A federal monitor that oversees New York’s violent and dangerous prisons asked a judge on Monday to hold the Department of Corrections and its commissioner in contempt for violating court orders, opening the possibility that officials could be punished for failing to improve conditions.
The monitor, Steve J. Martin, wrote in a report filed in Manhattan federal court that the “pace of reform has stagnated,” and that “there has been a disturbing level of regression” in several areas, including investigations into staff misconduct after episodes. . of excessive force.
Conditions on Rikers Island have only gotten worse since the Corrections Department developed an improvement plan a year ago, Mr. Martin wrote. Doors are still not properly secured, corrections officers continue to walk off duty and detainees often congregate in high-security areas, he said. During routine searches, officers miss weapons that were later used in violent episodes, Mr. Martin said.
Four people have died at Rikers this year. Last year, 19 people died in city jails or in hospitals shortly after release — the deadliest year in nearly a decade.
For the first time, Mr. Martin urged the federal judge, Laura T. Swain, to begin proceedings to decide whether to hold the city, the Department of Corrections and Commissioner Louis A. Molina in contempt of court. At a hearing next month, Judge Swain could decide whether to start contempt proceedings.
Contempt is a “powerful weapon intended to compel a party to future compliance with a court order,” Mr. Martin wrote, one he has not recommended since he was appointed to oversee the prisons in 2015. He said he “makes no such recommendation. to the court lightly and, in fact, does so only after it has exhausted other available strategies.”
City Hall spokeswoman Kayla Mamelak said in a statement that the city remains “committed to continued reform and work with the monitor.”
“We are prepared to fully defend against any contempt motion, and the record will reflect the important and necessary steps New York has taken to make continued progress,” she added.
The filing Monday is one of about 40 reports and letters Mr. Martin has sent to the court since 2015, when the city entered into a landmark settlement that required regular updates on conditions at the jails. The settlement was the result of a class action brought by the Legal Aid Society and private law firms that sought to stamp out an endemic culture of violence.
Mr Molina faced increasing pressure to reduce violence or risk the appointment of a receiver – an outsider appointed to take over the management of the prisons.
The report “makes it clear that all efforts to date to change the New York Department of Corrections’ model of brutality have failed,” Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society, said in a statement Monday.
“Continuing down the same path – promises of change, monitor reports that lead nowhere, court orders that are ignored – will only cause more injuries and deaths,” she added. “The need for an independent authority over the prisons is clearer than ever.”
Holding officials and agencies in contempt is a severe punishment, but would let New York retain control of Rikers, which officials plan to close in favor of smaller jails around the city.
Stripping a city, county or state of control over prisons or jails is rare and complex. A federal judge last year said the court would appoint a receiver check out the Raymond Detention Center in Hinds County, Miss., after years of mismanagement. In 2005, California was forced to relinquish authority over its prison health system following a lawsuit detailing abuses.
Mr. Martin’s recommendation could push the Department of Corrections in a positive direction, said Hernandez D. Stroud, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“If there’s that threat that contempt could happen, that could also be an effective incentive,” he said. A “good faith” defense would not prevent such a decision, Mr Stroud said. “They can still be held in contempt even if they say they gave it their best shot,” he said.
He noted that courts have wide discretion in which penalties accompany a finding of contempt, but fines could be levied against the city.
In Mr. Molina’s first 10 months, Mr. Martin appeared to support him: In October, he told Judge Swain that the commissioner had “courage to make unpopular changes and creativity in his approach to solving decades-old problems.”
But Mr. Molina has taken steps to limit the public release of damaging information about the prisons. He revoked control panel’s unrestricted access to security footage and reversed a policy that required the agency to notify the public of deaths inside the facilities.
“Individuals want to take care of their own fact to reach the conclusion that they would like the public to have,” Mr. Molina said in an interview in June.
The next day, Mr. Martin released a report that accused Mr. Molina and the leadership of the Department of Corrections of withholding information about violence that endangered staff and detainees.