A day after the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan called for New York’s prisons to be taken over by an outside authority, the judge who would make the decision expressed strong disapproval of the city’s management of its keys.
The federal judge, Laura Taylor Swain, wrote in an order on Tuesday that the administration of Mayor Eric Adams failed to comply with her orders and “addressed the dangerous conditions that constantly plague the prisons and endanger those who are locked up and who work there.”
“These concerns raise questions about whether defendants are capable of safe and proper management of the jails,” Judge Swain said, referring to the city and its Department of Correction.
Her language echoed that of the prosecutor, Damian Williams, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York. He said Monday that “we can’t wait any longer” for the city to resolve the years-long crisis in its jails. He called for an outside authority—known as a receiver—to take control of the city’s facilities.
While Judge Swain’s comments don’t necessarily mean she will strip the city of its authority, they underscore the growing likelihood that it could lose at least some control over Rikers Island and its other prison facilities. On Tuesday, she ordered the city to brief the US attorney and others on how it plans to fix some of the pressing problems inside the jails.
Shortly after the judge’s order became public, Mayor Adams mounted a vigorous defense of his management of the prisons. He said his administration would abide by the law, but he seemed frustrated and defiant at the idea that a takeover might be necessary.
“I’m the best person in this administration to finally turn the Department of Correction around,” the mayor said during a news conference.
Mr. Adams, voicing his respect for Mr. Williams, said his administration had improved the prisons and cited some approving comments that appeared in an April report to the judge by a federal monitor who oversees conditions at Rikers. Mr. Adams asked what had changed since then to suggest the city should be stripped of its authority.
But the monitor, Steve J. Martin, has been clear in recent months about what has changed. In a series of recent reports, the first of which was issued in May, Mr. Martin criticized Mr. Adams and his corrections commissioner, Louis A. Molina, for covering up episodes of violence and neglect. These included a confrontation between corrections officers and an inmate that left the inmate paralyzed and another incident in which staff members left an inmate who had been badly beaten by other inmates naked in a prison facility for hours.
Mr Adams was asked about the lack of transparency by a reporter at the press conference on Tuesday.
“Let’s get that right,” said Mr. Adams, before exclaiming, “But you’re not going to court!”
He emphasized – contradicting the monitor and the lawyers for the detainees – that the city “is in the right direction”.
“Let’s sit down and talk,” he said. “Let’s work together towards a goal as we correct the system.”