Even as she acknowledged that “people are dying” in New York City’s troubled jails, a federal judge on Tuesday refrained from stripping control of Rikers Island from local officials, instead ordering the city to revise its plan for addressing violence and disorder at the compound.
The judge, Laura T. Swain, made the decision at a hearing on Tuesday after listening to arguments from the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and others who had raised the possibility of appointing an independent official to run New York City’s jails, something that has never happened in the jail system’s history.
Judge Swain had given the city Department of Correction three weeks beginning last month to come up with a plan to remedy the crisis in the jail complex, where city staffing practices have left gang members in charge of some jail areas, and detainees to languish without food or medical care.
But as jail officials were formulating their plan, two detainees died, the city was held in contempt in state court over its failure to provide timely medical care and questions emerged about whether the jail system properly documented a serious head injury suffered by a detainee in April.
During Tuesday’s hearing, a federal prosecutor, Jeffrey K. Powell, reviewed the department’s failures before concluding that “extraordinary remedies” would likely be necessary to change conditions at Rikers, where more than a thousand correction officers are failing to show up for work each day.
The Crisis at Rikers Island
Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s main jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.
He said that those remedies could include executive orders from Mayor Eric Adams or Gov. Kathy Hochul, judicial orders allowing officials to waive certain restrictions or the possibility of a full or partial federal takeover, known as receivership.
But the Correction Department commissioner, Louis A. Molina, said those options were unnecessary and that their plan would be sufficient.
“Change must come from within,” Mr. Molina said, adding that he did not need any additional authority from the court to implement the plan his office had worked up with a federal monitor overseeing reforms in the jails.
Hernandez D. Stroud, counsel of the Justice Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, said that federal prosecutors and judges often threaten city agencies with receivership — and in some instances that prompts agencies to change.
Only rarely do they follow through, Mr. Stroud said, adding that, “taking a jail or prison away is a very big deal” and occurs only after a judge concludes all other options have been exhausted.
Some advocates have argued that a federal court takeover is necessary to cut through barriers to reform in New York City’s jails, which include a union contract that provides correction officers with unlimited sick leave and a state law that bars the department from hiring outside correction unions for certain positions.
Martin Horn, a city jails commissioner under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had petitioned state legislators in the early 2000s to change that law. But he said in an interview that Norman Seabrook, the former powerful leader of the correction officers’ union convinced lawmakers not to amend it.
“You can’t run a jail system if you’re at war with your staff,” Mr. Horn said. “The city has to get the unions to be a part of the solution.”
A spokesman for a union representing correction officers did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Judge Swain instructed the city to submit its revised plan by June 10.