Podcast podcast
Mar 09 2023

New York City Department of Corrections commissioner Louis A. Molina joins Manhattan Institute fellow and City Journal contributing editor Charles Fain Lehman to discuss the current state and future of the Rikers Island jail complex.

Audio Transcript

Hannah Meyers: Thank you everyone for joining us tonight. I'm so glad you could all be here. I'm Hannah Meyers, director of Policing and Public Safety for the Manhattan Institute. New York City and other cities across America are hurting. We have been damaged by years of insufficiently examined criminal justice policies, and we continue to be hurt by forces who insist on particular narratives about the criminal justice system, about race, about human behavior, rather than look hard at the impact of policies and risk coming to other, more complex, conclusions. But it is for us to approach crime, public safety, and justice with an open mind, with dogged investigation, so that we can discover patterns and understand causes in ways that will allow us to return to safer, more stable streets, as well as better outcomes for all who touch the criminal justice system. That has been our focus here at the Manhattan Institute.

Our guest tonight is Department of Corrections commissioner, Louis A. Molina. Commissioner Molina has prioritized using data, analysis, and proactive examination to understand New York City's jails and guide his policies and decisions. We are honored to have him here tonight in conversation with scholar Charles Fain Lehman, whom I will now introduce. Charles is a fellow here at the Manhattan Institute, working primarily on policing and public safety, including producing data-driven reports on the limitations of New York City's borough-based jails that are planned, and on the impact of New York State's 2021 parole reform legislation. He's a contributing editor of City Journal, and he co-hosts the podcast Institutionalized. Charles has testified on issues including rising extremism, anti-Asian hate crime. He was previously a staff writer with the Washington Free Beacon, and his work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, National Review, Tablet, and many other publications. And he's a contributing writer with the Institute for Family Studies. I will leave it to Charles to introduce the commissioner in tonight's discussion. Thank you both.

Louis Molina: Thank you.

Charles Fain Lehman: And thank you everyone, again, for joining us tonight. On a slightly less cheery note, I'm going to talk a minute about New York City's jails, which most observers agree are in the middle of, have been struggling for a long time with, a level of crisis. Nineteen people died in Rikers custody last year, which is the deadliest year in roughly a decade. Thousands are now diverted from pretrial detention every day. As proponents argue, the jails are dangerous and criminogenic, and opponents of these policies say the streets become less safe. The jail system has been subject to a federal monitoring agreement for over a decade, with a looming debate over whether or not a federal takeover is necessary. The city, meanwhile, is cruising ahead with plans to close the Rikers complex and dramatically slash total jail capacity below where it has ever been at any point since the Rikers complex opened.

Into this maelstrom was thrust our guest, commissioner of Correction, Louis A. Molina, who was appointed to his post by Mayor Eric Adams when the latter took office in 2022. Previously, Commissioner Molina was chief of the city of Las Vegas' Department of Public Safety, first deputy commissioner for the Westchester County Department of Correction, and chief internal monitor and acting assistant commissioner of the Nunez Compliance Unit of NYC DOC. So, with a diverse law enforcement background and experience both in making the system work and making the system work better, it's little surprise that the new mayor went to the commissioner to try to solve what has been for many an unsolvable problem. Now indeed, Commissioner Molina oversees one of the nation's most scrutinized jail systems in a moment of unprecedented upheaval and controversy. Tonight we're going to talk about the past, present, and future of New York City's jails. Commissioner, thank you for joining us.

Louis Molina: Thank you for having me.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, before we dive into sort of weighty topics, I want to start with you. You've worked across the criminal justice system, as I alluded to, in corrections, in policing, here in New York City, as far afield as Las Vegas. Tell us a little bit about how you got into this work, and how you came to the role of DOC commissioner.

Louis Molina: Yeah, I think for me, over the 20 years of my professional career I've had some great opportunities working at what I would describe as the three main pillars of our criminal justice system. I worked in the NYPD for over 13 years. After my stint in the NYPD, I was the deputy chief investigator for the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office when Kenneth Thompson was then the DA. After that, in 2016 was my first foray into corrections. As you pointed out, I was the chief internal monitor that was selected for the New York City Department of Corrections at that time. After my time in the New York City Department of Corrections, after that I was then appointed first deputy commissioner for the Westchester County Department of Corrections, which I would point out to listeners and those that are here in the audience, was also under a federal oversight agreement.

