Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Carlina Rivera
Louis A. Molina, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
March 23, 2022
Good morning Chair Rivera, and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice. I am Louis Molina, Commissioner of the Department of Correction. I am pleased to be joined today by the dedicated members of my leadership team, including Chief of Department Kenneth Stukes, First Deputy Commissioner and Chief Diversity Officer Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, Deputy Commissioner for Financial, Facility, and Fleet Administration Patricia Lyons, Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Community Partnerships Francis Torres, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Asim Rehman and Chief of Staff Kat Thomson. Today, my colleagues and I are here to discuss the Preliminary Budget for Fiscal Year 2023 and my vision for the future of this Department, but it would be impossible to do that without acknowledging the impact of COVID-19 on our city and jails, and the reform that is urgently needed to address the long-standing issues facing this agency.
First, I want to acknowledge the deaths in custody that we have experienced this year: Mr. Tarz Youngblood, Mr. George Pagan, and Mr. Herman Diaz. Any death in custody is one too many and my deepest sympathy goes out to the family and loved ones of these individuals. When someone dies in custody, it is a public health issue, and we need to make sure all parts of our public health system and city at large are supporting these individuals in their time of need.
I also want to acknowledge the deaths of active-duty DOC uniform members of service. Last year, this Department lost 14 active-duty members of service, including some of whom died of COVID-19 complications. The start of my tenure has unfortunately been marked by grief due to the passing of staff as well. In 2022, we sadly lost three active-duty correction officers and one non-uniform staff member-Correction Officers Norka Jones, Aliesha Latouche, Alex Cormier and Electrician Arthur De Checchi. I also would like to acknowledge the loss of former Commissioner William Fraser and former Chief of Department Larry Davis. These individuals left an indelible mark at the Department and I want to express my deepest condolences to their families and colleagues. We owe it to them and our current staff and the public to improve this agency.
It has been just over two months since I began my tenure as Commissioner of this agency, and I have already begun building a constructive partnership between the Department and members of this Committee. Today, I want to take the opportunity to share my vision for the New York City Department of Correction, and what I believe to be the pathway to achieving safer, and more humane jails. But first, I want to take a moment to introduce myself to you and the public.
First, as a native New Yorker raised in the Bronx it is deeply humbling to lead this agency, especially when a majority of the staff and people entrusted in our care look like me and come from the same kind of community, I grew up in. My vision for this agency is informed by both lived and professional experiences working in all three major pillars of our criminal justice system: policing, the District Attorney’s Office, and corrections. Most recently I served as Chief of the City of Las Vegas Department of Public Safety. Prior to that I was the First Deputy Commissioner at the Westchester County Department of Correction, an agency that I successfully transitioned out of Federal oversight. I’ve also worked at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and I was a tenured uniformed member of the NYPD. I am also no stranger to the New York City Department of Correction or its long history with the Federal Monitor, having served as the first Chief Internal Monitor and Acting Assistant Commissioner of the Nunez Compliance Unit from 2016 to 2017. Outside of my work experience, I know firsthand the impact of crime and incarceration on a personal level. Criminal justice reform work is deeply important to me and I made a commitment over two decades ago to change the system from within. I have wanted this job for a long time, despite knowing the many challenges the Department faces.
I want to be clear: I strongly believe in criminal justice reform. I am unequivocally committed to transparency and restoring public trust in this agency. I believe that working with the Council as well as other stakeholders throughout the city is essential to making our jails better. You will surely hear me say this again today, and throughout my tenure at this agency. These are the foundational principles that guide my work. Last month, I hosted members of this Committee on a tour of our jails to assess concerns and discuss how we can work together to address them. I’ve met with over 100 advocates and community-based organizations, dozens of elected officials, public defenders, and oversight bodies including the Federal Monitor, and intend to continue these meetings on a regular basis. These relationships and the conversations they bring are vital to me because I know that we share an important goal: to maintain safe and humane jails for the people in our custodial care and staff, so that we can enhance public safety in our city.
I hope to show you over the coming months that I value your input and your oversight.
State of our Jails & Commitment to Reform
I don’t have to tell you that the need for reform in our City’s jails has never been more urgent than it is now. The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges that no one could have foreseen and exacerbated many that have long been at issue: deterioration of conditions, an overworked labor force, rising levels of violence, and an understandable concern for public safety. Throughout the pandemic, this agency worked tirelessly in partnership with Correctional Health Services to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our jails, consistently keeping the in-jail COVID-19 positivity rate lower than the city-wide average. That is something to be proud of and should not be overlooked, but we must recognize that there were tradeoffs. Although some people were able to telework, staff and healthcare workers at this agency continued to heroically serve our city, while simultaneously managing the impact the virus had on their families and loved ones. People in custody have been living in jails with failing infrastructures, and with limited access to the programs and services they need and deserve as a result of COVID-19 quarantine and safety protocols.
