Are NYC’s Jails Ungovernable?

Wednesday, August 02, 2023
12:00PM - 2:00PM

From escalating rates of violence, to a willful suppression of information by the Department of Correction (DOC), New York City’s jails are nothing short of a humanitarian crisis. Are we past the point of no return? With the federal monitor overseeing Rikers recently recommending that the Adams administration and DOC be held in contempt, and the United States Attorney now joining the calls for a receiver, the city is at a pivotal point about the future of NYC’s jails, and whether it is time for a new power to govern the jail system. 

Vital City, Columbia Law School, CUNY Institute for State & Local Governance (ISLG) and Campaign Zero will bring together experts with deep experience working in the criminal justice system for a virtual event to assess what it takes to govern the jails and maintain the crucially important role of oversight. 


1. Setting the stage - Elizabeth Glazer, founder of Vital City (transcript)

2. Lessons on receivership in correctional settings - Hernandez Stroud, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice (transcript)

Panel 1.  What does it take to govern the jails?  (45 mins)


Does the city have either the capacity or the will to implement the reforms necessary to make the jails both decent and humane? This panel will look at the drivers of dysfunction, what the city could do to address the crises in the jails and the risks and rewards of placing NYC jails in receivership. 

-Moderator: Jan Ransom, The New York Times

-Stanley Brezenoff, former first deputy mayor of NYC, former chair of NYC Board of Correction

-Michael Jacobson, director of CUNY ISLG, former NYC DOC Commissioner

-Sara Norman, managing attorney at Prison Law Project in California, plaintiffs’ attorneys in suit that successfully installed receiver to deliver medical care in California prisons

-Hernandez Stroud, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice

Panel 2.  Death in darkness: why oversight matters (45 mins)


City government has taken ever more brazen steps to suppress information about what is happening in its jails, including crippling the power and access of its oversight board and refusing to release information to the press or public on whether deaths are occurring. This panel will explore why transparency, whether achieved through oversight bodies, the media or other means, is key to the decent operation of a jail. Panelists will explore what we can learn about the value of transparency or lack thereof from the long history of consent decrees in other contexts, such as police departments.

-Moderator: Errol Louis, NY1

-Christy Lopez, professor at Georgetown University Law School, previously led section at DOJ responsible for police department consent decrees

-Martha King, senior program officer at the Charles H. Revson Foundation, former Executive Director NYC Board of Correction

-Graham Rayman, reporter for the New York Daily News

-Stanley Richards, deputy CEO at Fortune Society, former first deputy commissioner NYC DOC

-Sarena Townsend, partner at Townsend, Mottola & Uris Law, former Deputy Commissioner of Investigation & Trials, NYC DOC

Closing Remarks


Michael Jacobson, director of CUNY ISLG, former NYC DOC Commissioner

For data on violence in the jails, go here.

For more information on previous events Vital City has hosted on the topic of receivership and the crises on Rikers Island, go here and here.


