Federal control of Rikers Island is necessary


Sarah Hocevar | Flickr

James Galan

After years of failed attempts to reform Rikers Island by several New York City mayors,      United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams has threatened to place the prison under a federal court’s control.

If the proposal goes through, it will turn control of the jails from the city to the federal government. Williams has threatened to press the issue if reforms are not made immediately.

Williams is correct in requesting a federal takeover of Rikers Island. Federal control is needed to safeguard the rights of prisoners and reduce crime in New York City. As a result, the federal government takeover — or threat of it — is absolutely warranted.

“The jails are in a state of crisis, inmates and staff are being seriously injured, and action is desperately needed now,” Williams wrote to United States District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who would ultimately decide on the issue.

It is no secret that conditions at Rikers Island have gone from bad to worse. A recent report filed March 16, found that inmates missed thousands of medical appointments each month.

Furthermore, about 30% of uniformed staff have either called in sick or failed to show up, most of whom are believed to be exploiting their contracts to earn pay.

Additionally, gangs are reportedly in charge of many areas. The presence of uncooperative prisoners has not only resulted in attacks against correction officers, but also contributed to 19 inmate deaths over the last year.

Evidently, the people detained and working at Rikers today are paying the price for inadequate leadership. The solution is to transfer control of the rundown lockup to a federal court.  On the other hand, New York City Mayor Eric Adams urged New Yorkers to give him a chance to fix the dangerous conditions within the jail complex.

“We’re four months in, give me an opportunity — and why give me an opportunity? They look like me,” Adams said, a day after federal prosecutors threatened to take over the prison.

Adams has argued that many of the people running Rikers do not resemble the inmates within the jail. In a statement, Adams also leaned on his experience as a former New York City police officer and being the only mayor to have sat in a jail cell.

Nevertheless, Adams’ proposed solution has come under fire from community activists and local politicians. As a candidate, Adams backed an $8.2 billion plan to close Rikers and replace it with four new high-rise jails located in each of the city’s boroughs, except Staten Island.

Adams’s solution is not only a costly one, but also an unrealistic one. The construction of these new detention centers is expected to surpass the $8.2 billion and take years to complete, especially given the problems that have hampered construction throughout the pandemic.

Adams should instead agree to transfer the authority of Rikers to the federal government. Moreover, the proposed $8.2 billion should be used to focus on street and subway crime. The city’s budget would be better spent on hiring more officers and improving their training, rather than constructing several new jails.

The recent violent crime statistics, which saw an increase of 36.5% from the same time last year, also support a federal takeover. As mayor, Adams’ priority should be to deter criminals and to remove guns from the streets so that people who should be in Rikers can be placed there.

In addition to this, Rikers Island is already overseen by a federal monitor, but that is clearly not enough.

Rikers Island Federal Monitor Steve Martin was first appointed in 2015 to resolve claims of correction officers using excessive force. At the time, Martin’s appointment was thought to be a solution.

However, a report by Martin found the rate of violence in Rikers to be, “seven to eight times higher than those observed in other correctional systems.” He also expressed frustration over the Department of Corrections’ inability to provide basic information.

“We are at a crossroads and extraordinary remedies must be given deliberate consideration,” Martin wrote, after news of a federal takeover became apparent.

There are numerous legal barriers to improving Rikers, including city policies, existing contracts and union rules. As a result, the Adams Administration should not become bogged down by Rikers’ current conditions; far too much time and life have been wasted with nothing to show for it.

The federal takeover of Rikers will not only give Mayor Adams more time to focus on reforming the police force but will also help the city save money. As a result, the mayor will be empowered to take aggressive and dramatic action to reduce street crime.

The city has until May 17 to present a plan to improve Rikers Island. Following that, a virtual hearing will be held on May 24.

The issue of Rikers Island appears daunting, but Adams could very well benefit from federal control of the prison. So, too, could the inmates, guards, tourists — and all New Yorkers.