Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Carlina Rivera
Louis A. Molina, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
April 29, 2022
Good morning Chair Rivera, and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice. I am Louis Molina, Commissioner of the Department of Correction (DOC). I am joined today by Chief of Department Kenneth Stukes, Deputy General Counsel Melissa Guillaume, and Executive Director of Health Affairs Rabiah Gaynor. I thank you all for this opportunity to discuss these important matters and my commitment to addressing them.
I want to thank the panel members for sharing their stories and experiences. I know it’s not easy to discuss the tragic experiences of you and your loved ones in a public setting. I take your experiences and the experiences of your loved ones to heart, and you have my sincere commitment as the leader of this agency to enacting meaningful change within our city’s jail system, so that tragedies like these do not occur again.
As the panel has laid bare, it is undeniable that the past two years have brought about immense hardship, anxiety, and grief. Five individuals in custody have lost their lives to suicide since the beginning of the pandemic – Ryan Wilson, Javier Velasco, Wilson Diaz-Guzman, Segundo Guallpa, and Brandon Rodriguez. These deaths are tragic and my condolences go out to their families and loved ones.
I understand that the lack of information in the deaths that have occurred over the past two years has been painful and frustrating for the family and loved ones of these individuals. They deserve answers, and we are working with partners in the Bronx DA’s office, the Department of Investigation, and the New York State Attorney General to ensure these matters are investigated fully. In order to preserve the integrity of the cases and ensure that outcomes are fair and just for everyone involved, the Department is unable to comment or provide information related to these incidents until all investigations have been closed. However, we are committed to working with family members and loved ones and providing them with information that is readily available to us, or directing them to the appropriate authority that is best positioned to provide a response.
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health within the Jails
Our jails, like jails everywhere, are a reflection of our community. The people that work and live in our jails come from our communities, and bring issues experienced by our communities with them to our facilities. Because of this, we cannot talk about issues related to mental health within our city jails without acknowledging the larger context, which is that all New Yorkers have collectively experienced tragedies and losses over the past two years. Our lives were utterly upended and, in all likelihood, forever changed by the global pandemic. We lost family, loved ones, co-workers and community members across the city; New York City jails were not spared. In the face of all this, Department staff continued to report to duty and people from our communities continued to be admitted into custody, into facilities that were not designed or equipped to handle the impact of a pandemic.
As a result of the pandemic, the Department was forced to fundamentally change how our jails operate. Programs and services that support people’s wellbeing and hope for the future were suspended, leaving them with little to do and fewer means of coping with increased stressors. Visitation with family and loved ones was abruptly suspended during a time of incredible anxiety and many unknowns; when many of us wanted more contact with family and loved ones than ever, quarantine protocols further isolated individuals within the jails. The impacts of the pandemic were felt throughout the justice system, which led to delays in court processing, increasing lengths of stay. While many New Yorkers were able to shift to remote work, to grieve and adjust to the challenges of the pandemic from afar, the majority of our staff came to work during the height of the pandemic and continue to do so today. Neither our jails nor our staff were ever intended to support a population under these circumstances; these measures and the systematic disinvestment in our city jails and workforce had a profound impact on the mental health and overall wellbeing of those in our care and those that work in the jails.
I do not think these challenges are insurmountable but I do acknowledge that we have a lot of work ahead of us. We must all, collectively as a city, work together to improve conditions within our jails. My vision for this agency is to create a culture of discipline and service to persons experiencing incarceration, working collaboratively with all stakeholders throughout the city and the justice system, to create an operational ecosystem of safety and rehabilitation. Some of this work has already begun.
