Took Them Long Enough

Matthew G. Saroff
2 min readJul 18, 2023

After decades of dysfunction and brutal management, Andre Damian Williams Jr, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York has finally officially called for a federal takeover of the notorious Rikers Island Jail.

This place has been a hell hole since I first heard the name “Rikers”.

Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor is calling for an outside authority to take control of New York City’s troubled jails, a major shift that could help persuade a judge to strip Mayor Eric Adams of his power over Rikers Island.

The federal prosecutor, Damian Williams, said in a statement on Monday that Rikers has been in a crisis for years — “a collective failure with deep roots, spanning multiple mayoral administrations” and correction commissioners.

“But after eight years of trying every tool in the tool kit,” Mr. Williams said, “we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize. That is why my office will seek a court-appointed receiver to address the conditions on Rikers Island.”

Though lawyers for people held in city jails have consistently called for an outside authority — known as a receiver — to take over, Mr. Williams’s statement could provide a powerful push toward making the move a reality.

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Mr. Williams’s office said then that absent such a commitment to change, “we will be left with no other option but to seek more aggressive relief, which could involve seeking the appointment of a receiver with independent authority to implement sweeping reforms.”

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The prosecutor’s statement on Monday comes amid continuing mayhem at the jails — where three people have died this month alone — as well as reports from a federal monitor who oversees them that accused city officials of hiding important information about troubling episodes of violence and neglect.

With Mr. Williams’s comments, every entity involved in deciding the future of the jails — lawyers for detainees, the federal monitor, Steve J. Martin, and now, the U.S. attorney’s office — save for the city itself has either called for an outside authority to take over, or simply expressed lack of faith in the ability of the administration to turn things around.

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In 2014, the U.S. attorney’s office, then led by Preet Bharara, announced that, after a two-and-a-half-year investigation, it had found systematic civil rights violations of male teenagers by guards at Rikers. The prosecutor’s office eventually joined the pending class-action lawsuit.

In June 2015, the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio reached a wide-ranging settlement in the lawsuit, committing to far-reaching reforms, including the appointment of a monitor, and new policies to restrict the use of force by guards against inmates.

Between corrupt prison guards, Eric Adams being vociferously supportive of increased incarceration and a political ally of the correction officer unions, and decades of wilful neglect, there is no fix that works if the City remains in charge.

The Feds need to take over the city, and many, probably most, of the guards because even the best of them have likely been corrupted by the rest of them.

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