Last Friday, at the direction of Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain, the Legal Aid Society filed a motion and proposed order for putting the whole of the city’s Department of Correction under federal receivership, now with the full support of U.S. Attorney Damian Williams.

The facts at issue aren’t new, none of the details novel. The interlocking crises at that offshore human rights catastrophe that is Rikers Island are long-standing, extensively documented, well-known and oft-discussed, broken down in exhaustive detail in federal monitor reports, court testimony, press coverage and reports by legal and civil rights groups.

The contours are clear as they’ll ever be: Rikers features levels of use of force by staff and slashings and fights among detainees that are higher than they were when the situation was declared unconstitutional. Management seems unable to impose accountability for misconduct, rein in staff practices or even really make sure that officers are consistently at their posts doing the jobs they were hired to do.

A lot of employers might have similar problems, but if a worker slacks off manning the cash register, it’s very unlikely that someone will die as a result. The DOC has a special responsibility to safeguard the lives and health of thousands of people in custody — people that, regardless of what crimes they may have been charged with, are human beings with inalienable rights who’ve been entrusted to its care — and that requires a seriousness that the department has lacked.

That dearth of seriousness is the genesis from which all of its other problems flow, and, as the documents lay out, the DOC and its leadership — including new Assistant Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Louis Molina, moved up from DOC commissioner at about the same time as the motions were being filed — have for months bungled every opportunity to shift approach, to take responsibility for failures and firmly take the wheel to right the ship.

Instead, it has focused on touting minor improvements and tweaking around the edges, while blocking oversight where it can.

While the receivership snowball has rolled on for the last year, picking up supporters along the way, no one really wanted a receiver, stripping the city of responsibility. It’s not an ideal solution: it takes control away from the democratically elected chain of command and vests it in an external party that’s accountable only to the court and the law.

As Molina noted in his opposition to the idea, the receiver would have to arrive at a system with its own mechanisms and internal culture and quickly familiarize themselves with it and then fundamentally reshape its operations, a tall order in the best of circumstances. In a perfect world, the DOC leadership is the best entity to fix the DOC’s issues.

But this is not that world. As Williams wrote in his letter supporting the motion, the prosecutor did not join the plaintiff’s efforts to move for contempt and receivership last year, hopeful that the new mayor, his new commissioner and their action plan would turn things around. A year and a half later, it’s clear that without a receiver, “DOC will develop more pilots, plans, and initiatives—similar to those developed in the past—only to soon abandon them.” 

New York Daily News Editorial Board

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