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U.S. Backs Federal Takeover Of Troubled NYC Rikers Jail

Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor and lawyers for people detained in the Rikers Island jail complex asked a judge to take the rare step of ordering a federal takeover of the troubled New York facility, saying city officials could no longer manage an institution dominated by brutal conditions, the Wall Street Journal reports. The request comes after years of litigation over Rikers Island, which houses thousands of defendants awaiting trial and convicted inmates serving short sentences. The lawyers asked that a judge find New York City in contempt for violating prior court orders requiring improved conditions at its jails. “Incarcerated people, largely individuals who await trial and are thus presumed innocent, live in a state of terror and despair in the City jails,” lawyers from the Legal Aid Society and a private firm representing inmates said in a court filing Friday.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams supported the request. While a takeover is “an extraordinary remedy,” the harm suffered by incarcerated people and jail staff was extraordinary as well, Williams told the court. He said city officials “have been unable or unwilling to implement the sweeping institutional reforms necessary to address the pervasive culture of violence in the jails and remedy the ongoing violation of the constitutional rights of people in custody.” U.S. District Judge Laura Swain has said that the U.S. government and lawyers for detainees had sufficiently shown that a takeover, known as a receivership, and contempt findings could be merited under the law. “The people incarcerated at Rikers are at a grave risk of immediate harm,” Swain said. A spokesman for New York City’s Law Department said, "We do not believe a receivership is the solution to fixing the city’s jail system.” If the judge orders the takeover, she would appoint someone to oversee New York City’s jails and report to her. A ruling is unlikely before February. Prison and jail receiverships are rare. There have only been 12 receiverships at correctional institutions in U.S. history, said Hernandez Stroud of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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