Rikers Intake Is a Mess, But We Can’t Expect Too Much Progress, Federal Judge Rules

Nearly a year and a half after they were supposed to fix their system, jail officials still don’t know how long they’re keeping people in notorious intake pens.

Chris Gelardi   ·   March 21, 2023
Rikers Island welcome sign. | NYC DOC

A FEDERAL JUDGE has found New York City’s jail agency in violation of her 2021 order to monitor the whereabouts of people held in Rikers Island intake. The Department of Correction has continuously failed to track how long it’s holding people in the jails’ violent and chaotic intake pens, Judge Laura Taylor Swain wrote in a ruling released last week.

But Swain declined to hold the agency in contempt, which would have allowed for more rigorous and immediate oversight. It’s the latest development in an almost 12-year legal battle over conditions at Rikers, where the federal government has been threatening to take over operations if the city can’t get rampant violence and neglect under control. It’s also another sign of the federal court’s reluctance to wrest too much power from the embattled jail department, which has repeatedly failed to implement court-mandated reforms.

The judge handed her original order down in 2021, shortly before photos surfaced revealing squalid conditions in intake units: people held for days or weeks in packed pens, forced to sleep on dirty floors and relieve themselves in plastic bags. Last year, oversight testimony and surfaced documents revealed that conditions had barely improved.

Jails send people to intake immediately upon arrival for processing and when they are transferring them from one facility to another. According to the DOC’s own policy — the result of a three-decade-old federal court order — no one is supposed to be kept there for more than 24 hours. The open-plan group cells don’t have beds or any private spaces.

As images from Rikers intake spilled out to the public, reports from a monitor overseeing the federal lawsuit indicated that the DOC was largely ignoring Swain’s order, whose original deadline was just under six weeks. Lawyers representing the plaintiffs petitioned to hold the department in contempt, which would have given them direct access to intake tracking data and weekly reports.

The requested contempt ruling would also have set new deadlines for the DOC to comply with the violated order, a crucial change in Legal Aid’s perspective. But the department appears to have averted the outcome with a flurry of changes made late last year. In October, the department suddenly turned its attention to intake, making last-minute updates that Swain cited in her denial of the attorneys’ contempt motion. These included new wording on tracking systems’ digital prompts, automatic daily reports, restructured staffing, and a feature that shows which officer input which information into the systems.

Attempting to avoid contempt, the DOC pointed to the last-minute initiatives as evidence that it is “well on the way to having a reliable intake system.” It also aimed to have a working inter-facility tracking system up and running at every jail by March 15. In a report published Monday, the DOC admitted that it has implemented the system at just two out of eight facilities.

They’re such failures, we shouldn’t hold them in contempt.

—Sarena Townsend, former Department of Correction investigator

“Fifteen months into the Adams administration, the city jails continue to operate at a dangerous level of dysfunction and incompetence,” Kayla Simpson, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, said in a statement. “The Legal Aid Society will continue to explore all options to secure our incarcerated clients’ safety and defend their dignity.”

In a statement, the New York City Law Department, which is representing the DOC, said that it is “pleased the court has recognized the progress made by DOC to develop reliable systems for tracking Intake.”

The contempt decision comes as the DOC prepares for a contentious City Council hearing this week, during which councilmembers — including Speaker Adrienne Adams, who is stepping in to chair the event — are expected to drill officials over allegedly slow-walking the plan to close Rikers.

“We again call on all criminal legal system stakeholders to facilitate the immediate decarceration of our dangerous local jails,” said Simpson.

In her decision, Swain conceded that plaintiffs gave “clear and convincing evidence” that the DOC is “noncompliant” with her orders regarding intake. But intake is “but one of hundreds” of clauses and orders that the DOC has failed to comply with, she noted, and “there is a risk accompanying any granular focus on the Department’s compliance with any one individual provision.”

In other words, Rikers officials can’t be held too strictly accountable because they need to focus on overhauling their jails.

Sarena Townsend, a former internal investigator for the DOC, summarized it less kindly: “They’re such failures, we shouldn’t hold them in contempt.”

IN SEPTEMBER 2021, Judge Swain issued a sweeping order that covered multiple facets of Rikers operations. Its mandates included a requirement that the DOC follow its own policy against leaving any person in intake for more than 24 hours.

The decision came on the heels of one of Rikers Island’s most tumultuous periods in recent memory. In addition to the squalid and crowded conditions in intake pens — “the chaos that leads to violence,” as the federal monitor later described it — slashings, stabbings, and officer “uses of force” spiked.

Security footage shows fights breaking out at an overcrowded intake holding area at Rikers Island’s Eric M. Taylor Center on June 16, 2022. | New York City Board of Correction

It became clear that the DOC couldn’t even keep track of how long people had been in intake: The department had two electronic systems for intake tracking, but staff weren’t using either properly. Swain required that department officials put in place “reliable” tracking systems, and her order gave them just under six weeks to do so.

The DOC blew past that. In November 2021, two days after Swain’s deadline, the federal monitor noted that officers weren’t using the DOC’s system for tracking the whereabouts of people in intake pens waiting to be transferred between Rikers facilities, and thus those data were “not reliable.”

