Rikers Island Horror Stories Prompt Federal Takeover of NYC Jail SystemNovember 17, 2023
A man paralyzed when New York City correction officers tackled him and dropped him on his head while handcuffed signed an affidavit backing an outside takeover of Rikers Island and the city’s other jails by using a pen gripped between his teeth because he can’t use his hands.
Carlton James, 40, wrote a spidery “X” with the pen in his mouth from his bed at Bellevue Hospital where he has had three surgeries stemming from the May 11 encounter with guards at the Vernon C. Bain Center, the city jail barge moored in the Bronx. The federal monitor tracking uses of force in the jails didn’t learn of the encounter for 11 days.
“I had to undergo multiple surgeries on my neck. A feeding tube was placed. I was on a ventilator. I now have quadriplegia and have no use of my limbs,” James’s Nov. 10 affidavit states.
James is one of five people whose grim jail experiences form the centerpiece of a 100-page motion filed Friday. It argues the jails should be taken from Mayor Adams’ administration and placed under control of an outside receiver appointed by a federal judge.
The motion comes in Nunez v. City of New York, a class action lawsuit filed in 2011 in Manhattan Federal Court alleging failures by the Correction Department led to pervasive violence and excessive staff use of force on Rikers Island and other city lockups.
The lawsuit led to a consent decree in 2015 creating the federal monitor to track the progress of reform. Lawyers for jail detainees say violence and uses of force are worse now than they were then, and that a takeover of the city jails by a court-appointed receiver is needed.
“The city has demonstrated through eight years of recalcitrance and defiance of court orders that it cannot and will not reform its unconstitutional practices,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at The Legal Aid Society.
“The city has made progress in many areas to address the deeply rooted problems at Rikers that have existed for generations. We are committed to building upon that work and we do not believe a receivership is the solution to fixing the city’s jail system,” stated the city Law Department.
The prospect of a takeover has grown since Mayor Adams took office. Sixteen deaths in the jails in 2021, followed by 19 in 2022 and nine so far in 2023 were key signs of dysfunction. Reports of violence have worsened since May amid allegations the Correction Department was trying to hide cases like James’ from oversight. A steady drumbeat of reports from the Nunez monitor continued to expose breakdowns through the jail system.
A key turning point came in July when Manhattan U.S. Attorney Damian Williams supported receivership.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for December. The city is expected to file a motion opposing receivership in January.
The judge would then decide on whether to appoint a receiver, a process that could take months. Hearing’s in the case after that await a ruling on the matter.
One element of the motion filed appears to allege that Mayor Adams’ support for the leadership of the jail unions has been a problem.
In an affidavit, Michael Jacobson, who was the city’s correction commissioner from 1995 to 1998, argued the Correction Department staff feels they can ignore management directives because of the outsized power of the uniformed unions to “wait out” leadership.
The motion also cites multiple articles published by the Daily News citing problems that have occurred during the Molina regime — including the demotion of a top investigator Ruben Benitez, who ran afoul of Molina.
One of the affidavits filed Friday was by Gilson Garcia, who discusses the death of his brother Gilberto Garcia, 27, who died on Oct. 31, 2022 in the Anna M. Kross Center at Rikers. Gilson was in the cell next to his brother that day and found him dying. He tried to revive him with Narcan. Another detainee tried CPR.
Joshua Gonzalez, in an affidavit, described his 2023 incarceration in a high-security unit where he writes officers doled out showers like rewards. When he questioned the practice, officers beat him, he says.
Andre Brown wrote he was severely beaten by two men in his cell on Sept. 20, 2022 and had to get stitches to close wounds on his torso and staples for two gashes in his head.
Joseph Myers, 28, wrote he was doused with pepper spray even though staff knew he was “severely” asthmatic, and James Bradley, 25, wrote being punched twice in the face June 30 by an officer while he was shackled.