Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Carlina Rivera
Louis A. Molina, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
June 28, 2022
Good morning, Chair Rivera and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice. I am Louis Molina, Commissioner of the Department of Correction. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak with you today about the steps that Mayor Adams and the Department are taking to improve the City’s jails, and to share my thoughts on several pieces of legislation. As the Administration approaches the six-month mark, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on where we are and what lies ahead.
Before I begin, I must acknowledge the recent losses that we have unfortunately experienced. Anibal Carrasquillo and Albert Drye passed away last week while in the Department’s custodial care, and Antonio Bradley passed away after being compassionately released from the Department’s custody. It is truly heartbreaking to open each hearing with these kinds of acknowledgements, and my deepest condolences go out to their families and loved ones. Since we last met, we have lost an active-duty member of service, Captain Tandra Bowser-Williams. Our thoughts are with her family and loved ones as well. Lastly, I, along with the entire Department of Correction family, extend my condolence to Captain Lisa Steele and her family on the terrible loss of her stepson Darius Lee. Darius passed away last week in Harlem, his birthplace, while home from college. He was a victim of gun violence, which has become all too prevalent in our city.
The Nunez Action Plan
Earlier this month, the Federal Monitor filed an updated Action Plan for the City and the Department to address the decades of mismanagement that have brought us here today. On June 14, 2022, the Court approved this plan and noted that it “represents a way to move forward with concrete measures now to address the ongoing crisis at Rikers Island.” I want to emphasize, as the Monitor did, that the conditions in the jails today are deep-seated and are not only the result of failures within the Department. The failure of our jails represents the failure of a whole system; accordingly, it will take a concerted effort to move us forward. As Chief Counsel McGuire has noted through his testimony, the Rikers Island Interagency Taskforce was created with this goal in mind. It is a city-wide initiative created with the full backing of Mayor Adams to support the Department of Correction as we address the long-standing issues that have plagued this agency for far too long. Likewise, City Council’s partnership will be critical to implementing this plan and other strategic initiatives as the Department continues to focus on reform.
As I stated in my testimony during the Department’s Fiscal Year 2023 Executive Budget, I am in agreement with the plan, as it supports my vision for the Department. I am focused on creating a culture of discipline, accountability and service to persons experiencing incarceration that will ultimately lead to safer and more humane jails. Ultimately, my vision is of a jail system that serves the public interest and has earned the public’s trust. I know that is no easy task, but I believe the work we have undertaken in just six months is proof of concept that will serve as a foundation for the many successes ahead of us.
RNDC Plan & Department-wide Violence Reduction
In my first six months as Commissioner, I have taken coordinated and effective steps to create the agency I envision. At the end of February, just two months into my tenure, I instituted a strategic violence reduction plan at the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC) to address the heightened levels of violence at that facility. This plan takes a holistic, multipronged approach to address the complex issues that have contributed to increased violence and disorder within the facility. I knew that if we could get it right at RNDC, with arguably one of the most difficult populations to manage, then we could replicate success across the Department.
The Department has implemented changes to housing policies, improvements to staff supervision and accountability, and enhanced programming and services to provide critical opportunities for behavioral change and growth for young adults. We also ended the misguided practice of concentrating gang affiliations in housing areas at RNDC, which allowed people in custody to overpower our staff and led to an atmosphere of violence and fear. We also strategically increased facility searches and tactical search operations at RNDC and throughout our jail facilities, a practice that was largely abandoned during the pandemic. These searches have resulted in the recovery of over 700 contraband weapons from RNDC alone, and over 2,700 across all facilities. The number of slashings and stabbings at RNDC decreased by nearly 80 percent in May as compared to March of this year, when we instituted this strategic violence reduction plan, and decreased by 63 percent Department-wide when you compare our numbers in May to March of this year. As of June 23rd, there has only been one reported slashing/stabbing at RNDC. This is a remarkable achievement and I want to commend the uniform members of service and non-uniform staff who worked tirelessly to get us here. In his May 17th filing, the Federal Monitor noted the effectiveness of this plan at “reducing the level of fear among staff and people in custody.” Because of its success, we are beginning to implement a similar strategy at other facilities, including GRVC and AMKC, with the anticipation of similar results.
In just six months, these actions and others have resulted in a decrease in several major violence indicators in 2022: assaults on staff have decreased 31 percent, use of force has decreased by 26 percent; in May 2022 versus May 2021, slashings and stabbings Department-wide were down 44 percent; and as of yesterday month-to-date in June 2022 versus month-to-date in June 2021, we are currently experiencing a 21 percent decrease of slashing and stabbings Department-wide. I recognize the frequency of assaults, use of force incidents, and slashings and stabbings are still too high, but the trends are moving in a downward direction, which I am intensely focused on sustaining.
