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Rikers Island may no longer be under City Hall control

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Officials in New York City have been trying to shrink their large complex of jails on Rikers Island, but they cannot seem to shrink it fast enough. On a single day earlier this month, there were 29 uses of force, a dozen fights among inmates and nine assaults on jail employees. Now a federal judge is considering taking control of the jail complex away from City Hall. Here to explain is Reuven Blau, a reporter for the nonprofit news website The City and co-author of "Rikers: An Oral History." Welcome to the program.

REUVEN BLAU: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So can you give us a sense of what life is like inside Rikers, both for correction officers and for the people being held there?

BLAU: It's a pretty bleak situation. I mean, it's never been a great place to be. You know, correction officials point out that, you know, taking away someone's civil liberty is really, you know, kind of punishment enough. And, you know, the advocates point that out, as well. But, you know, on top of it, I mean, everything from the food to medical care to hygiene - it's just a chaos, a mess. You know, overall, there has been some slight improvements over the last year, but it's been, you know, relatively incremental.

RASCOE: And why does it seem to be so violent there? Like, there seems like there's a lot of violence at Rikers. Is that exceptional for a prison facility or a jail facility?

BLAU: You know, that - it's just kind of baked in. Like, the violence is baked in and over the years, especially, because literally people will make tools - like, weapons out of the building that's kind of falling apart. And it's, like, everything - the training that officers have been for - you know, for years, they weren't really trained very much. They were kind of trained on the job. The officers don't get the tools.

About 50% of the population has some level of mental illness diagnosis, including 16% with a serious mental illness diagnosis. And the officers are just not trained mental health professionals. And, you know, the number of mental health professionals there is kind of small. And, you know, you talk to any mental health professional, and they'll tell you, you know, putting someone with - who's suffering from some type of illness like that is - it's the worst place they can possibly be.

RASCOE: So during a court hearing last week, the correction commissioner said that deaths have been dropping - seven at the facility so far this year, and that's about a third fewer than at similarly sized jails across the country. You know, you don't want to minimize any death, but is progress being made? Is that progress?

BLAU: So the city's argument is, look. We made some improvements. You know, the - last year, there was 19 deaths of detainees. It was the highest rate in over 25 years. This year it's been seven so far, which is clearly a decrease. They're saying there's been, you know, somewhat of a reduction in stabbings and slashings. It's about 350. But the federal monitor, the Legal Aid Society, the feds and all the advocates and multiple elected officials are saying, look. Even these slight gradual improvements - it's not enough. Like, it's still worse than it was eight years ago when this entire system was put into a federal monitorship. And it's just not enough. We need to - you need to do more, and the only thing that we see that can work is this receiver.

RASCOE: So a federal monitor has been in place for the past eight years. What's the difference between a federal monitor and a receiver?

BLAU: A receiver would have potentially extraordinary powers. They would not be obligated to follow any of the collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the unions. So they could literally just change how staff is controlled, what the shifts are looking like, how they're disciplined. I mean, they would have an incredible, you know, kind of opportunity to just literally almost start from scratch. They could revamp training. You know, they would clearly need to get some level of buy-in from, you know, the labor groups, but ultimately, you know, the power would completely rest on a federal receiver.

A monitor, in contrast, is somebody who's overseeing the jail, has oversight over the jail but is not making any decisions on the ground. The federal monitor now - his name is Steve Martin. He's been there in place for eight years. He's based in - actually in Texas. And he essentially issues these reports with recommendations and details about what's been going on and how this city has kind of responded to these reports and how the jails are doing. But he doesn't have the power to literally go in there and actually make them happen himself.

RASCOE: The city council and the previous mayor, Bill de Blasio, agreed to shut Rikers down by 2027. Why aren't advocates waiting till that happens instead of arguing over a federal receiver? Or is there a concern that Rikers isn't going to be shut down anytime soon?

BLAU: So the law actually says that by 2027, a jail cannot operate on Rikers Island. One of the challenges is that for that to happen, the population has to be decreased, I think, to - it's, like, 3,500 or something like that. Right now, it's a little over 6,000, and it's actually been going up slightly during the Adams administration. So that's No. 1.

As far as why they're calling for receivership now, the - you know, it's one of those things where it's, like, you got to walk and chew gum at the same time. There are - again, there are 6,000 people that are currently locked up in these facilities. And for them, it's an emergency. And they're at risk of, like, being stabbed and slashed. Three hundred and fifty - they're on pace for this year. I mean, there's basically, you know, almost one a day at - you know, in these facilities.

RASCOE: I mean, it sounded like the judge in the case, Laura Taylor Swain, was leaning toward appointing a receiver. Do we know when she would make that decision?

BLAU: It's a long process. I mean, so essentially, just opening the window for the sides to make the argument for and against a receiver is a huge deal, which she has agreed to. But it's almost kind of like this - another court case that plays out. They're going to make the arguments in briefs. It's going to come up again at a hearing. And ultimately, she's going to have to make a decision in that moment. Legal experts who I've talked to who have been involved in other receiverships have all said that, look. This is, you know, likely months away, if not, you know, even next summer.

RASCOE: That's Reuven Blau, a reporter for the nonprofit news website The City. Thank you so much for coming on.

BLAU: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ULY SONG, "COLD MOUNTAIN AIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Matthew Schuerman
Matthew Schuerman has been a contract editor at NPR's Weekend Edition since October 2021, overseeing a wide range of interviews on politics, the economy, the war in Ukraine, books, music and movies. He also occasionally contributes his own stories to the network. Previously, he worked at New York Public Radio for 13 years as reporter, editor and senior editor, and before that at The New York Observer, Village Voice, Worth and Fortune. Born in Chicago and educated at Harvard College and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, he now lives in the New York City area.
Fernando Narro Roman