Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Carlina Rivera
Louis A. Molina, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
March 23, 2023
Good morning, Speaker Adams and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice. I am Louis Molina, Commissioner of the Department of Correction (“Department”). I am joined today by the Department’s General Counsel, Paul Shechtman, Deputy Commissioner of Financial, Facilities, and Fleet Administration, Patricia Lyons, and Deputy Commissioner of the Division of Programs and Community Partnerships, Francis Torres. We are here to discuss the Department’s Preliminary Budget for Fiscal Year 2024 and the progress the Department has made in rebuilding our city’s jail system in just over one year.
When I accepted the position of Commissioner, I knew that there were real challenges ahead. Decades of mismanagement and years of infrastructure neglect had taken their toll. In January of 2022, slashings and stabbings were at record highs, up nearly 300% from the previous year and on pace to continue that appalling trajectory. Assaults on staff, uses of force, and serious injuries were also increasing. Facility infrastructure was failing due to disinvestment in the jails; cell doors could easily be manipulated, and broken Plexiglas could be made into weapons, contributing to the high level of serious violence. Basic security practices, such as locking doors and conducting regular tours, were not being followed. In January 2022, on average 26% of staff were out sick each day, resulting in unsafe conditions for staff and those in custody, and in triple shifts for those who did come to work. In-person visitation had been completely shut down; contracted providers were not entering our jails; and people in custody were not receiving basic services. Our jails were on the brink of collapse.
Today, I would like to take the opportunity to share with you how strong leadership, expertise, and an unwavering commitment to reform have brought our city’s jail system back from the brink in just over 15 months. We still have many challenges ahead of us due to decades of mismanagement. But our jails have seen a meaningful reduction in violence, significant improvements in access to programs and services, and an overall stabilization in operations.
When I became Commissioner on January 1, 2022, we had on average more than 2,600 uniform staff out sick every day – nearly one third of our uniform workforce. We had also attritted roughly 2,000 correction officers since the start of the pandemic. Reversing that trend was a priority. We worked to support our staff so that we could return officers to the facilities and reduce the number of triple shifts. But to succeed, support had to go hand-in-hand with accountability. In managing any organization, there must be a timely and meaningful process to address those individuals who do not meet professional standards and expectations. On January 1, 2022, I inherited more than 3,700 disciplinary cases that had gone unaddressed going all the way back to 2017. There was no accountability for misconduct.
I have made it clear to our workforce that I expect professional excellence and will not tolerate abuse of policies or neglect of duty. In the past 15 months, I reviewed and issued final determinations in more than 2,900 disciplinary cases. More than 800 members of service were suspended for misconduct, which is a greater number than the prior two years combined; and more than 250 members of services were terminated, which is more than by any Commissioner in recent years. The Department has reorganized its Health Management Division, revised its sick leave policies, and prioritized the timely processing of sick leave disciplinary cases. Since January 1, 2022, the Department has closed out more than 450 disciplinary cases related to sick leave abuse, issuing discipline ranging from loss of vacation days to termination. Today, after 15 months of supporting and investing in our staff, and with clear expectations and meaningful discipline, the staff absentee rate has dropped nearly 70 percent. That means on any average day, that less than 700 uniform members of service are out sick. Going from an average of 2,600 to less than 700 is an extraordinary accomplishment.
But problems remain. We have lost nearly 3,000 uniform staff since the beginning of the pandemic, despite a steadily increasing population that is more challenging to manage. High attrition is not unique to New York City: correction and other law enforcement agencies across the country are facing challenges maintaining uniformed staff. We are intensely focused on supporting the dedicated members of service who continue to serve the Department. We are prioritizing staff training, leveraging technology to ensure that critical posts are staffed, and recruiting actively to replace those whom we have lost. In fiscal year 2023, 108 officers graduated from the Academy and joined the ranks as correction officers. A class of 88 officers is at the Academy and expected to graduate in May 2023, and more classes are scheduled throughout the remainder of the year. The ranks of New York’s Boldest must grow if we are to have safe and humane facilities.
Since January 2022, we have onboarded nearly 30 new leaders with significant correctional and business experience. These individuals come from across the country and have infused the Department with external expertise. To take only a few examples, our new Deputy Commissioner of Classification, Custody Management and Facility Operations has 35 years of correctional experience; our new Deputy Commissioner of Administration has 29 years of correctional experience; and our new Deputy Commissioner of Training has 30 years of public safety experience, as well as 20 years in academia. I am grateful to the strong team of leaders that has risen to the challenge of the past 15 months.
This week, for the first time in five years, the Department promoted a new class of Captains. This new class of 26 Captains shows our commitment to investing in professional growth. Next month, we plan to hire external candidates for warden positions to lead some of our facilities. They include individuals who have led facilities elsewhere and who will bring fresh perspective to a daunting job. I say “to lead some of our facilities” because I would be remiss if I did not recognize that our existing facility wardens include individuals who have the talent and commitment to support reform and rebuild this agency. They deserve to continue in place.
Improved Jail Operations & Violence Reduction
We have made long overdue improvements in how we manage and operate our facilities. For one, we have greatly improved intake processing. When I became Commissioner, conditions in our intake units were poor, and lengths of stay in intake were often excessive. The Department has now implemented new protocols for tracking and processing new admissions. The intake areas are now clean and orderly, and virtually all new admissions are being housed within 24 hours as required.
