Rikers Watchdog Sues New York City Over Lack of Transparency

A New York City agency responsible for protecting the rights of incarcerated people took steps to reassert its authority on Wednesday, suing the Department of Correction and the city over a lack of transparency as the majority of its members called for an outside authority to take control of the jails.

The agency, the Board of Correction, filed its suit in Bronx State Supreme Court, seeking to wrest back unfettered access to surveillance video from the jails. The jails commissioner, Louis A. Molina, stopped the board from accessing the footage, which allows it to monitor jail conditions at any given moment, earlier this year.

“We’ve been forced to take the unprecedented step of entering into litigation against the city in order to ensure that we, and our staff, have access to the tools we need to do our jobs,” said one of the board members, Rachael Bedard, in a statement.

A spokesman for the Department of Correction did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

The suit arrived the same day that the majority of the board — five of its eight members — called in a New York Daily News opinion article for the jails to be taken over by an independent authority known as a receiver. The three members of the board who were appointed by Mayor Eric Adams did not join the call.

On Thursday, a federal judge will hold a hearing at which prosecutors and lawyers for detainees are also expected to call for a receiver to head the jails.

The judge, Laura Taylor Swain, has expressed a lack of faith in the city’s management, writing in a court filing last month that the mayor had failed to “address the dangerous conditions that perpetually plague the jails and imperil those who are confined and who work there.”

The city’s jails, most of which are on Rikers Island in the East River, have been troubled for decades, but the most recent crisis arrived with the pandemic in March 2020.

Correction officers began failing to show up for work by the hundreds, even as the population at the jails rose. As a result, deaths and physical injuries became far more common, leading to significant scrutiny of the Department of Correction.

The city has insisted that conditions have since improved. In a filing in federal court on Wednesday, a lawyer for the city, John Schemitsch, highlighted data that he said showed progress in bringing down violence among detainees and uses of force by staff.

Mr. Schemitsch said that while recent criticism of the department’s conduct was “valid,” conditions had not deteriorated over the past several months.

But under Mr. Adams, the department has taken explicit steps to limit public access to information about the jails.

In January, the department stopped giving Board of Correction staff unfettered access to video from Rikers Island, a tool integral to the board’s oversight.

It also stopped informing the media about deaths of people in custody. Seven people have died so far this year, and more than 40 have died since the beginning of 2021.

Video access has been a particular point of contention for most board members. In its lawsuit, the board said that the damage the restriction had done to its ability to function “cannot be overstated.”

“Video access, including access to a live feed, is one of the most crucial means by which the Board can effectively monitor the City’s jails; ensure DOC’s compliance with the minimum standards the Board has established; and conduct independent, confidential investigations into incidents of violence, use of force, responses to medical emergencies, and improper, potentially criminal, conduct by DOC staff,” the lawsuit says.

The mayor’s appointees to the board have also worked to diminish oversight. Dwayne Sampson, the board chairman and an Adams appointee, called unsuccessfully for the board to hold fewer public meetings with fewer people allowed to speak at them.

Critics of the administration say that the board’s lawsuit drove home how Mr. Adams had limited insight into the jails. Elizabeth Glazer, who led the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that Mr. Adams had tried not just to limit the board’s ability to do its job, but to snuff it out.

The lawsuit, she said, is “a signal of the complete breakdown of a relationship between a city agency and its oversight authority. It reflects what has really been an antidemocratic, almost authoritarian playbook, a kind of war on facts where first you shut the door on information and then you gaslight on the facts that are still visible.”

Adding to the unusual circumstances, the city law department, which would normally represent agencies, has informed both the Board of Correction and the Department of Correction that it would not represent either party, saying that its efforts to manage negotiations between the two would pose a conflict. Both agencies plan to hire outside lawyers.

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