Home News What’s left to hear?: The time for talk on Rikers is over

What’s left to hear?: The time for talk on Rikers is over

At yesterday’s status conference in the long-running federal lawsuit over conditions on Rikers Island, representatives for the Legal Aid Society, the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, the city and the federal monitoring team spent most of the allotted time discussing procedural matters around the motions for contempt and federal receivership, which have oral arguments scheduled for September.

In some ways, a hearing that centered mainly on administrative questions on, for example, the exact evidentiary designation of the monitor’s views on contempt or receivership and the right timeframe of the briefing schedule is the perfect representation of this tortured process. We understand that these matters are complicated from practical and legal standpoints, and snap decisions cannot be made. We’re talking about people’s lives, and we’re talking about administrative control of a Department of Correction that is responsive to the voting public of NYC, among other things.

Still, it’s impossible not to notice that it’s been about a year since a critical mass of significant voices coalesced around the idea of a receiver, including the U.S. attorney, the Board of Correction and several watchdog groups. The monitor himself skirted close to the line without crossing it, and while the city unsurprisingly pushed back strenuously, there finally seemed to be building consensus for what needed to be done.

Fast-forward a year, and the parties can spend an hour and a half largely discussing the timelines for evidence to be duly considered ahead of further scheduled reports, briefings and hearings that will precede the decision to maybe appoint a receiver, months down the line.

With all due respect to the meticulousness of the legal process and the delicate nature of the issues involved, the evidence necessary to make this determination exists and has existed for some time. The monitor’s reports over the years have occasionally waxed and waned in the assessment of the DOC’s compliance and collaboration with the outside observers, but the base issues have changed little and been bad for a while. Violence is rampant, staff are unaccountable, medical evaluation and treatment are lacking and the department is too close to the officers’ union.

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can tell everyone involved that these issues will exist into the near term. All sides agree that Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, now a bit over half a year into the job, has been a significant improvement over her predecessor. She’s moved to at least actually intervene in the issues, but the problem here is structural. As the monitoring team wrote in its latest report from a couple weeks ago, “these efforts have moved at a glacial pace and, consequently, the Department has only successfully remediated a very small number of its fundamental deficiencies.”

As usual, the team blames this in part on the culture at the DOC, which in their estimation is so broken that it’s hard to envision any given commissioner being able to fix. Will a receiver be able to cut through this? It’s not possible to definitively say, but it is the system’s best shot at changing course after so many years of horrors.


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