Setting the Stage

Elizabeth Glazer

August 02, 2023

Introductory remarks from Vital City's 8/2/23 forum, "Are NYC's Jails Ungovernable?"

Introductory remarks from Vital City's 8/2/23 forum, "Are NYC's Jails Ungovernable?"

Elizabeth Glazer: Hello, everybody, and welcome to our forum today, glad you're here. And welcome to High Noon in New York City, or at least that's what it feels like when it comes to the city's jails. They keep hitting what must be bottom, only to go lower. I'll give you just one fact that stands in for many facts. 26 people have died since last year, and the way they've died says everything about the complete collapse of the jails in management. One person slit his throat — he had a razor in the jail — in front of officers and bled out. Another man choked on an orange as his fellow detainees tried to get attention in what was essentially an unstaffed unit. All of this is even more shocking because jails are supposed to just house people temporarily, people who are presumed innocent as they're awaiting the resolution of their cases.

Next week in a courtroom in Manhattan, things may begin to change. The city has been operating under a federal consent decree that they signed eight years ago that was aimed at stemming the brutality. The court is going to bring together all the people who are involved in the suit; the Legal Aid Society, who represents people in jail; the United States of America, represented by the US Attorney and on the other side, New York City and its jails. Unusually, the court has ordered the commissioner of the department himself, not just lawyers, to attend. So the court is going to decide whether to start a process that could result in taking away from the City the power to operate the jails. Instead, the court would confer that authority on what's called a receiver, a person appointed by the court who has the power not simply to recommend change, but to effect the jails even if it means changing contracts and laws.

I'm Liz Glazer. I run a policy venture called Vital City, and I'm really pleased to be able to join partners at Columbia Law School, at the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and Campaign Zero in presenting today's forum. Together we've presented two other forums — this is the third — that try to untangle and maybe even solve these problems. Why are the jails in such terrible shape, and what will it take to fix them? I'm going to give cliff notes about how we got here. My colleague, Hernandez Stroud, who is counsel at the Brennan Center, is going to spend a few minutes on what a receivership is and how it's worked and how it hasn't. And then at the end, Michael Jacobson, a former New York City Corrections Commissioner, will close us out. In between we have two incredibly distinguished groups of panelists and two stellar moderators. Jan Ransom from the New York Times is an investigative reporter who has made front page news with insightful reporting on the problems in the jails, and she's going to moderate the first panel on what it takes to govern the jails.

Errol Louis is the city's foremost commentator on politics, policy and people. He hosts a daily show called “Inside City Hall.” He writes regularly for New York Magazine, among many, many other things, and he's going to moderate the second panel on why oversight is important. They will take a few questions from you all. You should just put the questions in the Q&A. And for those that we don't get to, we'll put answers online at The full bios of all our panelists and data and writing from many of them are available on as well.

The current debate over receivership is often framed as a competition. "Will the city lose control?" But really, the only competition here is for the best structure for the wellbeing of those people who are detained and who are working in the jails. That has not been going well, and not just in this administration, but for decades, stretching over five consent decrees through the terms of eight mayors and 24 corrections commissioners. The consent decrees have covered every imaginable aspect of daily life, but violence is the thing, because when there's so much violence, there can't be any semblance of a normalized life, not for the people detained, nor for those staffing the facilities. Everybody is walking point with ever-escalating tensions erupting into violence at the slightest provocation.

As the Federal Monitor has underscored, the amount of violence at Rikers and the city's jails is not normal, it's not typical and it's certainly not constitutional. Even under the current consent decree, which is aimed at fixing what the then-U.S. attorney called the “culture of violence,” things have gotten much, much worse. Deaths are now at three times levels declared unconstitutional in 2015. Slashings and stabbings are at six times that level. And you know things are at an all-time low when the dream is to get back to the merely unconstitutional levels of 2015.

How could conditions be this bad, and why don't they get better? Well, it's not a question of money. The department spends more than a billion dollars a year, amounting to about $500,000 per person detained per year. And it's not a question of staffing. The city jails are one of the most richly staffed jails in the nation, maybe in the world. As the monitor has noted, it is a question of management or the lack of it, a non-functioning discipline system, broken security protocols and union rules that hamper how and where people can be assigned or who can be hired, among many, many other structural problems.

Concerns over these fatal conditions reached a fever pitch in March of last year when the monitor issued a five alarm fire special report noting that the conditions continue to spiral out of control with imminent harm to those detained and to staff. Since then, the jails have been operating under an emergency action plan. But again, things have just gotten worse. Last year ended with the highest rate of deaths since 1996 and the highest rate of stabbings and slashings since 1993. And then in May of this year, it became crystal clear that it was not just that the City was unable to implement change, it was unwilling to do so. Over the course of just nine days this past May in the jails, two people died and three people suffered hideous and life-altering injuries. The city hid these incidents from the monitor, who only discovered them from newspaper accounts and tips.

Essentially, the City stuck its tongue out at the monitor and the court, declaring it wasn't required to report this key information, bringing into the open what has been a troubling record since last January of hobbling oversight authorities and withholding information. So, the question became: If the court can't trust whether the information it's receiving is a full and unvarnished account of conditions, how can it ever hope to solve them? So yes, it's High Noon in the sense of a turning point, but receivership is not without its risks. The question is: Compared to what we have now, does receivership offer some hope of a route to constitutionally acceptable conditions? Hernandez, over to you for more on receivership, and then we'll go right into our panels, first with Jan Ransom.