Manhattan US attorney insists on federal takeover of Rikers Island from Eric Adams admin: ‘Collective failure’

Manhattan’s U.S. Attorney announced Monday that his office intends to file for contempt and take over control of the long-plagued Riker’s Island jail complex from New York City Eric Adams’ administration. 

“Rikers Island has been in crisis for years. This is a collective failure with deep roots, spanning multiple mayoral administrations and DOC commissioners,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams of the Southern District of New York said in a statement. “But after eight years of trying every tool in the toolkit, we cannot wait any longer for substantial progress to materialize. That is why my Office will seek a court-appointed receiver to address the conditions on Rikers Island.”

Adams has resisted the idea of a federal takeover of the system and has said his administration has been taking steps to stabilize Rikers, which was hit hard by the pandemic.

A spokesperson for City Hall told The Associated Press the administration’s efforts had been having a positive impact in some areas that a federal monitor had noted and questioned what had changed.


Rikers Island jail complex with NYC skyline

The Rikers Island jail complex stands with the Manhattan skyline in the background, June 20, 2014, in New York. A federal prosecutor said Monday, July 17, 2023, his office is seeking to have control of New York City’s trouble-plagued jail taken away from Mayor Eric Adam’s administration. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

In 2015, the U.S. entered into a consent decree with the City of New York and the Department of Correction (DOC) to address violations of the constitutional rights of incarcerated individuals at Rikers Island. After multiple remedial orders and an action plan that has been in place for over a year, on July 10, 2023, the monitor found that despite some progress in certain areas, the DOC has not made “substantial and demonstrable progress in implementing the reforms, initiatives, plans, systems, and practices as outlined in the Action Plan” and “there has not been a substantial reduction in the risk of harm currently facing incarcerated individuals and Department staff,” Williams’ office said. 

Mayor Eric Adams

Mayor Eric Adams is pictured during briefing at the Javits Federal Building on April 17, 2023. U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said Monday he is seeking a federal takeover of the Rikers Island jail complex from Adams’ administration. (Luiz C. Ribeiro/New York Daily News/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In that report, the monitor said the “pace of reform has stagnated” in the past eight years since the consent decree was reached and that jail officials had failed to report incidents of violence. Another report earlier this month condemned conditions at jail facilities, citing mold- and vermin-infested areas, among other issues.


“In light of these findings, this Office has decided to pursue contempt proceedings and seek additional relief from the Court, including the appointment of a receiver, to address the ongoing risk of harm to both incarcerated individuals and DOC staff,” the U.S. attorney’s office concluded. “If appointed, the receiver would report to the Court and have independent authority to take necessary steps to comply with core provisions of the Consent Decree and other Court-ordered relief.” 

Rikers Island protesters

Criminal justice activists protesting against bail on Feb. 28, 2022, at the gate to Rikers Island in Queens, New York. A federal prosecutor announced Monday his office is seeking to take over control of the long-plagued jail complex. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

At a hearing in June, U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain told attorneys for the city and Rikers detainees to formally discuss a potential structure for a federal receivership and said she would consider it in August. 


Advocates for those detained at Rikers have loudly called for a receivership, citing grim realities such as the deaths of 19 people last year, following 16 fatalities the year before. Six people have died so far this year.

The Legal Aid Society praised Williams’ decision to push for federal oversight, saying in a statement, “Too many lives have been lost and damaged due to the city’s inability to manage the jails humanely. We look forward to working together to seek the relief necessary to end this culture of brutality.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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