NEW YORK - It’s a city jail complex so notorious it’s making headlines for all the wrong reasons. We go inside Rikers Island for an exclusive look with the new correction commissioner who told me he is ready to take on these long-standing challenges.
Inside the RNDC jail, one of eight on Rikers Island, we go through multiple checkpoints with DOC Commissioner Louis Molina. He’s the first Hispanic to head the troubled agency, which has faced violence, corruption, mismanagement, and understaffing issues for a very long time. He’s made changes around the world in high-level law enforcement, military, and corrections positions. Now he’s back to face persistent problems that several administrations and a federal monitor could not solve. For this commissioner, a decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran, the mission is personal.
"I was very fortunate to grow up in the Bronx, with two parents, now a lot of kids don’t have that," Molina says. "I also have family members that have been the victim of violent crime, and I also have family members that have been justice-involved, including incarceration, so this work is very important to me."
It may seem obvious, but job number one is safety — for staff, correction officers and the more than 5,600 people incarcerated. Molina says he was surprised to learn some basic security practices were not being followed, like gang violence prevention. He immediately changed the policy of grouping gang-affiliated detainees into the same housing unit, which had made it more dangerous for everyone.
"This facility was one of the facilities where the prior administration was housing by gang affiliation, and it really places our officers at a disadvantage, so what we did is we reblended and rebalanced all our gang houses, and we moved away from housing the population that way," Molina says.
Where is Rikers Island?
The island is in the East River, north of LaGuardia Airport. It is considered part of the Bronx. It is attached to Queens by a bridge.
Molina also found other standard safety practices were not in effect, like weapons and contraband searches of inmates and housing areas. The result? Some detainees broke windows to get pieces of plexiglass they could sharpen into homemade knives, a reason slashings became so common. Now he says assaults on uniformed staff have dropped by 25%, and are down by 45% against other staff so far this year.
"We recently conducted two days of tactical search operations and we recovered over 80 contraband weapons, K2 and drug paraphernalia," he says. "So for many, many years, it's the practical security measures in corrections were just not being done."
What is happening in Rikers Island?
A huge problem facing Rikers Island during the pandemic was the severe shortage of correction officers, which resulted in some COs doing double and even triple shifts. Molina says he has bought back more than 1300 correction officers and reduced overtime in five of the jails so that they’re doing regular eight-hour shifts. The Commissioner is also prioritizing badly needed safety repairs, like replacing cell doors that do not lock.
"These doors were easily ‘poppable’ so they could be unlocked by the detainees, which for our officers is a security issue," Molina says. "So what we’ve done is, we’ve upgraded our housing unit doors, and this unit is empty because it’s under construction. These are the new doors and when the light is green it signifies the door is locked."
While security has been his main focus, Commissioner Molina believes it was equally important to bring back outside programs, like those found at the PEACE Center. PEACE stands for Program Education And Community Engagement.
Detainees who follow the rules are eligible for drivers’ ed, horticulture, digital literacy, and other programs that keep them motivated and get them job-ready certifications when they get out. The goal is for them to never come back.
"It’s a school, it just happens to be a school inside a jail we want to be able to normalize the delivery of education services to our students," Molina says.
Inside the women’s jail, there are GED classes, cosmetology classes, and even cooking and food preparation training. Commissioner Molina says most of the Rikers Island staff in and out of uniform come from the same communities as those who are incarcerated and sees that as an opportunity to change the Rikers experience — and the outcomes — for everyone. He’s well aware it won’t be easy.
"We still have a long way to go, but we’re trending in the right direction," Molina says.
With crime rising in the city and police making more arrests, the number of detainees who need to be housed will continue to grow, and so no doubt will the questions about the best way to handle it.