This year, our population was projected to sit at fewer than 4,000 people in custody. And yet, due to impacts throughout the justice system brought on by the pandemic, today our population is at approximately just above 5,500. More violent offenders are being placed in our custody and staying in our care longer due to the Department’s admissions outpacing discharges nearly every month from May 2020 through August 2021. From January 2019 to January 2022, the average length of stay increased from 187 days to 329 days. To place this in perspective, our department’s length of stay is four times longer than Los Angeles County, which is the largest jail system in America.
While our incarcerated population has been steadily increasing, the Department’s workforce has decreased significantly. The Department has nearly 2,000 fewer Correction Officers today than it did at the end of 2019, the last time the agency held a graduation ceremony for recruit correction officers until earlier this year. This attrition of staff, coupled with staff that is unavailable because of the impact of pandemic surges and other medical needs, has diminished our staffing levels. Fewer staff have been managing a larger, more challenging population, during a global pandemic. Morale when I took over this Department was at an all time low for everyone. It is vital that we take action now to address these issues.
Last week, the Federal Monitor filed a Special Report with the Court that highlighted longstanding issues troubling the Department. Much of the same that is in this report has been communicated to me by staff during my 2021 agency assessment and after my appointment as Commissioner when visiting our facilities and business units. The conditions and dysfunction described in the report are deeply troubling and unacceptable. Our staff and the people in our custody deserve dignity and safety, and we need to be accountable and do better. As the Monitor and many others have pointed out, these issues were a long time in the making and many of them were made worse by this global crisis, which is still with us. Accordingly, these long-standing issues were not going to be solved in my first three months in this position.
As I said at the press conference when I was appointed commissioner, I will not be making any fly- by- night decisions to improve this agency. We will be undertaking strategic, evidence-based, comprehensive solutions to all of our problems.
Our staff are our most vital resource and frontline leaders in our efforts for reform and we cannot succeed in any meaningful way without appropriately and adequately supporting them. We must focus on staff wellness and organizational health, which have been overlooked for far too long. To start, we have reinstituted the city’s Employee Assistance Program on-site on Rikers Island, expanded faith-based resources exclusively for staff, and are looking to enhance the management of our Health Management Division.
When I took office at the beginning of this year, over 30% of our uniform staff were out sick. Over these past two months, we’ve been focusing efforts to engage staff who are out sick, providing on-the-ground, peer-to-peer support to get them back to work, fit and healthy. These efforts have been paying off – we have had over 1,300 staff return to work since January 1st, lowering the percentage to approximately 19%. In addition, our recent graduating class of recruits serves as a beacon of hope as we look toward the future of the Department and I am pleased to welcome them on board. They join the ranks of many dedicated members of service. Another cohort of recruit correction officers will graduate in late spring to support our workforce.
The year-to-date increase in staff availability has enabled us to return a majority of facilities to 8-hour tours, from working 12-hour tours. It has also greatly reduced our reliance on triple shifts and incidences of unstaffed posts. While these initial trends are promising, we still have a long way to go to get staffing numbers back to normal.
We must also provide staff with the tools and authority to create and uphold safe and orderly facilities and will do so by aligning our policies and security procedures with correctional best practices. I will continue to make expectations clear and attainable, and processes for staff accountability meaningful and focused on improving outcomes. In the same way that we can’t punish our way out of misbehavior among the population in custody, we can’t just punish our way through staff accountability. However, when staff discipline is necessary, we will follow the corrective action process in a manner that is transparent and fair. To put that into context, in less than three months I have already reviewed roughly 300 disciplinary cases and supported disciplinary actions, which have included termination. This includes cases stemming from incidents that went as far back as 2017. I’m committed to a timely and meaningful disciplinary process.
We have already begun to explore technological solutions to optimize our operational decision-making though an evidence-based approach. It’s time to embrace technology that is available to us to collect and utilize data in both our short-term decision-making and our long-term planning. I recognize that how we are managing this agency and using data to support our operational decisions will be critical to rebuilding trust that has been lost over the years.