And we were able to successfully navigate out of that oversight agreement within three years of my appointment and the appointment of Joseph Spano, who was a commissioner and a longtime executive deputy commissioner of operations, Leandro Diaz, we successfully really transformed the Westchester County DOC. After that, as you said, I was appointed to chief of the Department of Public Safety, overseeing the city of Las Vegas and city marshals, cities jails, as well as the animal control services. So, I bring a full national view on many of these issues on experiences from across our criminal justice system.

When Mayor Adams was elected mayor, he appointed me and asked me to be the commissioner for the city's Department of Corrections. I knew then that with Mayor Adams' leadership, his commitment to wanting to solve a number of complex issues the city was facing today, for me it was a no-brainer and an easy decision to come back. New York City's my hometown. I've always believed that the staff at the Department of Corrections as well as the people that are in the custodial care of the city's jail system deserve better. So, I was excited to accept the appointment of commissioner for the Department of Corrections in New York City.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, I just want to linger for a second on your past experience in Westchester in particular, because I think part of the reason that you were brought in to New York City is because you had prior experience navigating federal consent decree, and really turning a jail system around. Can you talk about what that experience was like, what you saw as the successes and failures there, and how that informs your thinking today?

Louis Molina: So, I think Westchester County at the time when I started had similar challenges to New York City, but the scale of the problem in New York City was significantly greater. The one pivotal difference, I think, between what was going on in Westchester County and what's currently going on here in the city, is that everybody in Westchester County wanted the Department of Corrections to succeed. The advocacy groups, the Defense Bar, our elected officials, the family of the incarcerated, they were all behind a lot of the initiatives and strategies that helped us really turn around Westchester County's Department of Corrections using a lot of different programmatic initiatives and also increasing the access to justice to those that were just as involved in our system.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, let's turn then to New York City, which is, I would venture to claim, a bigger fish—not that Westchester is small, but it's New York City. Obviously, as I alluded to, Rikers has been struggling, and the New York City jail system has been struggling since before you took office. You worked on compliance with the Nunez Decree, the Federal Consent Decree under which the jail system is still operating. Can you talk to us about the history? How did the jails get to be where they are?

Louis Molina: Yeah, so I think when we look at the city system—first, let me just say that for decades, the city's jail system was neglected and mismanaged. I think specifically to the issue that we're faced with today, there were three distinct decisions that put us on a pathway to the brink of collapse January 1st of 2022. And those three instances and decision points were first. In 2016 to 2017, when I was a chief internal monitor, I quickly realized that we needed an infusion of outside correctional experts that needed to be in the chain of command of the system to help guide the department out of its disorder. When that recommendation that I made at that time was not adhered to, and I think you get this in big bureaucracies, it was basically stopped and bureaucratized to death, that that decision at that time, had they followed my recommendation, I think we would not be in the state that we are today.

So that's the first, I think domino to happen between 2016 and '17. When we go to 2018 and 2019, when the decision was made to close Rikers Island, the department was basically abandoned. There was always an underfunding of our infrastructure on Rikers Island to include our borough facilities at the time, there was an underfunding in the support and investment in our human capital, our staff. So, when the decision was made to close Rikers Island, the department was literally abandoned and the system was significantly weakened, leading to the attrition of thousands of correctional officers out of the system.

The third domino, which was I think the most critical, is having already had a very weakened system in the city, what ended up happening when the Covid pandemic hit. On multiple levels, the department just imploded. And on top of that implosion from the Covid pandemic, which affected obviously the globe, there was intentional decisions to dismantle the detainee capacity within Rikers Island and the borough-based jails facilities, which put us at a significant disadvantage. And I think the dismantling of a core part of our criminal justice system in this city, that decision was intentionally made so that Rikers Island would close by any means necessary despite the risk that it posed to people in custody and the staff that worked there.

Charles Fain Lehman: I just want to ask you to elaborate a little bit on that last point. When you talk about a deliberate dismantling, what do you see as having gone on? What are the components that were dismantled, and who were the driving forces?

