NEW YORK — For nearly three hours on Friday, a federal court heard arguments from Steve J. Martin, the monitor appointed to oversee Rikers Island who for months has been sounding the alarm about deteriorating conditions at the city's jails.
What You Need To Know
- In graphic testimony, Rikers Island monitor Steve J. Martin said he reviewed an incident just two days ago in which correction officers failed to act after discovering a suicidal detainee
- Martin told the court that correction officers routinely abandon their posts
- Twelve people have died while in custody of the Department of Correction so far this year — five of them by suicide
During a remote hearing, Martin addressed the court and railed against the Department of Correction, saying there is a lack of leadership that has created dangerous conditions for everyone on the island.
In graphic testimony, Martin said he reviewed an incident just two days ago in which correction officers failed to act after discovering a suicidal detainee.
"Officers literally within 6 feet of a hanging inmate that was in their direct line of sight did not detect that," Martin said. "They ultimately did turn around and looked at the hanging inmate, and when they took him down he was of course in serious distress."
Martin told the court that correction officers routinely abandon their posts, that the current state of operations is creating danger, hundreds of cell doors are not in working order and officers are not preventing incidents of self-harm.
U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain described the state of affairs as "immediate and pressing problems," and referred to the “horrible, horrible situation of self-harm."
Twelve people have died while in custody of the Department of Correction so far this year, five of them by suicide.
Lawyers for The Legal Aid Society of New York, which represents class-action plaintiffs, told the court their request for emergency relief is an "urgent matter of life and death."
"Since we wrote a letter to your honor, two of our class members have died,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners' Rights Project for The Legal Aid Society of the City of New York.
Despite that, lawyers for the city asked for more time. They specifically took issue with some of the monitor's recommendations, including that the city bring in an outside consultant to help designate detainee housing and the appointment of an external security operations manager. During his weekly radio appearance on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer show,” Mayor Bill de Blasio also expressed opposition.
"What I've heard is the monitor has suggested bringing in a consultant," de Blasio said. “There is no outside security element that can come in appropriately.”
The parties have made a request for the court to consider emergency releases, but Swain made it clear the legal bar for that option is extremely high.
In the meantime, after weeks of publicly declining to visit Rikers, de Blasio caved to pressure from advocates and lawmakers who say the mayor should see the conditions for himself.
"Next week, I'll go visit. I think it's time because we've been able to address a number of issues," de Blasio said. “I want to see if these solutions are working or whatever other things we have to do.”
The court has ordered the parties to submit a formal application seeking emergency relief and the city must explain why it’s seeking more time to install fixes.
All parties are due back in court next week.
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