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Federal government seeks to take over New York City’s Rikers Island prison

Mayor Eric Adams has pledged to shut down Rikers Island by 2027.

Published: November 20, 2023 11:00pm

(The Center Square) -

(The Center Square) — The federal government wants to take over control of New York City's largest jail, citing rising violence and other troubling conditions.

In a court filing, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams asks a federal judge to approve receivership for Riker's Island and calls for the city to be "held accountable" for not making good on promises to enact reforms at the jail.

The move, if approved, could lead to a rare judicial order that could see the notorious jail complex turned over to a court-appointed authority.

"Rikers Island has been in crisis for years," Williams said in a statement. "But after eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize."

Williams cited a "pattern of unnecessary force" by correctional officers at the jail, including the use of "high impact force and head strikes" against inmates.

Mayor Eric Adams has pledged to shut down Rikers Island by 2027, but criminal justice advocates and others are skeptical that his administration will meet that deadline. The 400-acre jail, which houses an average of 6,000 detainees, has been operating under a federal consent decree since 2015.

Good government groups such as the Legal Aid Society and Citizens Union have also been adding to the calls for a turning over Rikers Island to federal receivership.

"Too many lives have been lost and damaged due to the city's inability to manage the jails humanely," the Legal Aid Society said in a statement. "We look forward to working together to seek the relief necessary to end this culture of brutality."

Seven people have died at Rikers this year while in custody or after being released, according to data released by a federal monitor appointed to investigate violence at the facility. At least 28 detainees have died in New York City Department of Correction custody over the past two years, the monitor said.

In August, U.S. District Court Judge Laura Swain cleared the way for the city-run jail to be placed under federal receivership to address systemic violence and substandard conditions in the facility.

Swain said the Adams administration has failed to address the "dangerous conditions" in the jail and said inmates at the island prison are "at a grave risk of immediate harm."

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