Louis Molina: Yeah, so we had functional facilities that are on Rikers Island that were closed, significantly reducing our capacity to be able to house individuals. And eliminating that capacity even to this day to be accessible as the detainee population continues to have steadily increased since January 1st, 2022. In addition to the dismantling of borough facilities in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn simultaneously eliminating that capacity as well.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, it seems to be there are a number of different problems that are commonly identified on Rikers Island, and I want to talk through a couple of them. The first one is just sort of absolute mean, the scale of deaths in custody generally, which is related to problems I'll get to in a second, which is violence, but also relates to access to drugs, and also suicide. Can you talk through what you see as driving the increase in deaths that we've seen over the past several years? What are the sources of the problem?

Louis Molina: So, I think there are a couple. I think we don't have enough inpatient psychiatric capacity in this city to deal with those that are experiencing mental illness, and in many cases co-occurring disorders of substance abuse addiction. So, the department ends up getting a lot of individuals that have significant preexisting health and mental health conditions coming into the system. And we have limited capability to support that vulnerable population. When I got there on January 1 of 2022, there were no basic correctional security practices that were happening. So, we started to address those issues. We've removed over 5,000 contraband weapons from the facilities, over 1,300 contraband narcotics and narcotics paraphernalia from the facilities. Programming at that point in January of last year had stopped. So, contract nonprofit providers were not coming into the system because the former administration had told them they did not want them working on Rikers Island at that time.

So, you had a lot of outer time with the people that were in custody. So, it had a rippling effect throughout the system. So, when you're managing these vulnerable populations, what we have been done as of late is to mitigate against all those things. So, in addition to removing contraband narcotics and weapons, we began bringing in programs—education, vocational, substance abuse support programs into the facilities with our partners at Correctional Health Services. We've worked with the faith-based community to provide services to the population. We began to interdict against narcotics coming into the facilities, specifically through the mail.

We saw a 26 percent increase in 2022 of contraband narcotics coming in through the mail. If we just look at fentanyl alone, the increase of interdiction of fentanyl was over 290 percent in 2022. So, I think a combination of those issues places the population at risk, but we're head and shoulders in a different place today, 15 months later, than where we were at the beginning of last year, when it relates to violence and other issues to stop the opportunities that people may take, whether they're using drugs and may end up in a fatal overdose.

The other thing that we've done is we've expanded the accessibility of Narcan in the facility. We've trained almost 6,000 uniformed officers to be able to use Narcan, and soon Narcan will be carried on every uniformed officer in our facilities to prevent individuals from overdosing.

Charles Fain Lehman: One of the underlying trends that we've seen over the past, really at this point, seven, eight years, is the New York City jail population's steady decline in 2016, and that decline reversed starting at 2020, still well below the levels the city was at when the city council made the decision to start talking about closing Rikers. I think part of what has happened there is that the population has become more concentrated in A, serious offenders, and B, offenders have been evaluated as in need of mental health services. Does that concentration pose additional challenges that you have a smaller, but on average more dangerous population?

Louis Molina: Absolutely. So, in 2015, about 50 percent of our populations were charged with felonies and 50 percent were charged with misdemeanors. Currently, as it stands today, when we look at our population, 83 percent of our population is charged with at least one felony in addition to we have city-sentenced individuals that are charged with levels of low felonies on misdemeanor crimes. So, as you pointed out, we do have a much higher concentration of violent offenders, but those violent offenders are also in our system significantly longer than necessary. So, we looked at our length of stay prior to Covid, our average length of stay was about 83 days, which already was really the longest length of stay when you look at large American jails in America. During Covid, that length of stay increased to about 140. Now we're approximately settling at about 115 days, but what we have is a situation where the length of stay for very violent offenders is too long.

We have had approximately 500 people in custody that have been in our system for over two years, and another almost 800 that have been in there for one to two years. The length of stay is also a contributing factor to this situation, and as you point out, the population steadily has been increasing. But interestingly enough, our experience and situation for our staff as we take hold and stabilize operations, as our population has been increasing the use of force incidences in 2022 saw a 14 percent decrease. And the department has never experienced a situation where the population was going up and use of force incidences were going down. Ironically, between 2016 and 2021, while the population was shrinking, the rate and the number of use-of-force incidences were climbing. So, we are taking ahold of things like that within the department.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, I want to ask about another component that's gotten a lot of attention, which is staffing. I think there has been a great deal of concern, particularly about policies relating to disability leave, and where generally there's a lack of correctional officer presence in the facilities which is contributing to violence or lack of oversight. Was that your impression of the situation going in, and what does the situation look like today?

