The city Department of Correction has submitted a new plan defending itself as best suited to revamping its troubled jail system on Rikers Island, but key stakeholders have ripped the proposal in new legal papers.
The 30-page proposal offered Friday comes as the city jails face the prospect of being placed under the control of a federal receiver — considered a last resort.
The “action plan” is expected to be the DOC’s final chance given by Manhattan federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain to outline a strategy for resolving longstanding allegations that correction officers routinely use excessive force against inmates.
The proposal offers timelines for restructuring the department’s leadership, cracking down on absenteeism, expediting disciplinary cases of uniformed officers and dealing with other issues that have plagued city lockups.
But both Steve J. Martin, a court-appointed monitor overseeing a landmark 2015 settlement plan where the city committed to far-reaching reforms; and the Legal Aid Society, which represents city detainees in the case, told Swain Friday that the city’s plan was still filled with holes.
They especially took exception with the city’s refusal to look outside the DOC for better candidates to run its jails.
In a letter to Swain, Martin called the city’s plan a “viable pathway forward.”
However, he also noted that “decades of mismanagement” still “raise serious concerns … about whether” the DOC is “capable of fully and faithfully implementing this Action Plan with integrity” and “address[ing] the danger, violence, and chaos that continue to occur daily.”
“Monitoring Team continues to believe that fortifying the Warden role by having the ability to seek the most capable and qualified candidates, including those from outside the Department, is necessary to ensure the success of the reform effort,” he added.
Legal Aid Society lawyers also told Swain they’re worried the city plan won’t address the “ongoing harm” caused by the dysfunctional jails and that they plan to formally “move for contempt” and request a federal receivership take control of Rikers Island.
“Throughout this process, the city has not demonstrated the will or ability to make the difficult choices necessary to meet the demands of the moment,” they wrote.
“Most illustrative is the Plan’s failure to implement the Monitor’s longstanding recommendation that the City expand the pool the potential wardens of jail facilities to include correctional leaders from other jurisdictions,” the letter continued, asserting that officials who came up through the system aren’t equipped to fix it.
Kimberly Joyce, senior counsel for city’s Law Department, said Mayor Eric Adams’ administration believes its plan under new DOC Commissioner Louis Molina “is a road map to sustainable reform.”
“While there is much work to be done to affect systemic change, there continues to be clear evidence that the Department is making demonstrable progress in the right direction,” Joyce wrote Swain.
To make her case, she cited statistics showing slashing crimes are down at the jails this year and examples of the DOC cracking down in the past few months on staff who abuse sick leave policies.
Swain will ultimately decide whether the city’s plan is viable or other measures are needed, including putting jails under control of a federal receivership – a designation that would give sweeping powers to an independent authority tasked with finally ending the violence on Rikers Island.
Manhattan US Attorney Damien Williams floated the idea in April, saying in a legal filing that previous attempts to fix the notorious lockup have failed miserably and that “aggressive relief” through a “federal receivership” could be needed.
The tactic has helped remedy entrenched problems at other lockups nationwide, including the prison systems for Alabama, the District of Columbia and Wayne County in Michigan.
“Filing for receivership is a dramatic step,” said Hernandez Stroud, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “It’s essentially a no-confidence vote in the city’s capacity and willingness to make the necessary court-ordered improvements.”