Of course, our facilities do not exist in a vacuum; they operate within the broader context and culture of the entire agency. Implementing best-practices and sustaining positive trends cannot occur without well-trained staff to perform their duties, along with a timely and meaningful discipline process for those who do not or cannot perform those duties. Since taking office, I have been laser focused on returning staff to the facilities and creating new leadership structures to support our workforce and address our deeply entrenched organizational health issues.
The number of unavailable staff continues to drop and has been reduced by nearly 40 percent since the beginning of the staffing crisis that began in the summer of 2021. To ensure our staff return to full duty fit and healthy, we are revamping our Health Management Division, which is responsible for overseeing and supporting uniform staff who are out sick. New leadership has already begun reviewing and revising critical leave policies that have allowed abuse to fester and led to the crisis that emerged over the course of the pandemic. I look forward to sharing updates on these efforts with the Council once they have been finalized in consultation with the Monitoring team.
In conjunction with efforts to engage staff who are out sick and support them in returning to duty, we have been taking a close look at those members who appear unable or unwilling to fulfill their obligation to this agency and this city. In order for the Department of Correction to succeed, it is imperative that expectations for staff conduct are clear and that the consequences for violations and failures to fulfill duty are swift. Per the Action Plan, we are employing creative recruitment strategies to ensure critical positions in our Trials Division are filled with qualified candidates. Filling these positions will enable the Department to sustain our current pace and continue to respond expediently to disciplinary matters in the future. Even with limited resources we currently have, we have taken meaningful steps to increase accountability. To date, I have closed out and administered final disciplinary dispositions in over 1,400 disciplinary cases, far outpacing my predecessors. Nearly 300 medical incompetence cases have been referred for discipline, which is almost twice the number of cases referred for discipline in the entirety of 2021. Over 150 members of service have been suspended this year for sick leave abuse, and some of those members have been referred to the Department of Investigation for further review. We intend to expedite the processing of more egregious cases to demonstrate unequivocally that these abuses will no longer be tolerated.
I believe these initial steps have put us on a path toward improved practices and greater accountability, and I look forward to updating the Council on our progress in the future.
Now, I would like to take a moment to highlight a few of the legislative items on the agenda today. Intro. 284 would require the Department to maintain a ratio of one licensed social worker for every 10 people in custody. Fundamentally, I believe we all share the goal of providing high quality programs and services to people in custody, that support better responses to conflict when violent behavior emerges, promote skill building, and ultimately reduce recidivism. While licensed social workers serve an important function, they are not the only individuals qualified or best suited to work with our population. DOC currently employs or contracts with many passionate individuals who do not meet the definition of social worker, yet provide invaluable services to our population, such as our credible messengers. The skillsets that our various professionals have make them ideally suited for this work. These committed individuals come from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and training, which results in their work being particularly effective with the population in custody that they serve. As drafted, this legislation would make licensure for social work the singular, overriding factor when considering who is best equipped to work with the jail population, which limits our ability to hire a diverse workforce with relevant skills and lived experiences. Lastly, I’ll note that the population in custody is subject to fluctuations, even day-to-day, that would make maintaining the required ratio nearly impossible.
In regard to Intro. 349, which would require dyslexia screening and treatment for individuals in custody, Mayor Adams has been clear about his desire to provide more support for individuals with an identified learning disorder and funding was provided in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget for dyslexia screening The Department has been exploring how to operationalize both screening and treatment for dyslexia individuals in custody and hopes to have updates in the coming months.
Intro. 356 would require the Department to establish a child visitor program and report on the status of the program annually. The Department has been intensely focused on this area over the years and has demonstrated initiative and improvement. Several contracts, grants, and internally driven initiatives aimed at supporting and improving the parent-child visit experience have been developed and implemented, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Intro. 357 would require the Department to track all cases of sexual abuse and harassment in an electronic case management system. We are currently in the process of procuring an electronic case management system that will track these cases.
In closing, I am confident that my vision for this agency is achievable. I knew full well the challenges that lay ahead when I accepted this position, and I have approached each new challenge with renewed commitment. The majority of uniform staff have stayed in this fight and came to work during the height of the pandemic to serve people in custody, and continue to do so today. In the past six months, several passionate and committed men and women have joined my leadership team in the fight to reform our jails, with more to follow. I believe in the work and I know that members of the Council do as well. I’m confident that our shared desire to reforming the Department will continue to move us in the right direction.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. My colleagues and I are available to answer any questions that you may have.