Louis Molina: Yeah, so going in, the department did not have an organizational health strategy to support staff, to include consciously eliminating employee assistance programs to support staff prior to this administration taking over. At the height of January 1, we had an average over 2,600 uniform staff that were out sick, which is a significant amount of staff. We had already also retired 2,000 correction officers from the department at that point in time. We did a lot of work to support our staff. There was no accountability in place. So, when we think about managing any type of organization, and you're trying to address individuals that don't meet the standards of your expectations, you have to have timely and a meaningful discipline process. On January 1, this administration inherited over 3,700 disciplinary cases that went unaddressed going all the way back to 2017. So, there was just no accountability on the part of the staff, but there was also no accountability on those that were detained.

So, when we had individuals that were in our custody committing serious crimes on other persons in custody, on members of the staff, there was no accountability or restrictive housing model, at that point in time it was ineffective, and slashing and stabbings on January 1 had already reached an increase of 300 percent. Where we are at today with the support of staff, investing in our staff, the staff absentee rate has dropped 69 percent. In real numbers, that means that on any average day, just under 700 people are out sick. So, with accountability measures in place, I have adjudicated over 2,800 disciplinary cases. So that, one, for those that had issues that needed to be addressed, we use them as teachable moment, sometimes as a punitive punishment that comes with that.

But we want somebody to be able to perform at an expectation that we have. Others, we identify this wasn't the right career choice for them and they were separated from the department. So, now we have a more timely and meaningful discipline process, and all that together has allowed us to bring back visitation, programming, allowed us to get to a point where fiscal year to date, the slashing and stabbings have decreased 10 percent in the jail system. So, we still have a long way to go, but we are in a much different place 15 months in than where we were on January 1.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, we've talked a lot already about steps that you've taken concretely to try to turn the situation around, but can you give us a sense of what your overall strategy was walking in? What is the sort of ethos or approach that inspires how you're thinking about dealing with these problems?

Louis Molina: Yes, so I think when we're thinking about the challenges that exist in our department, I think any story of the current turnaround that's taking place at the New York City Department of Corrections starts with the Robert N. Davoren Center, which is also known as RNDC. That facility is managed by a very experienced uniform warden, Charlisa Walker, who's done an amazing job at turning around that specific facility. And what I'll say is that at the first quarter of 2022, it was the most violent facility on Rikers Island. We have 800 detainees housed there, but what's unique about the Robert N. Davoren Center is about over 400 of our young adults 18 to 21 are housed at that facility. We developed, with our cabinet working in concert with the monitor, a violence reduction strategy that was multi-pronged. We brought back program services, both vocational and educational services, to the population there.

We went back to the basics of security practices and held people accountable to make sure that they were instituted. We partnered with a number of faith-based leaders, particularly one that stands out is Pastor Tim Johnson from Orlando, Florida, who brought his Fatherless No More initiative, and had an amazing impact on the young adults that are housed at that facility. In addition to that, we brought incredible messengers, violence interrupters. It was a multi-pronged strategy where fiscal year to date, that facility slashing and stabbings have decreased almost 60 percent. To include addressing a lot of the infrastructure failures that existed, not only that facility and others, but we replaced cell doors at that facility. We replaced windows to make sure that detainees didn't have access to ailing infrastructure to create crime and weapons. Now, we've replicated a number of initiatives that we've done at RNDC across our system, and that's why as a total system fiscal year to date, slashing and stabbings are down 10 percent.

But what's also significantly down across the system is assault on staff. Staff need a safe place to work, and assaults on staff across our system have also decreased over 40 percent fiscal year to date. When you want to help have interventions for people that are in our custody to address the root drivers of their justice involvement, you can't do that without having a foundation of safety and security for both the people that are in custody, the people that work there, our contract providers and volunteers that want to deliver these services. So, we've done that at the Robert N. Davoren Center. That strategy is being replicated across our system, and I think we're going to be in a significantly better place at the end of this fiscal year than when we started January 1 of 2022.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, I want to talk a little bit about the two big policy changes that are on the table. One being the still-slated-to-occur closure of the Rikers facility, the move to the borough-based jails. The other one, the live debate about federal receivership. Start with latter. We talked a little bit about the Federal Monitor. As we've alluded throughout this conversation, the Department of Correction remains under a federal consent decree as a monitor that oversees operations issues regular reports. Recently, the monitor gave you all the extensions, said, "We're going to come back to court," I believe in April.