In addition to these future-facing approaches to scheduling, deployment, and other operations we are exploring in new management initiatives to support our workforce and contract partners and effectively execute the mission of this agency. I am also looking forward to onboarding a new leadership team for our Training and Development Division and ensuring our correction officers, and staff at all ranks receive the best training and skills to successfully fulfill the mission of this agency. Together, with appropriate support and investment, I know we can succeed.
Programs & Community Partnerships
Focusing on staff support and resources, organizational health, and correctional best-practices as a means to ensure safety are fundamental to how we approach success. We need all these things so that we can provide targeted services to people in our custody. We absolutely must provide people in custody support, opportunity, and a belief in change.
The people in our custody have gone without congregate in-person services and family visitation for a majority of the past two years while adhering to housing and quarantine protocols designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. I want to be clear: these housing policies were and are necessary to keep people in a congregate setting healthy during a time of tremendous risk and uncertainty. But they had consequences. These services are lifelines for people in custody and restoring these vital connections was among my first priorities as we look to restore safety and stability in our facilities. As more staff became available to work, we began welcoming external providers back into the jails, and worked with our partners at the Department of Health to resume in-person visitation on February 9th. In the coming weeks, we will be restoring congregate religious and programs services in a safe, gradual manner, with modifications where needed, to ensure people in custody have access to the programs and services they need and deserve.
And we won’t stop there. For me, programs and services are imperative – everyone benefits when people in custody are given the tools, they need to have less contact with the justice system in the future. As we move towards modern facilities with the borough-based jail plan, we must also modernize the way we are delivering our programs and services. I don’t intend to wait until we have new facilities to bring this system into the 21st century. We are expanding the use of tablets for all people in custody. If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it’s to leverage technology. The tablets have been a tool for us to communicate timely updates and provide programming to people in custody and we are excited as we continue to expand access.
The services we provide must be meaningful, evidence-based and targeted to the needs of the population, and outcomes must be measurable. This Department will have a dedicated team whose full-time job will be to develop systems to track and evaluate programs and operations to ensure our decisions are data-driven and that our results can be shared transparently with our stakeholders.
As testament to my commit to more targeted and impactful programming, I’ve already made changes to Department policy that will allow more credible messengers into our facilities to engage with young people in custody and interrupt violence and gang issues. Increasing access and opportunities for education is a another priority for me. Recently, Department of Education Chancellor David Banks joined me on a tour of the East River Academy schools at two of our jails to discuss how to strengthen our partnership, so we can enhance educational opportunities for our students. This tour signifies a renewed commitment to educational access within our jails, which is proven to reduce recidivism and change the trajectory of a young person’s life.
Our passionate workforce of programming staff, external contract providers, and uniform staff are committed to transforming our facilities into learning environments for the benefit of people in our care. Flooding our facilities with meaningful, targeted programming and educational services will decrease idleness and, in turn, reduce violence. More than that, it will support the wellbeing of those in our care and their hope for the future.
In order for everything I’ve spoken about thus to work, we must support people in custody in unlearning violent behavior, and learning to deal with conflict in a more constructive way.
Restrictive Housing Reform
Prior to the beginning of my tenure, the Board of Correction adopted new rules with this same goal in mind governing restrictive housing and implement Risk Management Accountability System (RMAS). RMAS is a tiered housing system designed to address serious violent behavior, in which each progressive level is designed to encourage and support behavior modification. It is a critical part of a holistic approach to violence reduction. RMAS will move us away from a response to violence that was purely punitive and create a system that holds people accountable, separates them from the general population so that they cannot continue to do harm to others, and provides restoration and rehabilitation to address the root causes of their violent response to conflict. The fact is that there are people who commit acts of violence at Riker’s Island, and we need a way to separate those individuals in order to keep people safe. But that method must be effective, it must be humane, and it must be fair. Those are the principles that I see in the RMAS rules, and those are the principles I am committed to implementing.
When I started as Commissioner, the agency’s RMAS plan that was underway was not in line with my goals, the needs of our staff, or the spirit of the BOC rule. I knew we could do better. I greatly appreciate the Board, Council, and the public’s patience as the Department has worked over the past two months to reshape RMAS into a system that will not only meet the legal requirements of the Board’s rule but will go above and beyond to meet the spirit of the rule. All levels of the RMAS housing spectrum will be housed in one facility: GRVC. Individuals at all levels will have access to an open dayroom for congregate programming that mirrors general population units, as opposed to individualized dayrooms. We will not be using restraints of any kind during lockout in any RMAS unit. In order to maintain safety within this congregate setting, these units will maintain a low census and high staff ratio, with staff who have received specialized training. My Programs team has developed a comprehensive plan for both individualized and congregate programming that will progress with the individual through the RMAS Levels. This program plan is aimed at behavior modification for individuals living in these areas.
