Chronic absenteeism by correctional officers at Rikers Island, along with the reported deaths of 18 incarcerated people and 412 stabbings, has spurred a renewed push to turn the jail over to a federal receiver.
On Thursday, the Legal Aid Society presented renewed arguments to U.S. Judge Laura Swain that their lawsuit seeking appointment of a federal receiver should be allowed to go forward, based on fresh evidence of mismanagement at the jail.
While their request was not granted, the Society issued the following statement: “We are disappointed that the Court would not allow plaintiffs to present their case for the appointment of a receiver, but appreciate the Court’s demand of the City for swift and serious action.”
A federal receivership would put the jail, which detains more than 5,900 people, under new management, said Hernandez Shroud, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
“Judges typically give receivers wide-ranging authority such as the power to manage staff, make contracts, access government records, conduct confidential interviews, procure goods, and set budgets,” said Shroud.
The latest push follows the filing of federal fraud charges last week against three Rikers correctional officers who continued to receive their salaries even though they took sick leave for extended periods.
Under the current union contract with the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, employees can claim unlimited sick time with pay. In 2021, the city sued the union for supporting absenteeism by correctional officers accusing the union of supporting a slow down. The lawsuit was later settled out of court.
Darren Mack, Freedom Agenda spokesperson, whose organization advocates the closure of the jail, and who was formerly incarcerated on Rikers Island, said “the problem is there’s this chronic absenteeism.”
“If you were to ask me, it appears more to be like a worker’s strike.” said Mack. “City workers can’t strike, that’s exacerbating the crisis.”
Monica Coaxum, 36, of Harrison, Eduardo Trinidad, 42, of Yonkers, and Steven Cange, 49, of Brooklyn, were charged in U.S. District Court with fraudulently obtaining a salary while not working for over a year. Trinidad received $140,000 in sick pay; Cange $160,000, and Coaxum $80,000 in sick pay.
Coaxum claimed to be at medical appointments when traveling to the Dominican Republic, Florida and West Virginia. She is also charged with submitting false medical notes, according to the indictment.
A court-authorized search by the FBI of Monica Coaxum’s iCloud account, containing her phone data, uncovered several Whatsapp photo messages with Coaxum and Trinidad dancing at a party.
According to the federal indictment , a Coaxum family member messaged, “Monica you are living your best life but scamming your job.” Monica Coaxum replied, “Yes at home, still getting paid, unlimited sick baby. Get like me! Living my best life.”
Federal receivership would potentially allow the receiver to fire absent officers breaking the union contract, though many believe more must be done.
Alexander Hall, a Mott Haven resident and local gym owner, who was incarcerated for 16 years, said federal receivership will not solve the deteriorating conditions of violence at the jail.
“Rikers Island is not the whole problem. Rikers Island is just a place,” he said. “The whole system is the problem. You can bring whoever you want into that system, the feds are no better.”
A federal monitor has been overseeing Rikers Island for more than five years, documenting the daily level of violence, deaths, and chronic staff absenteeism.
Some city, state and local officials have advocated for the jail complex to be shut down and replaced with borough-based jails, while others argue that a federal receivership would enable sweeping improvements to the prison and its administration.