Testimony before the
New York City Council
Committee on Criminal Justice
Chair Carlina Rivera
Louis A. Molina, Commissioner
NYC Department of Correction
October 25, 2022
Good morning, Chair Rivera and members of the Committee on Criminal Justice. As you know, I am Louis Molina, Commissioner of the Department of Correction. I am joined today by the Department’s General Counsel Paul Shechtman. I want to thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify today on a topic that has impacted jails and prisons across the nation as the opioid epidemic continues to ravage the country.
The Opioid Crisis in Jails and Prisons
Nationally, the number of drug overdose deaths has quintupled since 1999, and nearly 75 percent of those deaths involved an opioid. In recent years, there have been significant changes in opioid related deaths. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are now the most common drugs involved in such deaths. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It can be found mixed in nasal sprays and eye drops, and soaked onto paper or small candies. It is often physically indistinguishable from other drugs so that it is nearly impossible to tell if drugs or other items have been laced with fentanyl unless they have been tested with fentanyl strips. It cannot be identified by sight or smell. And unlike many other drugs, dogs cannot be safely used to detect its presence. Many users believe they are consuming heroin and do not realize that it is laced, or replaced, with fentanyl until it is too late, which often results in overdose deaths.
New York City jails, like jails everywhere, are a reflection of the larger community. National trends in substance use, crime, and mental health will inherently, and likely disproportionately, be reflected in our jails. Everyday, individuals are admitted into our custody with pre-existing conditions, including substance use issues. These issues do not simply resolve upon intake. In fact, substance use issues often become exacerbated as individuals experience symptoms of withdrawal during arrest and arraignment – issues which may not be addressed until an individual has completed the intake process, and which can be exacerbated by unduly long pre-trial detention. Even if individuals do choose to seek treatment while in custody, drug seeking behaviors may continue.
Similar to communities outside the jails, there are individuals who exploit substance abuse and addiction for profit by introducing and distributing drugs, including fentanyl, within our facilities. So far this year, we have three confirmed fentanyl-related deaths. This is not a problem unique to New York City. Between 2001 and 2018, overdoes deaths rose by more than 200 percent in county jails, and by over 600 percent in state prisons.
How does fentanyl get into our jails? The short answer is that most of it enters in letters and packages laced with fentanyl, literally soaked in the drug, and mailed to people in custody. A Sherriff in a Georgia county jail describes it well: “They soak the paper in fentanyl,” he reports, and “they take it out and dry it and then they write a letter on it and send it into the jail and then the inmates take and sell it, and people get it and get high on it. They smoke it or chew it or snort it off the paper.”
Here are four photographs of fentanyl discovered in letters and packages in our mail room:
Fentanyl comes in both liquid and powder forms, and is often found on blotter paper that is placed under the tongue or ingested. As is often the case, the mail room was tipped off to the presence of fentanyl because the envelopes were wet or discolored.
Drugs and other contraband are also brought in by visitors. This year, there have been 56 discoveries of drugs from searches of visitors. Each discovery can account for large quantities of various drugs. Here are photos of contraband discovered on a visitor:
Following these discoveries, these visitors were arrested.
Drug Contraband Prevention Measures
Suffice it to say, we are exploring all available measures to keep fentanyl and other drugs out of our facilities. In July of this year, we issued a Narcan policy to allow uniform staff to administer Narcan in the case of a suspected overdose. Narcan, otherwise known as Naloxone, is a live-saving medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose on opioids. We have recently conducted a facility-wide audit to ensure that Narcan is available in every housing area. And we have prepared a training video so that staff know how to identify symptoms of an opioid overdose and administer Narcan. In addition, we have posted information about the dangers of using illegal substances, including fentanyl, in all housing areas, corridors, and support areas.
We have also reinstituted tactical search operations to recover contraband that has already made its way to people in custody. On the screen, you will see an image of contraband that has been found from these searches:
But Narcan and search operations are after-the-fact measures. What we must do is stop drugs before they enter our jails. These are some are some of the measures we are undertaking or considering.
First, we will be making substantial changes to the way incoming correspondence is processed and delivered to people in our custody. Our intention is to move towards a practice currently employed by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (“DOCCS”) and some 140 jails across the country, from counties in Massachusetts to Oregon. Incoming non-privileged correspondence will be mailed to an offsite facility and scanned by a vendor, and then made accessible to the incarcerated recipient digitally via tablets. We are also exploring restrictions on incoming packages, such as requiring packages to come from approved vendors. That, too, is done at DOCCS and throughout the country. Books are for reading, not for lacing with fentanyl. These changes should help prevent drugs and other contraband from entering our facilities and should save lives.
Second, we have also taken steps to ensure that those who work in our jails do not aid and abet the introduction of drugs into our facilities. We have zero tolerance for anyone who brings contraband into our jails, whether staff, a contractor who provides programming and post-release employment opportunities for people in custody, or a volunteer. We have cooperated, and will continue to cooperate, with the Department of Investigation as well as our local law enforcement agencies – the U.S. Attorney Offices and the Bronx and Queens District Attorney Offices – in the investigation and prosecution of such individuals. Such selfish and shameful behavior is utterly unacceptable.
Earlier this month, I wrote to the judges presiding over the cases of Krystle Burrell and Katrina Paterson, two former New York City Department of Correction staff members who have pled guilty to accepting bribes in exchange for smuggling drugs. I wrote this:
As Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, I write to ask that the Court impose a sentence that reflects the seriousness of [these staff members’] conduct…Our facilities can be dangerous places – 35 percent of detainees are there on homicide charges, and many are members of violent gangs…Drugs fuel violence in our facilities and can result in tragic deaths. That [these staff members] chose to enrich [themselves] and endanger [their] co-workers and those in their custody deserves the strongest condemnation. Just as importantly, the actions [of these staff members] tarnish the reputation of the Department and its employees. A corrupt staff member brings all of us down in the eyes of the public. “They’re all corrupt” is the ready cry, when the truth is that [these were] rogue staff members who put [their] self-interest ahead of everything else.
I ask you to consider writing similar letters.
Drugs have no place in our jails. They fuel violence, extortion, and exploitation. Fentanyl kills. Keeping drugs out, especially fentanyl, is essential to the safety of everyone who lives and works in our facilities. I thank you for the opportunity to meet with you today.