Louis Molina: April, yes.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah, to reconsider the question of federal receivership. I want you to talk a little bit about how that decision got made, and then we'll also talk about the pros and cons of receivership, what that fight has been about.

Louis Molina: Got it. So, I monitor Steven Martin, the Deputy Monitor is Anna Friedberg. I've known them since 2016, as I worked with them when I was with the department at the time. The monitor and his deputy have been overseeing the department for a number of years, and they have a keen sense of the challenges that exist in the department. I think first for the public, the monitor's job is not to fix the New York City Department of Corrections. That is my job to do. The monitor's role is really to evaluate our success in meeting the consent provisions, and our compliance in those provisions so that at some point, he would be in a position to recommend to the courts that we've done everything to satisfy what placed the department in a consent judgment and move us on from that. But the monitor has been a great partner with us. He and his subject-matter experts have collectively hundreds of years of correctional management experience, that wealth of experience we have access to, and there is a lot of value to that.

So, I often consult with the monitor and think about different strategies and ideas before we operationalize them to make sure that as a department we're headed down the right track. He, in his recent reports, has talked about seeing a sea change in the way the department has been managed as of recently as opposed to what's been his experience of the past, and the reason we have that sea change is because we've built out a magnificent and amazing cabinet. That cabinet represents talent from inside and outside of New York City. And what we have fused into the cabinet was a recommendation that I made in 2016 of bringing in correctional expertise that's within the chain of command of the department, has the authority to take action so that we can have sustainable reform. So, my relationship with the monitor is very healthy and respectful. They have been a good partner, but he has a job to do, and his job is really evaluating our compliance with not only the consent judgment provisions, currently now also our action plan, and it's my job to fix the department.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, the option on the table, that's I think been pushed for in a number of quarters, is taking the department out of the hands of the government of New York City and putting it under the jurisdiction of the federal government, a receiver appointed by the court who would have a number of powers that you would not necessarily have. For example, to cut through limitations imposed by contract. Your department has obviously been skeptical of receivership. I guess I'm going to ask you for your take on it: what do you see as the pros and cons, and is there a point at which you would say, "Yes, this makes sense"?

Louis Molina: Yeah, so I'm not in favor of receivership for any jurisdiction, not just New York City's. I think receivers take a lot of time. We've seen a history of receiverships lasting 10 years. They cost the taxpayers of the local municipality significant amounts of money, and really the lack of understanding of the governance process within the jurisdiction that they're in puts them at a significant learning disadvantage on coming in from the outside to sort of rectify these problems. I will say that there is nothing in any union collective bargaining agreement that prevents me from addressing these issues. These are manufactured problems because of a history of mismanagement that has been facing the department for a number of decades. We have a mayor of this city whose leadership and commitment to solve this issue breaks down a lot of, I think, manufactured barriers that were previously identified as stopping us from being able to move the department forward.

We are just not that place under this administration. And at the speed of which we are solving a number of systemic issues regarding the department, our receivership would take a significant amount of time to build out a team, to learn the ecosystem of the department, that would put us at a significant disadvantage if the department went on receivership. But it's my job along with my cabinet's job to make sure that we can provide Judge Swain, who's the judge overseeing the consent judgment, the confidence that we have the ability to do this. I think that she has seen sparks of hope. I don't want to put words in her mouth, but I think she, too, sees that we are progressing in a direction that's going to be much more rapid than if a receivership motion practice were to move forward, which we think would be highly unsuccessful, give me the significant inroads that we have made to date over the last 15 months.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, let's talk about the other more set-in-stone plan. In 2027, ostensibly the facilities on Rikers Island will be shuttered. The city will shift all of its jail capacity to four borough-based jails, with a maximum average population of 3,300 people, built in the boroughs, under construction now, in fact. The city council seems to be moving full steam ahead on this, as they were in 2019. Both you and the mayor have expressed some concerns. I think both of you have said maybe we need to think out a plan B for Rikers closure. Let's start with the prospects for closing Rikers. Do you think the timeline is plausible by four years from now?

