The new prison commissioner aims to avoid a federal takeover of Rikers

The new head of New York’s troubled prisons, Lynelle Maginley-Leedy, pledged Friday to work with the federal watchdog overseeing the system to avoid a takeover of the dangerous Rikers Island complex, promising to usher in a new era of transparency and “humane” environment for detainees.

Ms. Maginley-Leedy, an eight-year veteran of the Department of Corrections who previously served as first deputy commissioner and chief diversity officer, said at a news conference Friday that the federal takeover of Rikers Island was not a “foreseeable outcome.” To avoid losing control of the prison, she said she would use the relationship she had developed with the monitor, Steve J. Martin.

Mayor Eric Adams interrupted a news conference at City Hall to read from the monitor the newly filed status report, which praised Ms. Maginley-Leedy as “transparent and forthright” and as someone who understands the “significant work ahead.”

The praise was a bright spot in what was otherwise an avalanche of bad news about Mr. Adams’ management of Rikers Island. Citing a failure to fix dangerous conditions at the jail complex, Damien Williams, Manhattan’s top federal prosecutor, formally joined an effort last month to wrest city control of the jail and place it under the authority of an outside entity known as a receiver. Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, also recently joined the effort. Nine people have died at the prison complex this year.

The federal watchdog said the city, including former prison commissioner Luis A. Molina, has strongly resisted reform efforts.

Mr Martin wrote in a status report on Friday that prisons still pose a “high risk of harm to those incarcerated” there and that he remains “concerned about the development and mismanagement by the leadership of various initiatives” to troubleshooting.

Ms Maginley-Leedy said her focus would be “recovery and investment in a safe, secure, humane and supportive environment for every person in our care”.

Lawyers criticized Mr. Molina for reducing transparency at Rikers. During his tenure, officials stopped notifying the public when in-custody deaths occurred, and the Jail Oversight Panel’s unrestricted access to video footage at Rikers Island was revoked, though it was later reinstated.

Mr. Molina was not at Friday’s press conference, although Mr. Adams praised him. In the same status update the mayor read of Ms. Maginelli-Leedy’s praise, the watchdog expressed concern that Mr. Molina, whom Mr. Adams recently named assistant deputy mayor for public safety, would still have oversight above the department.

The Legal Aid Society said in a statement that “the current deteriorating state of the Department of Corrections is beyond the ability of a single commissioner to fix” and that only an independent body in the form of a receiver could ensure the “systemic changes” are mandatory.

The Campaign to Close Rikers Island, a group dedicated to closing the prison by the legally set date of August 2027, also said a new commissioner cannot fix the problems there.

“Rikers is beyond repair, no matter who runs it,” said Darren Mack, a spokesman for the group.

In October, City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams announced the second iteration of the independent commission that created the plan to close Rikers. The mayor expressed skepticism that the jail could be closed by the deadline.

On Friday, Mr. Adams argued against a receiver. He said an outside agency could not “fix the systems” in prisons. The mayor also said he inherited a broken system.

“I can’t stress enough,” Mr. Adams said, “this place has been broken for decades.”

Elizabeth Glaser, director of the mayor’s office of criminal justice under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, said Ms. Maginley-Leedy’s ability to work with the monitor was a good sign, but the ultimate test would be whether the city could change its approach to work. with the monitor.

“So much of the confusion has been caused by trying to distract the watchdog and whether that will be removed by the new commissioner and she will just be allowed to do her job is the main concern,” Ms Glazer said.

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