NEW YORK - Louis Molina assumed the role of Correction Commissioner at Rikers Island during one of its darkest periods.
With staffing down, violence up, and a federal monitor watching from the sidelines, Molina was nevertheless determined to turn it all around.
Now, almost two years into his tenure, as he prepares to move on to City Hall, he spoke with FOX 5 NY about his vision for the future.
From the outside, the RNDC jail at Rikers Island looks very similar to what FOX 5 NY saw in March 2022, shortly after Louis Molina took over as Commissioner.
Some of the jail's cell doors did not lock, along with a lack of weapon searches for many months.
"In this facility alone, which you visited last time, we've replaced about 900 cell doors with operating locks. We have started our tactical search operations and over the course of 22 months we recovered over 5,000 contraband weapons from the city's jail system so that has helped to reduce violence, " said Molina.
On October 31, Mayor Eric Adams announced Commissioner Molina would be stepping down after 22 months and promoted to Assistant Deputy Mayor for Public Safety.
The move comes at a critical time as Rikers Island has been under a federal monitor since 2015.
In recent months, the monitor, Steve J Martin, has intensified his criticism of the Department of Correction and Molina himself - even accusing the Commissioner of failing to accurately report acts of violence and failing to implement certain reforms.
"The federal monitor has a job to do. His job is not to turn around RIkers Island, that's the responsibility of me as Commissioner, whoever succeeds me as Commissioner, and the city of New York," Molina said. "I don't view the monitor as political pressure. He has a job to do, and I respect the job that he was appointed to do by the court and I respect the courts as well. I get it."
While Molina admits that more needs to be done to improve safety, but says his critic simply don't understand what the Adams administration inherited.
"We still have a long way to go. You cannot discount the level of failure that was allowed to happen here between 2016 and 2021 when many people stood on as bystanders while this place was imploding every year just for the sake of advancing sloganism and the symbol of closing RIkers Island," Molina said.
According to Molina, incidents of violence among inmates and use of force by corrections officers are all trending down.
"We had an over 20% decline in slashings and stabbings, and calendar year to date those declines are still occurring over 20%," Molina said. "In 2022 we had a 14% decrease in use of force incidents and we're continuing that decreasing trend which is about 4% calendar year to date."
The outgoing commissioner says these improvements have come at a time when the new detainees arriving have a greater potential for violence.
"What we have seen is that there's a higher concentration of individuals coming into our custody that are being charged with very, very violent crimes, so when we look at 2016 the number was about 12 -13 % of the population, today it's about 30%," Molina said.
Molina says about 50% of new detainees are suffering from mental health illnesses, often accompanied by substance abuse disorders. He says there's been a reduction in the number of deaths in custody as they've tried to provide more programs despite limited resources. But critics may not agree.
"I share their concerns. One death in custody is one death too many, but I think about where we are to where we were. We've had about 8 in custody deaths this year. But what we have is the lowest per capita in custody death rate of any other large jail in America," Molina said. "We're talking about turning around a decade of mismanagement and failed leadership and what we've shown over the last 22 months, from any objective point of view, is that we have significantly stabilized this city's jail system which enhances public safety throughout all the communities of New York CIty."
Molina says in his new role he will be able to implement longer-term improvements on Rikers Island along with citywide duties.
See more of Lisa Evers' exclusive interview with Molina on the FOX 5 News and on a special episode of Street Soldiers next week.