While staffing is still not where we want it to be, over 1,300 officers have returned work since the beginning of the year, which has allowed the Department to shift five out of eight facilities back to eight-hour tours of duty. These shifts have allowed us to begin normalizing operations and will enable us to move forward with strategic reforms that will create safer, more humane jails. As COVID positivity rates have come down, we have worked diligently to reinstate vital programs and services for people in custody. External programs returned to the facilities in January, in-person visitation resumed in February, and in March we held congregate religious services to celebrate Purim, Ramadan, Easter, and Orthodox Easter. We look forward to resuming more congregate programming in a safe, gradual manner in the coming weeks to help restore a sense of normalcy for people in custody and provide them with the support they need and deserve.
Mental Health Services and Housing
Although programs and services can provide an important baseline for wellness and stability, over the past several years, we have seen a significant increase in the percentage of the NYC jail population that struggles with mental illness. Today, roughly 50% of the jail population is receiving mental health services while in custody. Many of these individuals are entering our jails with pre-existing conditions, such as mental illness or substance abuse, and must contend with the psychological and emotional dysregulation of incarceration. We are proud to partner with Correctional Health Services (CHS), who provides health and mental health services across our facilities, to support these individuals while they are in our custodial care.
In addition to health care services provided by CHS, the Department also partners with a number of contracted program providers to afford access to programming that enhances behavioral coping skills, supports anger management, addresses substance use, and encourages productive and prosocial behavior. It is our goal to address the needs of the whole person while in our custody, which includes providing varying levels of mental health support that meets the unique need of the individual.
For individuals in need of enhanced support, the Department runs several specialized housing units in collaboration with CHS. Safe and inclusive housing options are part of an evolving conversation about how to best to meet a wide spectrum of needs. There is no one size fits all approach, and the Department has worked tirelessly with CHS to ensure that we provide a responsive plan of action for incarcerated individuals with significant mental health needs.
Although all individuals have access to mental health providers, certain individuals may require structured support and more frequent observation. For that population, we operate Mental Observation units (MOs). MO units operate under the guidance of a multi-disciplinary team of unit-based mental health providers who conduct daily rounds, provide group programing and individual psychotherapy, and oversee medication treatment. MO units are not punitive and afford the same out-of-cell time as General Population units.
For individuals with serious mental illness who require intensive support but who do not require hospitalization, the Department works in conjunction with CHS to operate the Program for Accelerating Clinical Effectiveness, known as PACE. PACE focuses on enhancing coping skills, improving communication abilities, and promoting insight and competency in managing one’s mental illness, emotions and behavior. CHS advises the Department on which individuals are suited for PACE placement based on their clinical need.
The Department recognizes that individuals with serious mental illness do not belong in any form of restrictive housing. Individuals with guilty adjudications for serious infractions may be assigned to Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) units, based on a clinical determination made by CHS. The CAPS units provide intensive mental health treatments for individuals with serious mental illness who have been adjudicated for a serious infraction but do not need to be hospitalized. Like PACE, CAPS units are staffed by both DOC and CHS personnel who support residents by helping them enhance their coping skills, improve their communication skills, and develop insight and competency in managing their mental illness as well as their emotions and behavior.
Self-Harm and Suicide Prevention
In addition to providing appropriate therapeutic housing, the Department also recognizes that maintaining robust policies and procedures for the prevention of suicide and self-harm is critically important to supporting those entrusted to our custodial care. During the pandemic, suicide rates rose across the United States for people aged 10-34, as well as for Black and Latino men specifically. Our jail population converges on three of these demographics: 57% of the overall NYC jail population is comprised of individuals aged 19-34, and the overwhelming majority of the population are Black and Latino men. In addition, roughly 80% of the Department’s uniform workforce identify as Black or Latino, and they certainly have not been spared from the stresses of the pandemic or the failings of this agency over the past few decades.
All uniform members of service receive training in mental health, mental health first aid, suicide prevention, and CPR certification at the Academy. In addition, they are trained on the Department’s suicide prevention policies, which are reiterated to them constantly through rollcall, posters placed throughout the facilities, and other means. These trainings educate staff on how to identify individuals who may be in distress or crisis, and instruct staff on the steps they must take to make timely and appropriate referrals to CHS for mental health evaluation, to monitor individuals who may be at risk of self-injury our suicide, and to immediately intervene if these behaviors are observed. All staff are equipped with a special duty knife to facilitate rapid disabling of ligatures that may be used as a means of self-injury or suicide.
