Federal judge lifts contempt order against NYC over management of Rikers Island, city jails

NEW YORK — A federal judge has lifted a contempt order against New York City and the Correction Department, saying the department has complied with her directives to improve its cooperation with a federal monitor tracking violence at Rikers Island and other city jails.

Manhattan Federal Court Judge Laura Taylor Swain removed the contempt charge in a two-page order signed Tuesday.

Swain, who had threatened to fine the city if her orders were not followed, issued her decision on the basis of a federal monitor’s report which noted, “Overall, there is a marked and positive shift in the department’s approach to working with the monitoring team.”

In an order Dec. 14, Swain had ordered the city to increase the authority of the so-called Nunez manager, who essentially is the Correction Department’s liaison with the federal violence monitor. The change was meant in part to emphasize to Correction staff that they must cooperate with the monitor and create a set of more accurate statistics for tracking violence and uses of force.

So far, the monitoring team seems pleased with the results.

“The monitoring team observed an immediate change in the Department’s approach and dynamic,” Deputy Monitor Anna Friedberg wrote. “Although it has only been two months, the monitoring team has not identified any situations in which the Department should have consulted the monitoring team but did not.”

At the Dec. 14 hearing at which Swain issued the contempt order, she slammed the city for withholding from the monitor information about the creation of a new housing unit for detainees prone to setting fires. Swain also said the department had withheld information on major incidents, including deaths in the jails in 2023 during the tenure of then-Correction Commissioner Louis Molina.

The monitor had previously said it didn’t trust the agency’s stabbing and slashing statistics.

Molina stepped down as Correction Commissioner in December to take a job at City Hall. He was replaced by his First Deputy Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie.

Swain’s order lifting the contempt charge was a win for Maginley-Liddie, who seems to have at least for now smoothed the waters with the monitor following the turbulence of the Molina era.

“I pledged to strengthen the department’s relationship with the monitoring team and I’m grateful to Judge Swain for seeing the progress we have made,” Maginley-Liddie said in a statement.

“My staff, all the bold men and women who serve our city, and the monitoring team have the same goal – safer jails for staff and people in custody. We will accomplish that shared goal through continued collaboration.”

Over the next few months, the question of whether the control over the jails should be taken away from the city and handed over to an outside receiver appointed will return to court.

The Legal Aid Society and the Justice Department submitted filings in late 2023 arguing in favor of a receiver. The city’s response has yet to be filed.

The legal back and forth is all taking place in Nunez v. the City of New York, a class action lawsuit filed in 2011 which led to the creation of the monitor through a settlement with the Justice Department in 2015.