On April 26, during a remote hearing, Manhattan federal court Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain ordered New York’s commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Louis Molina, to develop an “action plan” to address horrific conditions at the notorious Rikers Island prison amid threats the prison may be taken over by an independent body.
In attendance at Tuesday’s hearing were lawyers for the Department of Justice, the city, the Rikers Island federal monitor and an attorney for plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit concerning the conditions at the prison that was filed more than a decade ago.
“I expect real progress,” Swain told her courtroom following the proceedings.
The plan will be a collaboration between the city and Rikers Island federal monitor Steve Martin who was appointed to the role in 2016 by Swain. Swain ordered the plan to be tabled by May 17 and it’s expected to be addressed in court the following week.
Over the years the monitor and the city have drawn up several plans intended to address a litany of issues at the prison including rampant violence, staffing problems and horrific conditions however “no meaningful improvements have been made,” the New York Post reported.
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Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffery Powell argued at Tuesday’s hearing that city officials have repeatedly promised reforms however nothing ever materialized saying that officials constantly sought new deadlines for planned reforms that would ultimately be blocked by local laws or regulations.
He said,“We can’t agree to continue to hit the reset button,” NBC New York reported.
Last week, federal prosecutors warned that the scandal plagued facility risks being taken over by an independent body if conditions at the prison do not improve.
“We remain alarmed by the extraordinary level of violence and disorder at the jails and the ongoing imminent risk of harm that inmates and correction officers face everyday,” the prosecutors wrote adding that, “The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now.”
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During the hearing Molina told Swain that he was committed to addressing the issues at the prison and making the reforms requested of him saying, “The monitor and I are aligned.”
Top of mind is addressing the staffing crisis in the Department of Corrections (DOC) that Molina believes will address the rampant violence at the prison.
The commissioner appeared to skirt accountability for the conditions at Rikers saying that he inherited an agency and jail complex rife with issues left over from the Bill de Blasio administration arguing that funding and resource cuts to the prison occurred due to a political position that advocated closing the facility.
Mary Lynne Werlwas, an attorney for the plaintiffs appeared skeptical that any real change would occur at Rikers, a facility where last year 15 inmates died and, so far in 2022, three inmates have perished.
“What has transpired in 2022 alone seriously constrains the reasonableness of optimism,” Werlwas said, adding that actions taken by the city to date have been “too little, too late.”