Though it is later than many had hoped for, I am firmly committed to full implementation of this improved plan for RMAS by July 1st and look forward to sharing more details with you as we move into the question portion of today’s hearing.
RMAS will be an important tool in managing violence within our jails, but it is not our only tool.
Violence rates have been increasing in New York City jails year-over-year despite many concerted efforts to turn the tide, and history has shown that there is no one solution. I recognize that we must take a holistic approach to address violence within our jails and I am not waiting for the implementation of RMAS to start that process.
As with staffing and programming and services, we must modernize our approach to violence prevention and reduction. We cannot manage what we cannot effectively measure – our new Management, Analysis, and Planning team will be focused on leveraging data and research to create a clear on-the-ground picture of our facilities’ operations at any given time, with the goal of using that information to make operations more efficient and reduce violence within our city’s jails.
Already, we’ve begun to move away from housing people in custody by gang affiliation and have started rebalancing housing units, in line with correctional best practices. I believe this will restore a sense of safety for both staff and people in custody that has been lost. We’ve also increased our use of Tactical Search Operations, which are a critical means of contraband recovery within our jails. Less contraband will lead to fewer seriously violent incidents and injuries.
These efforts, combined with the progress we’ve already made on programming and an increase in staff availability, have already brought a reduction in violence numbers. Since last year at this time, assaults on uniformed staff are down 19%, and assaults on non-uniformed staff are down 46%. Overall Use of Force is also down 25% compared to this time last year, which is certainly promising. We have made progress over the first two and a half months of this administration in light of the significant, longstanding challenges that were inherited from our predecessors, but I recognize there is still significant work to be done to further decrease rates of violence and use of force across all DOC facilities.
Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Budget and Its Impact on DOC
As we turn to this Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Budget and its impact on the Department, we must face some hard truths that have been brought about by the pandemic. COVID-19 has impacted the population reduction goals and staffing projections that are inextricably linked to the borough-based jails plan. Despite these challenges, we remain committed to protecting all those living and working within our facilities and are working towards improving organizational health and operational efficiency.
The Department’s Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Expense Budget is $1.23 billion. The vast majority of this, 86% is allocated for Personal Services, and 14% for Other than Personal Services. The Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary budget is $106.6 million less than this year’s budget of $1.34 billion. This decrease is largely due to funding provided in Fiscal Year 2022 only for Emergency Executive Order initiatives and overtime.
Included in the Preliminary Budget are increases of $100.1 million in Fiscal Year 2022 and $13.9 million in Fiscal Year 2023. The following are some highlights of the major initiatives that were included in the Preliminary Budget:
With regards to capital funding, the Fiscal Year 2023 Preliminary Capital Budget, and Commitment Plan totals $9.6 billion, which covers Fiscal Years 2022 through 2031. The major changes reflected in this plan are the self-funding of $124.7 million for emergency work being performed on Rikers Island by the Department of Design and Construction and the redistribution of planned commitments associated with the New Academy from FY26 to FY23 through FY25. We fully support this redistribution, as our current academy is outdated and not conducive for training correctional professionals for 21st century best practices. There were no adjustments made to the Borough Based Jails projects in this financial plan.
Headcount and Overtime
Turning now to headcount and overtime, given the staffing challenges the Department has been facing this fiscal year along with continuing to keep EMTC and OBCC operational due to COVID-19, operating 12-hour tours as a result of the vaccine mandates and a higher than anticipated average daily population, our overtime spending will be comparable to what we spent in Fiscal Year 2017. As we see staff returning to work, we are moving towards reducing the reliance on overtime where practicable.
The following is a summary of the changes to the Department’s non-uniform and uniformed authorized staffing levels included in the Preliminary Budget:
My testimony before you today is more than just words: it’s about taking action. I am determined to move us forward and bring our jails into the modern era. Change has already begun, and I’m confident my plans for this agency will usher us towards success. Those plans include increasing accountability, restoring and supporting best correctional practices, enhancing support for our staff, and leveraging data to modernize our operations.
I am humbled to lead this Department at this time of crisis and am inspired by the commitment to public service embodied by our staff. But it’s going to take more than just myself and our dedicated staff to improve the lives of individuals in our care that are in great need. I know members of this Council and the public have been frustrated with the long-standing issues facing this Department. I am too. We are at an historic moment in which, together, we have the opportunity to create a more humane system of justice for this city and this country. Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today and for your support. My colleagues, and I are available to answer any questions that you may have.