  • Elizabeth Glazer is the founder of Vital City. Most recently, she served as the director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice where she led the strategy to produce a dramatic reduction in the jail population and to create community-led safety strategies. She previously oversaw the criminal justice agencies in New York State as the governor’s deputy secretary for public safety. She is a former federal prosecutor and clerked for then-U.S. Circuit Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
  • Jan Ransom is an investigative reporter for The New York Times focusing on criminal justice issues, law enforcement and incarceration in New York.
  • Stanley Brezenoff is a longtime leading civil servant, formerly serving as Chair of the Board of Corrections and President and CEO of Continuum Health Partners. Brezenoff previously served as Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and as First Deputy Mayor under Mayor Ed Koch. He also served as Interim President and CEO of NYC Health + Hospitals where he was previously a Board Member from 1979 to 1981; President and CEO from 1981 to 1984; and Chairman of the Board of Directors from 1984 to 1985. Previously, Mr. Brezenoff worked at the Ford Foundation for 10 years and served as Commissioner of the NYC Department of Employment and Administrator of the NYC Human Resources Administration. Brezenoff was born in East New York, and majored in Philosophy at Brooklyn College.
  • Michael Jacobson is ISLG's founding Executive Director as well as a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center (GC). Prior to joining CUNY in May 2013 to help create ISLG, Michael was president of the Vera Institute of Justice, serving from 2005 to 2013. He is the author of Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration (New York University Press 2005). Holding a Ph.D. in sociology, he has had an ongoing academic career coupled with more than 20 years of government service. From 1998 to 2005 he was a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the GC. He was New York City correction commissioner from 1995 to 1998, New York City probation commissioner from 1992 to 1996, and worked in the New York City Office of Management and Budget from 1984 to 1992 where he was a deputy budget director. In 2010 to 2012, Michael served as the chair of Altus, a global alliance working across continents and from a multicultural perspective to improve public safety and justice.
  • Sara Norman is the managing attorney of the Prison Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of youth and adults behind bars in California and Arizona.  She is counsel for the plaintiff class in Clark v. California, a class action on behalf of thousands of people in California prisons with intellectual disabilities; in Gray v. County of Riverside, a class action lawsuit to improve health care in one of the largest county jail systems in the U.S.; and in Farrell v. Cate, a taxpayer lawsuit that forced sweeping reforms in California's juvenile justice system. Ms. Norman was a member of the litigation team in Brown v. Plata, in which the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed a lower court order requiring California to significantly reduce its severe prison overcrowding, an accomplishment for which the team was selected as a finalist for the 2010 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award from the Public Justice Foundation.  She is the recipient of numerous awards, and one of the top women litigators in California named by the San Francisco and Los Angeles Daily Journals.  She graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School, and clerked for Judge Robert Carter in the Southern District of New York.
  • Hernandez Stroud is senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. He serves on the faculties of Columbia University and the New York University School of Law. He studies institutional reform litigation involving prisons and jails, particularly remedies. He also drafts and spearheads federal criminal legal and policy reforms.  Prior to the Brennan Center, Stroud was the inaugural Robert F. Drinan Visiting Assistant Professor at Boston College Law School. He has held other academic appointments at Yale Law School and the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Stroud served as acting director of policy for the City of New Haven, focusing on childhood literacy, policing, and prisoner re-entry. A first-generation college graduate from Alabama, he holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and a law degree from the Washington and Lee University School of Law. After law school, he served as a law clerk to Hon. Madeline Hughes Haikala of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama and Hon. O. Rogeriee Thompson of the U.S Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
  • Errol Louis is the Political Anchor of Spectrum News NY1, where he hosts "Inside City Hall," a nightly primetime show about New York City politics where he interviews top political and cultural leaders. Louis has moderated more than two dozen debates between candidates for mayor, public advocate, city and state comptroller, state Attorney General and U.S. Senate. He was recently ranked #40 on the list of the 100 most powerful people in New York City politics. He is an adjunct professor of Urban Reporting at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism as well as co-editor of Deadline Artists.
  • Christy Lopez is a Professor from Practice at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington D.C. She teaches courses on policing and criminal procedure and is the faculty co-director of Georgetown’s Center for Innovations in Community Safety. She co-chaired the Washington D.C. Police Reform Commission, which issued its report in April, 2021. She was a Fellow on the American Law Institute (ALI) Principles of Law, Policing, Project, and is a contributing columnist to the Washington Post opinions page. From 2010 to 2017, Professor Lopez served as a Deputy Chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Professor Lopez also led the investigations of several law enforcement agencies, including those in New Orleans, Chicago, and Ferguson, Missouri and was a Senior Trial Attorney in the Civil Rights Division from 1995 to 2000. From 2003 to 2010, Professor Lopez served as a federal court monitor of the Oakland (California) Police Department for Senior District Judge Thelton E. Henderson of the Northern District of California.  Professor Lopez holds a juris doctor from Yale Law School and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of California at Riverside.
  • Martha King oversees the Charles H. Revson Foundation’s grantmaking in Urban Affairs and Education. Prior to joining the Foundation, she was the executive director of the New York City Board of Correction, the city’s jail watchdog. During her tenure, the Board more than doubled its budget, released its first new chapter of regulations in 25 years, and pushed New York City to the forefront of jail transparency nationally, releasing dozens of audits and reports on violence, health care, visiting, grievances, solitary confinement, and other conditions. Martha has also served as a policy advisor to the first deputy mayor of New York City where she advised on criminal justice priorities, managed the Mayor’s Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System, and co-chaired the Public Safety Committee of OneNYC. Martha began her career planning and evaluating programs at CASES, the largest alternative to incarceration program in New York City and as an Oscar S. Straus II Fellow in Criminal Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice. Martha serves on the Board of Directors of the Correctional Association of New York, which provides independent monitoring and oversight of state prisons in New York State.
  • Graham Rayman covers criminal justice and policing for the New York Daily News. He has won multiple journalism prizes over his 30-year career. He has previously worked at New York Newsday, Newsday, and the Village Voice. Graham is the author of two books: "Rikers: An Oral History" (Random House, 2023), written along with co-author Reuven Blau, which takes readers through the history of Rikers Island and "The NYPD Tapes," about a police officer who became a whistleblower in Brooklyn.
  • Stanley Richards is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of The Fortune Society, a service and advocacy non-profit organization in New York City, founded by David Rothenberg in 1967.  The Fortune Society’s mission is to support successful reentry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration. Stanley is a formerly incarcerated man of color with decades of experience in the criminal justice field.  In 2014, Stanley was recognized by the Obama administration as a Champion of Change for his commitment to helping individuals impacted by the justice system, and became the first formerly incarcerated person to be appointed to the NYC Board of Correction. 
  • Sarena Townsend is a Partner at criminal defense firm Townsend, Mottola & Uris Law, PLLC. From 2016 - 2021, Ms. Townsend was the Deputy Commissioner of the Intelligence, Investigation & Trials Division at the New York City Department of Correction (DOC). There, she oversaw thousands of investigations and discipline for staff misconduct, and brought DOC into compliance with Prison Rape Elimination Act investigations and Use of Force investigations and disciplinary guidelines.  Prior to her position with DOC, Ms. Townsend was a Deputy Bureau Chief at the Kings County District Attorney's Office (KCDA) in Brooklyn, NY. Over the course of a decade at KCDA, Ms. Townsend prosecuted high-profile, complex cases, with a specialization in sex crimes prosecutions. Ms. Townsend received her J.D. from Fordham University School of Law in 2006 and graduated, with honors, from New York University in 2003, with a B.A. in Psychology.