As Pressure Builds Over Rikers Crisis, a Drumbeat of Death and Disorder
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Facing a possible federal court takeover of the troubled Rikers Island complex, Louis A. Molina, the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction, will appear before a Federal district judge on Tuesday for a hearing on the jail system’s fate.
Over the past month, Mr. Molina and his department have worked with an independent monitor on a plan to continue running the jails, saying they will address, among other things, staffing practices that have left some jail houses unguarded — causing rates of violence to rise and forcing some detainees to fend for themselves.
But even as the city was promising to restore order in the jails, more troubling signs were emerging that Rikers Island was still in the throes of an unmediated crisis, records and interviews show.
In April, a man suffered a grievous head injury after he was beaten by another person in custody, raising concerns that the incident mirrored failures in two other beating cases that were hidden from public view until The New York Times reported on them in March.
Two people have died in custody in the last three weeks alone, in an apparent suicide and a probable drug overdose that were the jail system’s fourth and fifth deaths this year.
And a state judge last week held the Correction Department in contempt over its failure to provide detainees with timely medical care.
At the hearing on Tuesday, Judge Laura T. Swain of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will advance a process that began last month when the U.S. attorney in Manhattan raised the prospect of federal receivership for Rikers Island, citing a crisis dating to last year. Among the possible outcomes are a full federal takeover of the jail system, in which a receiver would be appointed with broad power over the operations of the Correction Department, or a partial takeover, in which the city retains some control.
Any such move would mark an unprecedented step in the department’s history as well as a watershed moment in the yearslong effort to reform one of the most notorious jail complexes in the United States.
Last year, The Times reported that decades of mismanagement by city officials had given rise to violence and disorder in the jails, leaving gang members in control of some housing areas and some detainees to languish without adequate food or medical care.
But as the hearing date approached, Mayor Eric Adams said that he wanted to see the Correction Department maintain control of the jails despite its track record, saying that a federal takeover would amount to a stinging defeat for the city.
“It says we can’t do our job,” he said, adding that it could set a precedent for federal takeovers of other city agencies. “I’m not surrendering this city to anyone who believes we can’t do our job.”
To Tatiana Sokolova, however, whose son was detained at Rikers, it seems clear that the city cannot in fact do its job in the jails system.
On April 12, her son, Vyacheslav Kargin, 47, was being held in the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island on a probation violation charge when he got into a fight with another detainee. During the 13-second struggle, Mr. Kargin suffered a head injury that was so grave he had to undergo emergency surgery to drain blood pooling around his brain, according to his family.
Mr. Kargin is now partially paralyzed, unable to move his left arm, said Richard Skinner, his brother-in-law. Ms. Sokolova, 73, said he could only utter a few words before he became incoherent.
“How could this happen?” Ms. Sokolova said in a recent phone interview, speaking through a Russian translator. “It’s a tragedy. I want him to come back to the way he was before — normal and fine.”
Mr. Kargin is currently relearning how to walk and talk, his family said. But, as far as the Correction Department’s records are concerned, he suffered only a laceration on the left side of his head, according to two people with knowledge of the reporting system. A third person said the officer was unaware of the severity of Mr. Kargin’s internal injuries and had reported only what he could see. Mr. Kargin’s medical records, meanwhile, show that he was unable to speak when he was admitted to the hospital. The incident has not been previously reported.
It was not the first time in recent months that questions have been raised about the Correction Department’s handling of a serious injury to a person in custody. The Times in March found record-keeping shortcomings in the beatings of two men, including one who was paralyzed from the neck down and another who spent weeks in a coma.
Less than a month after Mr. Kargin was injured, on May 7, Dashawn Carter was found dead in his cell with a sheet tied around his neck, according to a preliminary report by the Board of Correction, a city agency that provides jail oversight.
Mental health officials at the jail had cleared Mr. Carter, 25, to be housed in a general population area two days earlier, despite a prior jail history of being held on suicide watch. He had also just transferred back to Rikers from a state psychiatric hospital where he had been held for five months, according to the report and his lawyer. He had been awaiting trial on robbery charges. He was the fourth person to die in the jail complex this year.
Mr. Carter’s lawyer, Mark Geisser, said his client’s death represented “a complete failure of the Department of Correction.”
“It seems like I read about jailed people dying at Rikers every month,” Mr. Geisser said. “You think it’s going to end now — that they’re going to do something. It doesn’t happen, and one day it’s your client. Something has got to change.”
Eleven days after Mr. Carter’s death, Mary Yehudah, 31, became the fifth person to die on Rikers Island in 2022, felled by an apparent overdose, according to two people with knowledge of her case. Awaiting trial on a robbery charge, Ms. Yehudah was found on May 17 unresponsive in her cell. An officer called for medical assistance, and she received Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. She was taken to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens but died the next morning.
Lawyers for Ms. Yehudah said they had been trying to get her into a drug-treatment program.
This month, the Board of Correction issued another scathing report that found that staffing problems at Rikers Island had endangered people in custody. Among the cases it cited was the death of Herman Diaz, 52, who choked to death on a piece of orange on March 18 in an understaffed housing area. Although other detainees tried to help him and an officer in a station called for medical assistance, the officer did not leave the post to help.
Likewise, correction officers were not monitoring the units where two other men, George Pagan, 48, and Tarz Youngblood, 38, were being held in the hours before their deaths, the report found, underscoring the depth of staffing dysfunction on Rikers Island.
The jail system’s inability to manage staffing has also caused thousands of detainees to miss critical medical appointments, sometimes leading to health emergencies. Last week, a state court judge singled out the Department of Correction for denying people in custody access to medical and mental health care.
At a recent City Council hearing, jail officials acknowledged that the number of appointments missed in March had risen to 12,700 from 8,400 in February.
Mr. Molina, who took over the jail system only five months ago, has asked for more time to address problems that have developed over decades.
“We are moving quickly,” Mr. Molina said in a statement on Saturday, “and some parts of this plan have already been implemented.”
Steve J. Martin, a federal monitor appointed to oversee reforms on Rikers, praised Mr. Molina in a letter last week to the federal judge, saying that he “demonstrated a strong understanding and command of the issues” facing the department. Still, Mr. Martin added, the city’s mismanagement of Rikers over the years has raised questions about whether Mr. Molina has the power to see the plan through, an indication that some form of federal receivership could be warranted.
Since the 1970s, federal courts have taken control of jails and prisons away from the authorities in other states, making changes to staffing practices, medical care and disciplinary procedures, among other things. Such takeovers can give a judicially appointed authority control over just some parts of jail management or strip away control from local officials entirely.
If Judge Swain were to appoint a receiver over Rikers, the independent overseer could have the power to waive state laws championed by the powerful correction officers’ union — including one barring the department from hiring outside of the unions — that past officials say pose hurdles to reform.
“All of this stems from the undue influence of correctional officers’ unions,” said Vincent N. Schiraldi, Mr. Molina’s predecessor at the Correction Department, “and the willingness of elected officials to hand out excessively generous benefits.”
A spokesman for the correction officers’ union did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal judges have ordered takeovers of jail and prison systems sparingly over the years, and it remains to be seen whether Judge Swain will take such a step on Tuesday. But some advocates said they were rooting for a receivership order.
City officials should be alarmed, not at the prospect of a takeover, but at “people dying at Rikers,” said Sara Norman, the managing attorney of the Prison Law Office, who successfully argued for federal management of health care in California’s prison system. “That’s what’s shocking and horrifying.”