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Closing Argument

Federal Judge Eyes a ‘Last Resort’ Fix for New York City’s Jails

Record deaths at Rikers Island may lead to a federal takeover as criticism mounts.

A Black man in a blue sweater, blue mask and black pants speaks into several mics from different TV news stations. A group of protesters stand in front of the Rikers Island jail complex entrance in the background, holding signs that read: "The Fortune Society: Building People, Not Prisons" and "Humanity and Dignity for Those Detained at Rikers!!!"
People in Queens, New York protest against poor conditions at the Rikers Island jail complex in January 2022.

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Last month, a federal judge overseeing a court settlement seeking to make New York City’s notorious Rikers Island jails safer signaled that she is losing patience with the city’s corrections department. After years of dysfunction and disorder at the complex, Judge Laura Taylor Swain said she was beginning to question whether city officials “are capable of safe and proper management of the jails.” Close observers knew exactly what Swain was hinting at: a federal receivership.

Advocates of this measure and attorneys for people locked up at Rikers have long called for a takeover of the jails by a neutral, court-appointed expert, known as a receiver. But judges are generally reluctant to take this drastic step, which hands control to an administrator who answers to the judge, not elected officials. It’s only been done a handful of times across the country at prisons and jails with the most intractable problems.

“A receiver has extraordinary powers. It has to be a last resort and it’s a big thing to do,” Elizabeth Glazer, former director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, told The City.

In 2006, a federal judge made history by placing California’s entire $1.2 billion prison health care system into receivership as part of a landmark class-action lawsuit. Experts at the time testified that, on average, a person in California state prisons died from medical neglect or malpractice every week.

Receivers can spend money, hire and fire staff, and write policies as they see fit. They can also ask the judge to override union contracts or state rules that get in their way. “That freedom from bureaucratic morass is partly why receivers, answerable only to the court, usually make progress where agencies simply can’t,” wrote Hernandez D. Stroud, an attorney and law professor who studies prison oversight, in a New York Daily News editorial arguing in favor of a receivership at Rikers Island.

But receivers sometimes come with controversy, too. Since they only have to answer to the judge, critics argue that receivers are not accountable to the people and their elected representatives. And receivers’ spending can raise concerns. California’s first receiver didn’t endear himself to state officials when he threatened to hold them in contempt of court and said he would “‘back up the Brink’s truck’ to the state’s treasury, if need be,” The New York Times reported at the time. The $500,000 annual salary he paid himself didn’t help, either.

A second receiver in that California case has done the job for over a decade, transferring oversight of health care back to the state as facilities meet certain standards. The state now runs health care at 20 facilities, and the receiver still manages 13. “It's off-the-charts better care than they would have ever had before,” Don Specter, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the California suit, told The Arizona Republic last year. “It's not Cadillac care or anything like that, but it's decent care.”

Specter is also a lead attorney in a similar class-action lawsuit regarding prison health care in Arizona. In 2021, the judge in that case ruled that Arizona’s health care was “plainly grossly inadequate” and laid out required changes, hinting that she could appoint a receiver in the future.

Not every receivership drags on for as long as California’s has, though. In 1995, a federal judge ordered a receiver to run Central Detention Facility (CDF), the jail in Washington, D.C., after concluding that some city officials “don’t give a damn.” At the height of the AIDS crisis, for example, there was “a chronic shortage of life-saving supplies, medication and equipment,” the judge’s order said. In 2000, five years after the receiver took over, the judge returned control of the jail to the city, expressing reservations but acknowledging that conditions had improved.

But the improvements didn’t last. In 2021, in what one Washington Post op-ed columnist called “deja vu,” U.S. Marshals were so appalled by conditions at the jail that they transferred 400 people to a federal prison. They found “‘large amounts of standing human sewage … in the toilets of multiple occupied cells’ and many cells in which water ‘had been shut off for days.’”

Those reports echo news coming out of Rikers Island. A class-action suit regarding conditions at the jail complex has dragged on for years, with a federal monitor issuing regular reports and the judge giving the city multiple opportunities to avoid a federal takeover by fixing conditions on its own.

Yet since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Rikers’ conditions have worsened. Stabbings and slashings are common; people have been packed into unsanitary cells that some have said are “like a slave ship”; record numbers of people have died. With mounting public pressure and sharp criticism from the monitor tasked with keeping an eye on jail conditions, the city recently said it would stop announcing deaths at the jail. A longtime Rikers doctor was fired after criticizing correctional officers and jail administrators on social media with the hashtag #ReceivershipNow. “Rather than fix the problems plaguing the jails, Mayor Adams and his DOC commissioner have sought to hide them,” wrote gabriel sayegh, co-executive director of the Katal Center for Equity, Health and Justice, an organization that advocates for closing Rikers, in a recent op-ed calling for a federal receiver.

Mayor Eric Adams has pushed back against a receivership, saying assaults and stabbings at Rikers are down and change takes time. “Now you have a mayor that’s leading from the front and saying, ‘I’m going to be responsible for DOC,’ and you’re seeing the results that we are doing and saying, ‘We are going to take it away from you, Eric,’” Adams told the New York Post.

His administration cites a staffing shortage, even though the city’s corrections department has more staff than almost any other jail system its size. The federal monitor said there was no staffing shortage, but rather “deeply ingrained patterns of mismanagement and dysfunction.”

The next hearing in the Rikers Island class-action suit is scheduled for Aug. 10. Lawyers for the people held at the jail and New York’s top federal prosecutor have said they will formally request a receivership on that day.

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Beth Schwartzapfel Twitter Email is a staff writer who often covers addiction and health, probation and parole, and LGBTQ+ issues. She is the reporter and host of Violation, a podcast examining an unthinkable crime, second chances, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.