Louis Molina: Yeah, so I've already been public. I mean, right now we've crossed in January 30 of this year over 6,000 people in custody, and we've been hovering just over and just under 6,000 people. We have done some population forecast analysis, and if nothing changes in the administration of justice, then we predict that we will be at a 7,000-person incarcerated population by September of 2024. So, I think we have to think about when we're thinking about forcibly by local law closing Rikers Island and eliminating all that capacity, a similar example would be the de-institutionalization strategy of the mentally ill out of mental health capacity that we had in America. And what we saw during that process is people that were mentally ill and de-institutionalized from those situations, found themselves in a situation of trans-institutionalization, where psychiatric hospitals and criminal justice systems were interdependent.

That was a disaster for not only the people in need, but really, because of underfunded community resources, community violence rose and was disastrous for our communities. So, if we're going to displace upwards of 3,000 or so people that are better served because of their violence in a correctional setting, I think that's a very dangerous situation for communities across the city, and a dangerous situation for public safety as well. So, I think that if we're going to move forward with the borough-based jail plan, we have to be responsible in sharing with the public what the impact of that plan is. And I share a lot of the values that came out of the Lippman Commission regarding that plan.

But if we are immovable from thinking about how can we evolve the plan to serve the current population that's in custody, the future population that may be in custody, we will find that the intentions of everything that the Lippman Commission wanted will be a failure, because we will either have overcrowding in our borough-based jails facilities, we may have to reopen decommissioned facilities that, quite frankly from a physical infrastructure standpoint, don't meet the needs of that population that's in custody. Some people need government intervention. We have over 1,000 individuals in our custody that are charged with murder and manslaughter, and people need to be safe in our communities. So, this deinstitutionalization of detainees from our city's jail system is a very dangerous proposition if we move forward.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, the Lippman Commission, the commission which was chartered to investigate and ultimately recommended the closure of Rikers Island, has, since its initial report, argued that with some number of changes, the capacity afforded by the borough-based jails would be adequate. You've alluded to some of their concerns, like the length of stay. So, if we lower mean length of stay, we'd have a smaller average population. Do you think that there's a world in which the borough-based jails are of adequate capacity? Are there some set of steps that could be taken, if not by DOC, by the courts, or by some other component of the criminal justice system?

Louis Molina: I think there are some steps that could be taken, but the reality is if you want to solve this issue, we have to think about the entirety of the criminal justice arena. And the reality is that the city in and of itself doesn’t control the Office of Court Administration, which is the courts. We have elected district attorneys. We don't control them either. We have a number of criminal justice reform laws that are impacting our length of state situation. So, I think that in theory there are pathways to try to do that, but we have to deal in practical reality. And when we're thinking about how do we evolve and reform parts of our criminal justice system, specifically in corrections, if we are not going to be guided by scientific knowledge of correction management, good intentions are not enough. And at some point we have to consider what are we willing to risk when we're talking about the public safety of the almost nine million residents of the city?

Parents just want their kids to be able to get on a bus, get on a train, and walk to school, and not be accosted by violent individuals. If you want to solve the criminal justice issue in America, or in this city in particular, then what should have been solved first was increasing our inpatient psychiatric bed capacity for those that can be diverted into a public health system to address their drivers of crime, whether it's mental illness, or substance abuse addiction. We don't solve that issue first, the reality is that the criminal justice system, whether we're talking about policing or correction, is the only system that currently exists that has the agility to deal with this population that's creating a significant amount of disorder and placing a lot of members in public in unsafe situations.

Charles Fain Lehman: So, just to draw the conversation out to something that you brought up a number of times. You alluded to, for example, working in West Chester you felt like all the community stakeholders wanted the DOC to work. My impression is that you don't necessarily think that's what's happening here, that there is some degree of adversarialism, or that there are actors who are not necessarily interested in seeing DOC succeed. And you said also that the jail system was left to operate in disarray, certainly since 2020, quite plausibly longer. I wonder if you could talk about who you see as the actors there, what you see as the motives there that are driving this contention, and how important you see that as being to what extent that affects the success and failure of DOC?

