Members of Congress Urge Biden to Intervene at Rikers as de Blasio Plans Visit
A group of congressional Democrats from New York called on President Biden on Friday to use federal resources to address the crisis at Rikers Island, expressing a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to restore order to the jail complex.
The letter was coordinated by Representative Ritchie Torres and by Friday afternoon, had been signed by a dozen other lawmakers, most of them representing parts of New York City. It said that the situation at Rikers Island, where 11 people who were being held in custody have died this year, was a humanitarian crisis that posed a civil rights threat to the more than 5,000 people being housed there.
Shortly after news of the letter emerged, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would visit Rikers Island next week. A number of state lawmakers have called on him to witness conditions there himself. The visit would represent his first since June 2017.
Mr. Torres, in an interview, said that egregious mismanagement of the complex during Covid-19 had led to deplorable conditions that had been exacerbated by a crisis of absenteeism among the facility’s correction officers.
Nearly 2,000 uniformed officers call in sick or are otherwise absent on a daily basis, leaving those detained there without urgent medical or mental health care, and delaying the delivery of basic necessities like food and water.
“The city cannot be trusted to manage Rikers Island on its own,” Mr. Torres said, noting that city leaders had not yet acknowledged the situation as a humanitarian crisis. Mr. Torres said that he expected a response from Mr. Biden by next week.
“Rikers Island is increasingly becoming a death sentence for those who have never been tried, much less convicted of a crime,” Mr. Torres added. “If that is not a civil rights violation that warrants a federal investigation, I’m not sure what would be.”
The congressional letter, which was first reported by NY1, said that an emergency plan released by Mr. de Blasio last week did not represent the kind of direct intervention that was clearly required to ease the crisis.
Asked during a radio interview why he had decided to visit Rikers, Mr. de Blasio said, “I think it’s time,” adding that he was going to the jail complex now that “work is moving” on solutions.
In another development on Friday, an emergency hearing was convened in federal court in Manhattan to discuss the possible release of detainees as well as security measures that could be put into effect to ease the jail crisis.
The hearing involved parties to a civil rights lawsuit that was brought against the city and focused on what the plaintiffs said were widespread abuses at Rikers. A 2015 settlement in the case led to the appointment of a federal monitor, whose team has been providing regular updates to the court on conditions at Rikers.
Those reports have grown increasingly dire in recent months, as conditions at the jail complex have deteriorated, prompting Friday’s hearing. At the hearing, the monitor, Steve J. Martin, said he had recently reviewed an incident in which officers who were six feet away from an incarcerated person actively hanging himself failed to intercede or even acknowledge what was happening. The outcome of the incident was not immediately clear.
Mr. Martin said the officers’ failure to intervene immediately in such cases was “in my experience, unprecedented.”
At the hearing, lawyers for a civil rights group that is a plaintiff in the case and prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan — which is a party to the settlement — expressed impatience with the city over the yearslong delays in fixing chronic problems at the jail complex. They urged the federal judge to order immediate action to address the security lapses.
“Successive administrations in this city have been unable to do the things the monitor is saying have to be done to implement relief,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. “It’s clear that recommendations from the monitor alone don’t work, haven’t worked. We have five years to show that.”
A lawyer for the city, Kimberly Joyce, detailed measures she said the Department of Correction and the city were taking to address the security crisis, including repairing 500 doors, bringing in outside contractors to monitor mail for contraband, and adding new medical and intake facilities on the island.
One sticking point was Mr. Martin’s recommendation that the city bring in an outside correctional security consultant to intervene at the facility. Ms. Joyce expressed trepidation about such a move, while Ms. Werlwas said the outside consultant should have authority over the department.
Jeffrey Powell, a federal prosecutor, cited “longstanding noncompliance” by the city in the terms of the settlement, saying it was clear the monitor had “lost faith” in the department.
“Bring in some outside assistance,” Mr. Powell said. “It is long overdue.”
Laura Taylor Swain, a U.S. district judge, did not issue an order and instead asked the parties to file briefs within the coming days.
Toward the end of the hearing, Mr. Martin said that though the city had taken some steps over the years to address problems at Rikers, the Department of Correction had not dealt with the vacuum of leadership at the jail complex.
“I have not heard a single concrete response from the Department of Corrections, to date, of how they are going to address these immediate security issues,” Mr. Martin said. “Nothing. That this should have to come from the monitor speaks for itself about leadership.”
Eliza Shapiro and Emma Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.