Most of the board members of the city agency that oversees Rikers Island now want the city jails taken over by the federal government.
In an extraordinary op-ed that ran in the Daily News on Wednesday, five of the eight members of the Board of Correction slammed the leaders of the Department of Correction, which runs the jails, for “attempting to shroud the jails in impenetrable darkness.”
They cited Commissioner Louis Molina’s decision earlier this year to limit the board’s access to jail surveillance video and correction officer body-worn camera footage, and announced that they plan to sue over the matter. They also said the department no longer allows the board to audit timesheets in order to check on staffing issues that have been linked to unmanned posts, failure to administer medical aid and detainee deaths.
Correction officials’ “preference for looking good over doing good is patently dangerous to all who are held or work in the jails,” wrote board members Rachael Bedard, Robert Cohen, Felipe Franco, DeAnna Hoskins and Jacqueline Sherman.
The op-ed comes on the eve of a pivotal court hearing on Thursday, in which a federal judge will begin to hear arguments on the possible appointment of a receiver, who would wrest operating and budgeting control over the jails from the administration of Mayor Eric Adams.
The mayor opposes such a takeover, but in recent weeks the U.S. attorney in Manhattan and an independent monitor installed by the federal government eight years ago have indicated that a receiver is the only way to stabilize a system that had its highest detainee death rate in a quarter-century last year. Twenty-six detainees have died since Adams was inaugurated in 2022.
Concerns about transparency into jail operations have hastened growing calls for a takeover. This week, the federal monitor, Steve Martin, noted in a court filing that the department failed to consult with him — as required by a consent decree — before changing the department’s use-of-force policy. Martin has also alleged in recent weeks that Molina hasn’t been truthful with him about serious incidents, including deaths.
The Department of Correction “is attempting to limit the monitor’s access to information,” Martin wrote to the court. “This approach to working with the monitoring team is the antithesis of advancing reform and appears to be yet another attempt to inhibit the monitoring team’s ability to conduct neutral and independent assessments of the current state of affairs and for department leadership to control the narrative of the current state of affairs.”
Members of the Board of Correction accused the Department of Correction of being “unnecessarily adversarial when we provide feedback; dismissive of civilian oversight; recalcitrant when asked to explain their actions in public; and, most importantly, incapable of ensuring a safe environment both for the people in its custody and people who work in the jails.”
The board has staff who work in the jails, and members themselves regularly visit. They alleged that people in custody are “routinely denied exercise, access to medical care and time outside,” while correction officers working triple shifts “fear retaliation when they speak up about unsafe conditions.”
The board members cited that the department has cut $17 million in job training, housing placement and drug rehabilitation programming at the jails while concurrently buying submachine guns. They also noted that Molina has bucked tradition and skipped attending some Board of Correction meetings.
It is unclear if the board’s op-ed can sway the federal judge who will make a decision on a receiver some time next year. But in the short term, it’s a rebuke to Adams, whose three allies on the board were not signatories to the op-ed.