Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Carlina Rivera
Louis A. Molina, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
March 28, 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, Assistant Chief of Administration Sherrie Rembert, Chief of Staff Kat Thomson, Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Community Partnerships Francis Torres, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters Asim Rehman, and Executive Director of Counseling and Social Services Nell McCarty. I thank you all for this opportunity to discuss the plans that are underway to support our emergent adult population and the staff who work with them.
Young Adults as a Distinct Population
Young adults in our custody often present us with both our greatest challenges and our greatest opportunities. It’s widely known that violence rates at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC), where a majority of our young people are housed, are consistently the highest in the Department. Rates of assault on staff among young adults are over two times higher than those Department-wide, use of force rates are nearly three times higher, and rates of slashings and stabbings among young adults are over three times higher than those Department-wide. This is not a trend that is unique to our system. Young adults, who are classified in the Board of Correction Minimum Standards as being ages 18 through 21, have age-specific developmental considerations, risks, and needs; they must be treated as a unique population both in how we manage their responses to conflict and potential for violence, and in how we approach programs and services. Research has shown that the developmental differences and needs of young adults can result in: poor reasoning skills, impulsiveness, sensation-seeking behavior, disregard for long-term consequences, and higher risk-taking propensities. Research also tells us that education, workforce development, mentorship opportunities, and therapeutic programs targeted at behavioral modification carry a weighted impact for incarcerated young adults. We also know that staff who are trained in cognitive behavioral interventions, and have competency in young adult culture, can positively influence young adult rehabilitation.
We cannot and will not tolerate these levels of violence among our young adults and should not normalize people being assaulted for simply doing their job. As I stated in my previous testimony before members of the Council, under my leadership, the policies and operational-decision making of this Department will be guided by data and research. And the research is clear: young adults are a distinct population that must be approached with heightened violence prevention measures, supported by targeted programming and specially trained staff.
With these principles in mind, I have implemented a strategic plan to reduce violence at RNDC, which I’d like to detail for you today.
At the end of February, a violence reduction plan went into effect for RNDC that will address the heightened levels of violence in this facility. Because we know that many of the issues at this facility and others are longstanding and complex, the plan is multipronged, and uniform and non-uniform staff are working together at all levels in lock-step to present a unified vanguard of reform. This plan outlines changes to housing policies, improvements to staff supervision, and enhanced programming and services to provide critical opportunities for behavioral change and growth for emergent adults. The Monitor himself noted in his most recent report that the plan includes “steps in the right direction to improve the level of safety at RNDC.”
The RNDC plan includes a rebalancing of housing areas to ensure that no gang has an advantage over our staff or any other incarcerated individuals. We anticipate an uptick in violent and disruptive behaviors as the young adults are being rehoused to test our commitment to this new housing strategy, but we will be holding firm. Resistance is a natural part of change and we have put measures in place to provide enhanced support for both our staff and young people as they go through this transition. We’ve stepped up our search operations to reduce contraband in these housing areas and throughout the facility that may lead to serious violent incidents and injuries. Prior to any housing movement, sweeps were conducted to ensure that any ailing infrastructure items were removed so that weapons cannot be created. Searches of non-school housing areas have been conducted to recover contraband prior to housing transfers to limit the potential for violence in the new housing areas during this critical time of transition and adjustment. The plan also includes increases to the staffing levels in these units to limit potential for violence and respond quickly and appropriately if violence does occur. That staff will be closely supervised by facility leadership. Failures of duty will not be tolerated; staff have been provided with clear expectations that will be upheld through guidance from facility leadership and, when necessary, corrective or disciplinary intervention.
I believe that this shift towards best correctional practices in housing policy and improved supervision bring us a long way but I recognize that, in order for behavioral change to be sustainable, we cannot just close the door on unwanted behaviors; we also have to open the door to new, more positively adaptive ones. One of the first things I did when I came into this role was evaluate policies related to program providers to remove barriers that were preventing people with lived experience from coming into our facilities and engaging with our young people. This has increased our ability to utilize passionate staff who look like the people we have in our custody, come from their communities, and have many shared experiences and wisdom to offer. Before the RNDC plan was issued, we increased the number of credible messengers and staff who are trained to meaningfully work with this population to disrupt existing patterns of violence. We’ve also expanded our partnership with faith-based organizations to help young people foster a deeper connection to their faith and their values. These providers, coupled with DOC Program Counselors who have received training in restorative justice, behavioral therapy, relationship building, and more, will champion our young adults as they unlearn violent responses to conflict and stabilize in this new housing model.
I stated previously that I am a huge proponent of increased educational access within our jails. Education is a gift to our entire society, because it is the single factor that is proven to significantly reduce recidivism and improve outcomes. In addition to our rebalancing efforts, we have opened several school housing areas for cohorts of young adults who are interested in attending school so that they can live with like-minded peers who are focused on academic achievement. Individuals living in these housing areas are expected to attend school daily and are provided with school uniforms and specialized incentives to create a sense of normalcy and maintain peer-supported motivation for success. We are working on the computerization of the GED exam at our school sites so that students can take the exam online and receive their score in minutes. Enrolled students will be issued with laptops to access specific sites that will aid in their educational endeavors.
I have also stated that making decisions based on data and research is paramount to me. I will highlight again, as I did last week, that we are creating 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. This incoming Management, Analysis, and Planning team will evaluate our progress with data and make adjustments where needed.
Even before this plan went into effect, we saw violence rates both Department-wide and among our young adult population trending down between calendar year ‘21 and calendar year ‘22. Total rates of use of force have decreased by 19% calendar year to date, fights are down 44%, and total assaults on staff on down 39%. These numbers are promising and we hope to see them continue in this direction after we get through any anticipated upticks as a result of rehousing to balance out gang affiliations. I recognize that these downward trends are occurring in the context of violence that has grown year-over-year, so a decrease is certainly not bringing us to the baseline we want to achieve. But progress is progress; improvement is good and we cannot dismiss that.
I know that it is hard to hear that change is coming when it already feels too late, when it feels like change was due years ago, when promises have been made and left unfulfilled over and over again. I share your frustration. It is the very reason why I took this job. The plans that we have put in place at RNDC to support our staff and our young people involved deep assessment and reflection, not just by me, but by this agency as a whole. That reflection has led to renewed hope and thoughtful action. It is a step in the right direction but we are not going to undue years of decay overnight. I look forward to working together with this Council and the rest of our stakeholders over the coming weeks, months, and years to enter a new era and build a jail system that is safe, fair, and humane.
My colleagues, and I are available to answer any questions that you may have.