Louis Molina: Yeah. No, that's a great point. And I think that our correctional systems, our jail systems challenges, are not a place-based problem. It is a system problem. And what we need is to address the systematic system failures that exists within our system, and that's what the Adams administration is doing now as we rebuild this department. We also need to understand that, I've said this before, for too long slogans have dictated criminal justice policy. And in corrections, in addition to slogans, anecdotal incidents have been used as a method to say the symbolism of closing Rikers it's what's going to stop this issue. Dismantling our jail system's capacity is not going to solve the systemic problems that we have when running a humane and just system in New York City or any jail system in America. We need an all-in proposition. So, when we're thinking about, like I said earlier, about how do we evolve and address these longstanding criminal justice issues, we have to first solve how do we increase the capacity for health access for those that are suffering from mental illness and substance abuse addiction?

We need all the elected officials. I think we all share the belief that we should have a humane and just system, and that those that are being driven to the justice system because of mental health and substance abuse addiction should be diverted. But we need that diversion capacity to exist. And I think understanding that we have to govern in what's in the best interest of this city, we need to be good partners. We have shared interest in this problem. We need to be allies to solve these issues. We cannot solve these issues alone.

Charles Fain Lehman: Just to push on the point a little bit, let me offer an example. A few months back, the city council waved the bill to dramatically curtail the use of solitary confinement in DOC custody. In a way, in my reading of the bill, and I suspect in your reading of the bill, feel free to disagree, it would've rendered solitary confinement essentially inoperable on Rikers Island as a tool, not simply for dealing with inmates violating the rules, but dealing with inmates who are actively violent. Offenders who were actively posing a threat to one another and staff.

And it seems to be like there's a, I don't know, a force on the city council that routinely makes this sort of policy move that says, "Well, we need to be concerned with the rights of offenders, and in so doing we’ll make the jails less safe, and that's our priority." Everybody agrees that health and justice need to be a priority, but there are different theories of what justice in a correctional context looks like. Do you think that's right? And if so, to what extent are you're having to deal with an alternative theory?

Louis Molina: Yeah, so first I'll just say we do not practice solitary confinement within the New York City's Department of Correctional System. We don't even practice any type of punitive segregation as well within our system, which means in a solitary confinement definition that you would only be allowed one hour out of your cell. In punitive segregation, that would be anywhere from one to four hours out of cell. So, in our restrictive housing model, individuals are voluntarily allowed to be released from their cell for up to seven hours at minimum if they so choose to do so. As it relates specifically to banning of solitary confinement, one is there were provisions within that law that really would've removed any level of restrictive housing from our city's jail system. Now, we have to understand that within the State of New York, inmates have a significant amount of out-of-cell time. In New York City, that out-of-cell time is 14 hours.

In other parts of the state, it's anywhere from 12 to 14 hours, which means that we have a lot of violent individuals that are out of cell, many of them choosing not to engage in any programming to address the root drivers of their justice involvement. And we have a higher level of opportunity for people to commit violence against other people in custody and staff. When I get lectured about, "You should be like Cook County in the City of Chicago," we have about the same size detainee population as Chicago. In Chicago, general population detainees have out of cell time of six hours. In Washington, D.C. and in the city of Philadelphia, it is five hours. And in those jurisdictions, they also do practice very restrictive punitive segregation. So, when I'm lectured by elected officials and others about Cook County and the cities of Chicago, we don't have the same operating rules in this state, and in this city as they do in the city of Chicago and in other jurisdictions, which invites a lot of opportunity for violence to take place.

So, the only thing that we have left are two. We need restrictive housing, and I'm happy to announce that we've redeveloped our restrictive housing so that those that are committing serious violent crimes against other persons in custody or staff can be housed in a humane way to keep others that are in the general population that just want to get through their time until their cases are adjudicated can live in safety. And our workers can be safe as well, our uniform staff and our non-uniform staff. So, stopping any level of restrictive housing in our city's jail system would be disastrous to our city's jail system and would spike violence across our system at an unprecedented rate.

Charles Fain Lehman: Thank you. Let's everyone give the commissioner a round of applause.

Louis Molina: Thank you.

Charles Fain Lehman: Thank you so much for joining us, and thank all of you for joining us as well.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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