action” to comply with past court orders and recommendations.
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In recent weeks, N.Y. Daily News reported that Molina hired a correction officer, who called out sick for 160 days, as his personal driver; named a police captain who previously pleaded guilty to drunk driving as his top aide; and appointed a deputy warden under investigation for allegedly stealing time as head of the same unit in charge of monitoring sick leave blamed for fueling the department’s crisis.