Should Shutting Down Rikers Island Be Taken Out of New York’s Hands?

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New York City’s politicians and civil servants can’t shut down Rikers Island, and with the city failing to comply with roughly six years of judicial mandates made by federal Judge Laura T. Swain, the jail should be put into receivership, says Hernandez D. Stroud, a counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, in an op-ed for the Daily News. When a local or state government proves unable or unwilling to improve a distressed public institution that has long defied federal law, a federal court can take the troubled entity out of the government’s hands and appoint a “receiver” — a nonpartisan expert — to assume direct control, with an eye towards reform.

Receivers can fire and hire personnel (often the only way to eliminate entrenched dysfunction that new jails alone can’t address). And they set and control their own budgets, based on what’s needed, says Stroud. He points to Washington D.C., where, after the District of Columbia Jail experienced decades of high suicide rates, widespread tuberculosis, and reprehensible AIDS treatment, a recievership of the jail’s medical and psychiatric system ordered in 1995 resulted in an end to suicides, controlled TB numbers, yielded competent medical staff, and improved equipment within five years. Stroud admits that a receivership is not a cure-all, and warns that, while they worked in places like D.C. for a time, a lack of consistency and follow through has resulted in the same problems returning with a vengeance there. He considers the idea to be a tourniquet for a problem that requires persistent political action forced forward by an involved citizenry if it is ever to be solved.

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