It didn't take long for the call by the Manhattan U.S. attorney for a federal takeover of New York City's jails to move into the realm of the possible, if not likely. Within a day, the federal judge who will make the decision — and who oversees the federal consent decree that has subjected the city to a court monitor's oversight since 2015 — said in a court filing that Mayor Eric Adams' administration had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails and imperil those who are confined and who work there," the New York Times reported.
Judge Laura Taylor Swain continued, referring to the city and its Department of Corrections, “These concerns raise questions as to whether defendants are capable of safe and proper management of the jails."
If Swain follows through by appointing a receiver after a scheduled Aug. 10 hearing, that poses the question: What would receivership mean in the management of the jails in the nation's largest city?
Such a move would strip the city of its power to run the Rikers Island jail complex in a far more extensive way than the 8-year-old consent decree, writes Hernandez D. Stroud, a counsel in the Justice Program of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and an authority on prisons and jails, correctional oversight, and constitutional law. Stroud, who researches the scope of the federal government’s power to fashion structural and systemic criminal-justice reforms, said that federal and state judges have imposed receiverships or approved similar transfers of control only a dozen times in U.S. history, in cases challenging prison and jail conditions in such places as California, Michigan, Mississippi and West Virginia.
Receiverships are essentially a vote of no confidence in the government’s capacity or willingness to comply with court orders designed to improve conditions behind bars. These transfers of control are extraordinary.
Receiverships, Stroud writes, fare best in renovating and constructing new facilities, increasing and professionalizing staff, adopting new policies and procedures, and improving record-keeping and classification systems.
It's "trickier" to expect them to remedy what the U.S. attorney back in 2014 called Rikers' "deep-seated culture of violence," a culture that numerous reports have found still exists.
Tricky, but necessary, according to Elizabeth Glazer, former justice advisor to Mayor Bill de Blasio and a former federal prosecutor, who has written often (including here and here, in the publication she co-founded, Vital City) about the need for receivership. Her reasoning: "despite the escalating evidence of rampant violence and mismanagement, the crises have not broken the surface of the city’s conscience."
There's "good reason" to vest control of prisons and jails with state and local governments, Stroud writes. They have the resources to do the job and are accountable to voters.
But, he concludes,
consider the reason that a federal judge would appoint a receiver. After “eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit,” New York mayoral administrations across decades have effectively outsourced to the courts the job of running its jails and treating its people with basic human dignity. It’s hard to think of a more flagrant dishonoring of democracy than that.