The New York City Department of Correction has been found in contempt of court by a federal judge on Thursday, December 14th.
District Judge Laura Swain’s decision came after it was revealed that jail officials had placed detainees accused of arson in a special unit lacking adequate safety measures, specifically cells without sprinklers, and had failed to inform the federal monitor, breaching a previous court order.
Judge Swain had previously emphasized the importance of “proactive” communication with the federal monitor under a court order from June 13.
However, the Department of Correction did not notify the monitor about the new Arson Reduction Housing Unit, with the monitor only learning of its existence on November 13th through an anonymous tip from Rikers Island.
During the hearing, Judge Swain expressed her frustration, stating, “The city’s profession of a lack of understanding of court orders and the meaning of the word ‘proactive’ regarding the monitoring team is frankly preposterous.”
Judge Swain added, “The department’s blatant failure here is unacceptable and in a word, contemptuous.”
The judge noted that the contempt ruling brought her “no joy.”
Judge Swain stated that the Department of Correction could rectify the contempt charge by adhering to three new conditions she imposed, one of which mandates informing all department staff about the critical need for communication with the monitor.
The judge also instructed the Correction Department to collaborate with the monitor to develop a new series of metrics for monitoring violence and instances of force used by staff.
The department has until February 16th to comply with these requirements, and if they fail, the city could face a daily fine of at least $1,000 for each violation.
The court’s hearing marked one of the first public appearances of Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, the newly appointed Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Correction.
Maginley-Liddie was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams last Friday.
The federal monitor and Judge Swain have expressed optimism regarding the new commissioner’s leadership, especially after the departure of former commissioner Louis Molina, as Rikers Island grapples with the possibility of a takeover.
In response to her department being held in contempt, Maginley-Liddie highlighted the court’s positive outlook towards her appointment, saying, “While the court found us in contempt, there’s an opportunity to purge the contempt…and we remain committed to ensuring people are safe and secure in our facilities.”
The court’s decision comes in the wake of a motion filed last month by Legal Aid attorneys, seeking receivership of New York City’s jails due to escalating violence and deaths at Rikers Island over the past eight years.
They propose the appointment of an independent jail manager to enhance safety. The city opposes this idea and has been granted a two-month extension by Judge Swain to file its response, now due in March 2024.
Swain noted that the worst-case scenario at present would be if the actions of the city agency, under Maginley-Liddie’s leadership in the upcoming months, establish a strong foundation for the appointment of a receiver.Corr