Correction commissioner grilled about problems at Rikers Island

In a routine budget hearing on Wednesday, new Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina took the hot seat but was grilled for hours by City Council members who questioned the agency's mismanagement of the city's jails.

"Commissioner, I want to tell you, I am disgusted by the black hole of civil rights and human rights abuses that is Rikers Island under your leadership," Council Member Shekar Krishnan said.

City Council members blasted Molina for not being able to answer simple questions such as staffing levels at city jails, medical wait times, and more.

"The lack of answers is absolutely ridiculous, especially if you want to see an increase in your budget," Council Member Chi Osse said.

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"The department has provided an alarming lack of data which is necessary to accurately evaluate the staffing and budgetary needs of the department," Chair of the Committee Carlina Rivera said.

A court-ordered federal monitor overseeing the city's jails found not only pervasive violence within these facilities but said they were also blocked from gaining access to staffing levels.

According to the Correctional Officers Union, over 2,700 officers have retired or resigned since 2019 and only 75 have been hired to replace them.

Molina said more officers are returning to work now that the pandemic is easing up, with the current absentee rate at 19%, which is down from 30%.

"While these initial trends are promising, we still have a long way to go to get that number back to normal," Molina explained.

While the department is looking for an increase in its budget, many on the council say that the agency is not doing enough with the money it already has.

Molina said the average length of stay in the city's jails increased from 187 days to 329 days. To put that in perspective, that is four times longer than a stay at the Los Angeles County Jail, the largest jail system in America.

While Molina blamed the pandemic and court hearing delays, a report by City Comptroller Brad Lander found that the city spends more than half a million dollars to incarcerate one person for a year — nearly four times the amount spent 10 years ago.

"The problem is not a lack of resources," Lander said. "It's how those resources are being managed."

But Molina said the city will be moving forward with a plan to replace solitary confinement in city jails with a new program called the Risk Management Assessment System. The plan was supposed to be implemented in November, under then-Mayor Bill de Blasio, but was delayed.

Now Molina said those should be in place by July 1.

"There are people who commit acts of violence at Rikers Island, and we need a way to separate those individuals in order to keep people safe," Molina said.

These restrictive housing units, replacing solitary confinement, will give inmates access to a communal dayroom and five hours of daily programming.

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