Members of Congress urge Biden to intervene against Rikers as de Blasio plans visit


A group of New York Congressional Democrats on Friday called on President Biden to use federal resources to deal with the crisis on Rikers Island, expressing a lack of confidence in the city’s ability to restore order to the complex penitentiary.

The letter was coordinated by Representative Ritchie Torres and by Friday afternoon had been signed by a dozen other lawmakers, most representing parts of New York City. He said the situation on Rikers Island, where 11 people detained have died this year, was a humanitarian crisis that posed a threat to the civil rights of the more than 5,000 people housed there.

Shortly after the letter was announced, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would be visiting Rikers Island next week. A number of state lawmakers have called on him to testify himself about the conditions there. The visit would represent its first since June 2017.

Mr Torres, in an interview, said blatant mismanagement of the complex during Covid-19 led to deplorable conditions which had been exacerbated by a crisis of absenteeism among the facility’s correctional officers.

Almost 2,000 uniformed officers are sick or absent on a daily basis, leaving those detained there without urgent medical or mental health care and delaying the delivery of basic necessities such as food and water.

“The city cannot be trusted to run Rikers Island on its own,” Torres said, noting that city leaders have yet to recognize the situation as a humanitarian crisis. Mr Torres said he expected a response from Mr Biden by next week.

“Rikers Island is increasingly becoming a death sentence for those who have never been tried, let alone convicted of a crime,” Torres added. “If this isn’t a civil rights violation that warrants a federal investigation, I don’t know what it would be.”

The letter from Congress, which was first reported by NY1, said an emergency plan released by Mr de Blasio last week did not represent the type of direct intervention that was clearly needed to alleviate the crisis.

When asked in a radio interview why he decided to visit Rikers, Mr de Blasio said: “I think it is time”, adding that he was going to the prison complex. now that “the work is progressing” on solutions.

In another development on Friday, an emergency hearing has been called in federal court in Manhattan to discuss the possible release of the inmates as well as security measures that could be implemented to alleviate the prison crisis.

The hearing involved parties to a civil rights lawsuit against the city and focused on what plaintiffs said was widespread abuse in Rikers. A settlement of the case in 2015 led to the appointment of a federal monitor, whose team provided regular updates to the court on the conditions at Rikers.

These reports have become increasingly serious in recent months, as conditions in the prison complex deteriorated, leading to Friday’s hearing. At the hearing, Monitor Steve J. Martin said he recently reviewed an incident in which officers who were six feet from an incarcerated person who actively hanged himself failed to intercede nor even recognized what was going on. The outcome of the incident was not immediately clear.

Mr. Martin said the inability of officers to immediately intervene in such cases was “in my experience unprecedented”.

At the hearing, lawyers for a civil rights group that is a plaintiff in the case and prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan – which is a party to the settlement – expressed impatience with the city for them. years of delay in resolving chronic problems at the prison complex. They urged the federal judge to order immediate action to address the security breaches.

“Successive administrations in this city have not been able to do what the observer says needs to be done to implement relief,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at the Legal Aid Society. . “It is clear that the recommendations of the monitor alone are not working, have not worked. We have five years to show it.

City lawyer Kimberly Joyce detailed the steps she has taken to address the security crisis, including repairing 500 doors, bringing in contractors to monitor mail for contraband and adding new medical and hospitality facilities. on the island.

Ms Joyce also said the city will work with New York State to change a law limiting who can be employed by the city’s Corrections Department. This change would allow the city to hire private staff to fill certain positions at Rikers.

The proposal sparked a fiery reaction from a union representing correctional officers, which said in a statement that the plan was “reckless.”

“Poorly trained and insufficiently vetted private guards assigned to Rikers will only spill gasoline on this hell,” said Benny Boscio Jr., head of the Corrections Charitable Association.

One sticking point was Mr. Martin’s recommendation that the city hire an external correctional security consultant to intervene in the facility. Ms Joyce expressed concern over such a decision, while Ms Werlwas said the external consultant should have authority over the ministry.

Jeffrey Powell, a federal prosecutor, cited a city’s “longstanding breach” of the terms of the settlement, saying it was clear the Monitor had “lost faith” in the department.

“Bring in outside help,” said Powell. “It’s been long overdue.”

Laura Taylor Swain, a U.S. District Judge, did not issue an order and instead asked the parties to file briefs in the coming days.

Towards the end of the hearing, Mr Martin said that although the city has taken steps over the years to address Rikers’ issues, the Corrections Department has not handled the leadership vacuum at the prison complex. .

“I haven’t heard a single concrete response from the Department of Corrections, to date, on how they’re going to address these immediate security concerns,” Martin said. “Nothing. That it has to come from the instructor speaks for itself about leadership.”

Eliza shapiro and Emma Fitzsimmons contributed reports.

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