A Manhattan federal judge dealt a blow to advocates for Rikers Island prisoners on Thursday, barring the Legal Aid Society from requesting a federal takeover of the Big Apple’s troubled jail system.
Judge Laura Taylor shot down a request from the city’s largest legal aid nonprofit that it be allowed to formally lobby for the appointment of a “receiver” — or third-party administrator — to oversee Rikers Island and other city Department of Correction facilities.
While Swain said she remains deeply concerned about safety issues at Rikers, the promise of a receiver could divert resources away from keeping inmates safe and could be counter productive, she noted.
Allowing Legal Aid to argue for the receivership would be “premature and inconsistent with the legal restraints,” the judge added at the end of the lengthy hearing on Thursday.
Legal Aid attorney Mary Lynne Werl was had pleaded with Swain to consider the group’s argument for a receiver, arguing that seven years had passed since a federal monitor was appointed to institute reforms at the jail.
“Continuing down the same path cannot and will not bring relief to the plaintiff class,” Werlwas, who represents prisoners at the jail complex, told the judge.
The attorney cited a litany of concerns, including use of force by staff, chronic absenteeism and the inability of guards to stop inmate suicides.
The crisis in the city jails — where 18 people have died this year — has persisted throughout a number of City Hall administrations, which are influenced by politics and concerns of constituents, she argued.
A federal receiver, Werl was said, would not be subject to political whims, but rather accountable to the court.
“A receiver is an extraordinary remedy but these are extraordinary facts,” she said.
Swain, however, cited evidence from an October report by the federal monitor appointed to assess conditions at the lockup which showed some progress had been made at the complex.
“The Department’s leadership team has demonstrated their understanding of both
the big picture of what must be achieved and the nuances and sequence of all the things that must change to achieve it,” the report found.
The DOC has successfully filled a number of leadership roles in the past year, including an executive director and 11 assistant commissioners, the report states.
At the hearing, DOC Commissioner Louis Molina said they’ve also hired a self-harm prevention consultant that he said he hopes will help stop suicides in the complex.
Federal authorities from the Southern District of New York said they would not be backing Legal Aid’s current bid for a receiver, but reserved the right to do so in the future.
SDNY attorney Jeffrey Powell said the office remains “frustrated” by how long it’s taken to make progress at the jail, but added some reforms have been made.
“There appears to be at least some glimmer of hope that progress may be on the horizon,” he said.
In a statement, Legal Aid said it was dismayed by the judge’s decision.
“We are disappointed that the Court would not allow Plaintiffs to present their case for the appointment of a receiver, but appreciate the Court’s demand from the City for swift and serious action,” the statement said. “The Legal Aid Society will continue to hold the City accountable for the violence and abuse that our targeted clients suffer every day.”
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