Judge orders hearing on whether NYC jail officials should be held in contempt

A judge charged with deciding the fate of the Rikers Island jails has ordered a hearing on whether the New York City Department of Correction should be held in contempt of court for failing to stem jail violence.

The focus of the hearing, which is set for Sept. 25, is an unexpected pit stop before U.S. District Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain decides whether the federal government should take control of the city’s troubled jail system.

Swain said she will listen to oral arguments so the two groups pushing for a takeover — federal prosecutors and the nonprofit Legal Aid Society, which represents many people held at Rikers — can argue that the correction department should be held in contempt for violating court orders to stem jail violence. But the hearing will have a narrower focus than expected, with Swain telling attorneys that they should focus on whether the city is in contempt and not on the proposed solution to these violations: the appointment of a federal receiver who could have extraordinary power over the jails.

That may effectively mean that the long-awaited decision on the federal takeover of Rikers Island could be pushed to 2025, according to Hernandez Stroud, an expert on receiverships and an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based organization focused on criminal justice policy.

“At least for now the receivership has been effectively tabled pending resolution of this contempt question,” Stroud said. “[Swain] wants to be absolutely sure this is the right path to go. And if this is the right path to go, she wants to know what it will look like.”

The judge said at the hearing that “there’s not a lot of information about what a receivership could look like,” so she wants to focus on that issue separately if she rules for contempt. She referenced other unspecified solutions — “remedies short of receivership” — that could also be considered.

One such alternative to receivership, according to Stroud, would be levying fines against the city until fixes are made. He pointed to Washington state, where a federal judge last year held the state in contempt and set fines of more than $100 million for not providing psychiatric services to people with mental illness in jail.

Attorneys in the Rikers case had expected Swain to consider arguments for contempt and receivership at the same time, at the September hearing. The announcement effectively pausing consideration of a receivership appeared to catch Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey K. Powell by surprise. He told the judge that there was already plenty of evidence of contempt in the roughly 50 reports issued by a federal monitor who has overseen the Rikers jails since 2016.

It is unclear how soon after the September hearing Swain would issue a ruling on contempt, and how soon after that she would consider receivership.

In the meantime, Swain urged the parties to work together to ensure detainees are treated properly at the jails. “The current risk of harm in the jails is as alarming as it is unacceptable,” she said.

Asked about a possible federal takeover of the jails on Tuesday, Mayor Eric Adams said he was not concerned. “This is a huge city and if someone believes they can do Rikers better, trust me, I have so many other items that I can do in this city,” he said. “I know we’re moving in the right direction.”

At the federal court hearing on Tuesday, the jail monitor announced that correction officers’ body-worn cameras — which had been removed from Rikers after one malfunctioned and exploded — would be returned to officers on a rolling basis beginning on Monday.

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