Individuals entering the Department’s custody are screened at intake for risk of suicide, and evaluated by CHS. Individuals who appear to be at risk for self-injury or suicide are immediately referred to CHS, who makes a determination as to whether that individual should be placed on suicide watch. Individuals in need of constant supervision, as determined by CHS, are placed in designated housing areas that can support enhanced observation and a higher level of mental health care. In addition, the Department maintains a work detail of Observation Aides, also known as Suicide Prevention Aides or SPAs. These are individuals in custody who are vetted and trained to identify unusual or suicidal behavior and immediately report these behaviors to a housing unit officer. They are deployed throughout housing areas in the Department where individuals may be at higher risk for suicide, as well as in the intake areas. They do not supersede an officer’s duty to maintain supervision or intervene if an incident arises, but they offer a tangible means of safety and connection for individuals in our custody who are experiencing acute distress and are in need of additional support.
Tragically, despite our best efforts, some individuals succeed at taking their own lives. Whenever an individual in custody passes away, we deploy our Ministerial Services staff to make an in-person notification to the next of kin that has been identified by the individual. Our chaplains deliver this terrible news with compassion and stay with the family member or loved one to process the loss, pray, and help them cope. In addition, we have recently instituted a policy whereby DOC social workers and counselors will respond to a housing area or other affected area following a loss of life to engage with people in custody who may have witnessed the event and provide support and trauma-informed care. DOC staff will also make referrals to CHS mental health staff for further treatment and follow-up.
While these efforts provide a safety net for individuals in our custody experiencing profound mental distress, the reality is that a jail setting is not appropriate for individuals with acute mental health needs.
Commitment to Reform
As a City, we need to support efforts for alternatives to incarceration which will divert certain eligible people away from jail with appropriate supervision in the community in place of pre-trial detention. We should be supporting efforts to increase the presence of mental health and substance abuse courts. These courts provide a holistic approach at case processing and in conjunction with treatment programs and case managers, these courts support people who enter into the criminal justice system as a result of mental health or substance issues and who should be treated as such during the criminal justice process. I believe we also need to bolster supportive housing, which I know is a focus for this City Council.
For my part, you have my continued commitment to improvement and reform. I know that implementing best practices and sustaining minimum standards can not exist without a timely and meaningful discipline process for our staff, which quite frankly has never existed in this Department. For all the public rhetoric of the prior Administrations, when comparing the same initial time in office to the prior two Commissioners, I have closed out and administered final disciplinary dispositions in 725 disciplinary cases, while the prior two Commissioners closed only 322 and 208 disciplinary cases respectively in the same timeframe. If leadership at its highest level does not hold people accountable that lack of accountability trickles down to all supervisory ranks, and does nothing but normalize mediocrity. This attitude, and the environment it has created in our jails, has led to the failures of the past two years, include the tragic losses of life, and it will not continue.
Intros 30 and 181
Now I will address the two pieces of legislation being heard today. Regarding Intro 30, related to medical access during lock-ins, my team is reviewing the language and looks forward to working with Council on this important issue. We are committed to providing access to healthcare to all people in custody, and we work closely with CHS to make that happen.
Regarding Intro 181, related to publicly available Departmental policies, we are also reviewing the language of this bill and are certainly willing to do a review of current policies and determine if there are more than can be posted online in the meantime.
Before I conclude, I would like to remind the Council and the public that my team and I are limited in the ways in which we can publicly discuss any specific case related to self-harm or suicide. Regardless, we appreciate the opportunity to discuss mental health support and self-harm and suicide prevention efforts within our jails, and we welcome any questions you have at this time.