Meaningful changes could be implemented within days at the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, the head of New York City’s jails told a federal judge Tuesday.
The city has insisted that years of failed reforms could be overcome without the court taking control of the nation’s second-largest jail system.
“You will see change,” Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina promised Judge Laura Taylor Swain.
Molina said he's “in alignment” with recommendations from Steve Martin, a monitor tasked with reporting on changes that are needed at a jail system which includes Rikers Island, where about 5,500 inmates are held.
In a recent report, Martin said about 30 percent of the workforce at the jails was not coming to work or not available to work with inmates. On Tuesday, he said of Molina: “Every time I’ve called on the commissioner for a remedy or attention, he has stepped up.”
“I don’t need to wait three weeks to take some actions,” Molina said, promising some changes would occur within days.
Sixteen inmates died at Rikers last year, and three have died so far in 2022.
Molina spoke after he was ordered to appear by the judge after she received a scathing letter about the jails from prosecutors, who suggested Molina appear before the court as they warned that court oversight of the jail system might be necessary.
“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 every day,” prosecutors wrote. “The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Powell noted at Tuesday's electronically held hearing that city officials had repeatedly promised there would be reforms that never materialized, as officials constantly sought new deadlines for planned improvements that would then be found to be blocked by local laws or regulations.
“We can’t agree to continue to hit the reset button,” he said.
Powell said there might be alternatives to the appointment of a receiver who would essentially take control of the jails. He said one improvement would be for a judge to order the removal of legal impediments, such as a clause in the contract with workers that requires unlimited sick leave.
He said prosecutors “don't doubt the commissioner's dedication,” but he said the government was giving serious consideration to the appointment of a receiver.
His viewpoint was shared by attorney Hayley Horowitz, who represents plaintiffs in a court case brought in 2011. She said the situation had gotten so dire that some inmates are not allowed out of cells because there are no guards to open them.
“There’s not an easy answer, easy fix. But operational changes must be made,” she said.
Horowitz called the possibility of a receivership “a meaningful possibility,” adding: “We need to break the stalemate.”
In a statement last week, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Molina “is laying the groundwork for long-term change.”