The monitor also reported that the other system — for tracking how long recent arrestees spend in the notoriously gruesome new admissions intake pens — showed dozens of instances in which people were kept there for longer than 24 hours. But the DOC assured officials that those were data entry errors — a result of some staff not being “familiar” with the system — and that new admissions intake had zero overstays.

Four months later, in March 2022, the federal monitor issued a scathing report accusing the DOC — now under the leadership of Mayor Eric Adams’s appointee, Louis Molina — of obstructing its access to department staff and information.

“Little to no progress has been made,” the monitor wrote, explaining that his team “lost confidence that it has access to all of the relevant and reliable information necessary to perform its duties.” The DOC was still figuring out its new admissions tracking system, according to the monitor, and staff still weren’t using the inter-facility system, instead using “ad hoc tracking tools” that varied from jail to jail. During a visit to one facility, staff handed the monitor a form that indicated that 18 of the 20 people in the intake pen had been there more than 24 hours; “multiple” had been in for more than a week, and one had languished in the bedless cell for nearly two weeks.

The monitor also outlined disturbing conditions in intake pens. In January, someone who had been in intake for five days was “engaging in sexual misconduct” without any guards noticing. In February, the monitoring team came across an intake toilet overflowing with feces and a person sleeping on the floor outside of the pen.

The report also revealed that the monitor had learned of an assault that took place seven months prior — but went unreported by the DOC — from which an incarcerated person became paralyzed from the neck down.

A timeline of attempts to improve intake tracking at Rikers. | Chris Gelardi for New York Focus

WITH THE DOC largely ignoring the court order, the federal monitor proposed an “action plan” outlining the steps the department needed to take to come into “compliance.” The department supported the plan, which Swain codified in a June order.

The Legal Aid Society asserted that the plan was “replete with vague commitments” and contained “virtually no deadlines.” When the DOC argued against contempt, it seized on the same points: The department shouldn’t be held in contempt because the action plan set forth “no time frame” to accomplish its mandated goals.

Legal Aid had anticipated the excuse. “There is a [yearslong] history of unexecuted plans, failed protocols, and abandoned initiatives, some strikingly similar to those in the City’s current Plan,” its lawyers wrote in a June letter to the court.

Their concerns almost immediately came to bear. Later that month, the federal monitor reported that staff still weren’t using the inter-facility intake tracking system, and that an audit from earlier in the year showed that a third of a sample of people in intake were kept in the pens for more than 24 hours, nearly half of them for more than three days.

The monitor’s June report also shared numbers from the new admissions intake tracking system: Again, DOC data showed dozens being held for longer than 24 hours. The department again asserted that all of the overstays were input errors.

As New York Focus reported six months later, Rikers staff tampered with the new admissions intake tracking system in June, repeatedly altering records to extend the 24-hour clock. A DOC official testified last month that that was an issue of a “lack of training, not intentional misconduct.” The department had referred the incident to the city for “further investigation.”

In another report, released in October, the federal monitor appeared to have lost whatever remaining faith they had in the DOC’s intake tracking systems. The number of overstays in both new admissions and inter-facility intake “is simply unknown,” the monitor wrote.

As a department official later testified, it was only that month that the DOC began taking “steps” to update its new admissions system. But according to the department, that was enough.

THE CONTEMPT DECISION is the second bullet the DOC has dodged in the nearly 12-year federal suit in recent months. In November, Swain passed on a motion to order a federal takeover of Rikers — an issue she’ll revisit next month, after this week’s much-anticipated City Council hearing.

The number of overstays in intake ‘is simply unknown,’ the federal monitor wrote.

According to critics, Swain’s decision removes the one thing that has spurred the DOC to implement reforms in recent years: threat of court intervention.

“That’s gonna go on the backburner,” Townsend, the former DOC investigator, said of intake tracking. “‘Check that box, we handled that, we avoided contempt.’”

Indeed, over the past year and a half, the DOC has seemingly only taken action on the intake issue when it has been faced with imminent court intervention. According to Townsend, that’s the department’s MO.

“They’re in non-compliance on so many different things, it’s like whack-a-mole,” she said. “So when that thing becomes important to the media, or it becomes well known, they will scramble and try to fix something quickly, rather than put in long-term workable structures.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
Also filed in Criminal Justice

He hopes the settlement will lead to reforms in New York prisons, where three-quarters of trans people say corrections officers have inappropriately touched or sexually assaulted them.

Advocates charge that New York’s restrictions for sex offense registrants are “vague, expansive, and unnecessary.” On Tuesday, they filed a federal lawsuit to strike them down.

The Senate will consider Daniel Martuscello III’s bid to run New York’s prison and parole agency. His supporters point to his decades of experience. His opponents say that’s the problem.

Also filed in New York City

The constant gridlock is a major drag on Manhattan’s businesses, and source of frustration for commuters. And it’s never been so bad.

Lawsuits had threatened to kill congestion pricing. Now, it might take a lawsuit to save it.

The police department’s PR team has more than doubled in size in the past two years. Some of its recent hires have histories of dishonesty and misconduct.