We have also resumed tactical search operations to remove dangerous weapons and narcotics contraband from the jails. In 2022, the Department conducted nearly 90 tactical search operations, resulting in the recovery of more than 1,600 weapons and 200 narcotics contraband. Searches of all kinds led to the recovery of more than 5,500 weapons and 1,400 narcotics contraband in calendar year 2022.
Significantly, fiscal year to date, slashings and stabbings have decreased nearly 18 percent Department-wide. Incidents of use of force saw a 14 percent decrease in 2022 despite the rise in the jail system’s average daily population and the concentration of violence-prone individuals as a result of bail reform. The Department has never before experienced a situation where population has increased, and use of force rates have decreased.
This decrease in the use of force in the face of a more challenging population is the product of using a holistic approach to fixing our jails. In the first quarter of 2022, the Robert N. Davoren Center (RNDC) was the most violent facility on Rikers Island. It houses our youngest individuals. To address the heightened levels of violence, we developed a multi-pronged violence reduction strategy: we increased programs and services; we ended the misguided practice of housing by gang affiliation; we went back to the basics of security practices; we partnered with faith-based leaders, credible messengers, and violence interrupters to provide guidance and address the root causes of justice involvement; and we replaced cell doors so they could not be easily manipulated and Plexiglas windows so that they could not be fashioned into weapons. Fiscal year to date, RNDC has seen a 60 percent reduction in slashings and stabbings. Recently, we have replicated these components across the jail system. I am confident that what has worked in RNDC will work elsewhere.
We have also been focused on increasing accountability for those who commit violent acts while detained. The simple truth is that if there are no consequences for violent acts, violence will persist. We recently finalized a new restrictive housing policy – one designed in consultation with a nationally renowned expert and approved by the Federal Monitor. The goal of the program is rehabilitation to change behavior so that violence is not a favored course of action. Importantly, our new policy is not solitary confinement. It allows individuals to be out-of-cell seven hours a day, one hour of which is for outdoor recreation. As I have told this body, solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment and has no place in a civilized society.
As you know, last year 19 individuals who were in our custody died. My condolences go out to their families and loved ones. Six of those deaths were from fentanyl, which is now one of the leading causes of death in this country for adults ages 18-45. We are trying to close off every avenue by which fentanyl and other illegal narcotics can enter our facilities. Randomized body scanning of all individuals entering RNDC began earlier this month. Once we have evaluated the initiative and accounted for any needed infrastructure or operational adjustments, it will be expanded to other facilities. We have expanded our canine unit and partnered with other law enforcement agencies to train eight canines to detect fentanyl, and more canines are being imprinted. In partnership with NYPD and the Sheriff’s Office, we conducted a search operation requiring vehicles entering Rikers Island to stop and submit to inspection. We also need to change our mail and package policy, which remains a work in progress. If we leave any avenue open, fentanyl will make its way in, and those in our custodial care will inevitably suffer.
Lastly, in fiscal year 2023, the Department implemented a new tablet program that provides far superior services for people in custody than that of the previous vendor. The new tablets offer a range of e-books, educational and programmatic material, entertainment, and access to Lexis Nexis. For the first time, tablets can be used to make free phone calls so that individuals do not have to wait for wall phones to become available to connect with their loved ones. Every individual will have a tablet which they can keep with them at all times. Tablets will not be removed for disciplinary reasons. I am confident that the new tablets will reduce idleness and enhance programming and, in turn, reduce violence. Not surprisingly, the tablets have been well received by those in our custodial care.
The Department’s Fiscal Year 2024 Preliminary Budget
Now, I would briefly like to highlight the Department’s Fiscal Year 2024 Preliminary Expense Budget, which is $1.20 billion. The vast majority of this – 84 percent – is allocated for Personal Services, and 16 percent for Other than Personal Services. The Fiscal Year 2024 Preliminary budget is $54.2 million less than this year’s budget of $1.25 billion. This decrease is largely due to funding provided explicitly in Fiscal Year 2023 for the emergency work performed on Rikers Island by the Department of Design and Construction and the Fiscal Year 2024 civilian vacancy reduction.
Included in the Preliminary Budget are decreases of $2.4 million in Fiscal Year 2023 and $19.2 million in Fiscal Year 2024. The following are some highlights of the major initiatives that were included in the Preliminary Budget:
With regards to capital funding, the Fiscal Year 2024 Preliminary Capital Budget and Commitment Plan totals $9.6 billion, which covers Fiscal Years 2023 through 2032. No additional capital funding was provided. The Department continues to assess and adjust the Capital plan to support the Borough Based Jails Program and demonstrate our commitment to the initiative.
As we look forward, the Department is working diligently to attract and retain both civilian and uniformed staff. The following is a summary of the changes to the Department’s civilian and uniformed authorized staffing levels included in the Preliminary Budget:
Last year I told this body that I strongly believe in criminal justice reform and that I am committed to rebuilding our city’s jail system so that it is safe and humane for everyone living and working there. My commitment has not wavered. It has grown stronger, bolstered by the support of Mayor Adams, the leaders within the agency, and the men and women who boldly do what is the most demanding job in city government – the job of a correction officer. We have met these challenges head-on, and we will continue to do so in the coming year. You have my promise. The progress we have delivered in just 15 months shows what can be achieved with strong leadership and experts at the helm.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak this morning. My colleagues and I are available to take your questions.