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Locked Up

NYC Jails Watchdog Bucks Mayor Adams…For Now

The Board of Correction wouldn't sign off on an Adams administration plan to stop delivery of physical mail to incarcerated people.

Louis Molina addressing the Board of Correction. (Hell Gate)

The Adams administration wanted three things on Tuesday from the Board of Correction, the government body charged with oversight of New York City's jails. It wanted the body to agree to meet less frequently; it wanted permission to cut off all care packages to people in custody (except for those sent directly from approved vendors); and it wanted permission to prevent incarcerated people from receiving physical mail, instead contracting with a private jail communications company with a troubled privacy record to scan all mail and deliver it electronically via tablet. 

None of that happened. The three initiatives did not pass, and won't be implemented. On each agenda item, board chair and Adams appointee Dwayne Sampson called for a motion to bring the issue to a vote. Each time, Sampson was met with silence, as other board members declined to do so. 

It's not entirely clear whether the no-votes constituted a unanimous rejection of Adams's agenda, or reflected confusion among his appointees. Joseph Ramos, another Adams appointee, spoke passionately about the need to curtail access to physical mail, before failing to move to bring it to a vote. But even if the issues had come to a vote, they weren't likely to pass, given that the four other board members present, all of them appointed either by the City Council or by former mayor Bill de Blasio, were not beholden to Adams's desire to make things easier for the Department of Correction.

The Board of Correction is composed of three appointees named by City Council, three appointees from the mayor, and three more appointees by the mayor selected from among nominations by judicial officials. But with board members serving out staggered six-year terms, Adams hasn't yet had a chance to solidify his control of the entity, and on Wednesday, it bucked him.

This balance of power won't last long, however, given that new mayoral appointments are in the offing later this year. When Adams nominees dominate the board, this week's initiatives to scale back oversight meetings and restrict mail for people in custody may make a second appearance.

If they do, the arguments for shutting down mail access will likely sound a lot like those made by DOC Commission Louis Molina on Tuesday. Molina wants to end physical mail delivery, he told the board, because it is a significant source of fentanyl entering City jails. He flashed a DOC slide presentation of what he said were official reports from the past week of fentanyl-soaked paper discovered in mail rooms. (Hell Gate requested a copy of Molina's presentation, and did not receive a response. Hell Gate also has an outstanding records request under New York's Freedom of Information Law for any records indicating that fentanyl is coming into City jails through the mail, but the Department of Correction has missed a deadline it set to inform us whether it will grant or deny the request.) 

But jail observers, including some of Molina's own staff, are skeptical that fentanyl-soaked correspondence is a major source of drugs on Rikers. "They usually use officers and civilian staff," a DOC investigator testified in federal court last year. The NYC Department of Investigation shares that assessment. "The mail and visits are not significant entry points for contraband,” DOI spokesperson Dianne Struzzi told the Daily News. After investigators succeeded in smuggling contraband into jails in the pockets of cargo pants, DOC barred cargo pants for staff eight years ago. One of Molina's first moves as commissioner was to ask to reverse the ban.

At Tuesday's hearing, Molina insisted that guards aren't the main problem, noting that few of them are actually arrested for smuggling drugs. "From 2017 to the president, only about 25 staff members have been arrested for bringing in contraband narcotics," he said, whereas "in 2022, we had over 500 instances in which some indication that the mail was impacted with narcotics."

As it stands, guards on Rikers aren't regularly screened for contraband on their way into the jails. This week, a pilot program was launched to check guards at one facility on the island. But even there, it isn't clear how many guards are being searched. "Are you scanning everybody?" BOC member Robert Cohen asked Molina. "We have a randomizer, similar to the airport, that selects someone to be body-scanned," Molina answered. Cohen then asked what share of the guards get selected for a scan. "I will not disclose that," Molina answered.

The Adams administration didn't get what it wanted from the Board of Correction hearing Tuesday, but its efforts to dial back the efforts of the jail watchdog and be less protective of the rights of incarcerated people likely presage the direction the BOC will take as the mayor consolidates his control over it. 

That concerns Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who spoke during Tuesday's meeting. "The Board of Correction seems to be moving away from a model of transparency, towards secrecy," Williams said, noting that that move comes even as the Department of Correction has revoked the Board's independent access to camera footage from City jails, hindering its investigatory mandate. "The board should be applying more pressure, not less."

Rachael Bedard, who with her husband made a donation to Hell Gate, was subsequently appointed to the Board of Correction. Read a statement on Hell Gate's independence policy here.

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