Read the full piece in New York Focus
A federal judge has found New York City’s jail agency in violation of her 2021 order to monitor the whereabouts of people held in Rikers Island intake. The Department of Correction has continuously failed to track how long it’s holding people in the jails’ violent and chaotic intake pens, Judge Laura Taylor Swain wrote in a ruling released last week.
But Swain declined to hold the agency in contempt, which would have allowed for more rigorous and immediate oversight. It’s the latest development in an almost 12-year legal battle over conditions at Rikers, where the federal government has been threatening to take over operations if the city can’t get rampant violence and neglect under control. It’s also another sign of the federal court’s reluctance to wrest too much power from the embattled jail department, which has repeatedly failed to implement court-mandated reforms.
The judge handed her original order down in 2021, shortly before photos surfaced revealing squalid conditions in intake units: people held for days or weeks in packed pens, forced to sleep on dirty floors and relieve themselves in plastic bags. Last year, oversight testimony and surfaced documents revealed that conditions had barely improved.
Jails send people to intake immediately upon arrival for processing and when they are transferring them from one facility to another. According to the DOC’s own policy — the result of a three-decade-old federal court order — no one is supposed to be kept there for more than 24 hours. The open-plan group cells don’t have beds or any private spaces.
As images from Rikers intake spilled out to the public, reports from a monitor overseeing the federal lawsuit indicated that the DOC was largely ignoring Swain’s order, whose original deadline was just under six weeks. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs petitioned to hold the department in contempt, which would have given them direct access to intake tracking data and weekly reports.
The requested contempt ruling would also have set new deadlines for the DOC to comply with the violated order, a crucial change in Legal Aid’s perspective. But the department appears to have averted the outcome with a flurry of changes made late last year. In October, the department suddenly turned its attention to intake, making last-minute updates that Swain cited in her denial of the attorneys’ contempt motion. These included new wording on tracking systems’ digital prompts, automatic daily reports, restructured staffing, and a feature that shows which officer input which information into the systems.
Attempting to avoid contempt, the DOC pointed to the last-minute initiatives as evidence that it is “well on the way to having a reliable intake system.” It also aimed to have a working inter-facility tracking system up and running at every jail by March 15. In a report published Monday, the DOC admitted that it has implemented the system at just two out of eight facilities.
“Fifteen months into the Adams administration, the city jails continue to operate at a dangerous level of dysfunction and incompetence,” Kayla Simpson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “The Legal Aid Society will continue to explore all options to secure our incarcerated clients’ safety and defend their dignity.”
In a statement, the New York City Law Department, which is representing the DOC, said that it is “pleased the court has recognized the progress made by DOC to develop reliable systems for tracking Intake.”
The contempt decision comes as the DOC prepares for a contentious City Council hearing this week, during which councilmembers — including Speaker Adrienne Adams, who is stepping in to chair the event — are expected to drill officials over allegedly slow-walking the plan to close Rikers.
“We again call on all criminal legal system stakeholders to facilitate the immediate decarceration of our dangerous local jails,” said Simpson.
In her decision, Swain conceded that plaintiffs gave “clear and convincing evidence” that the DOC is “noncompliant” with her orders regarding intake. But intake is “but one of hundreds” of clauses and orders that the DOC has failed to comply with, she noted, and “there is a risk accompanying any granular focus on the Department’s compliance with any one individual provision.”
In other words, Rikers officials can’t be held too strictly accountable because they need to focus on overhauling their jails.
Sarena Townsend, a former internal investigator for the DOC, summarized it less kindly: “They’re such failures, we shouldn’t hold them in contempt.”