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Locked Up

Sure Seems like the Department of Correction Stole the Comptroller’s Project and Passed It Off As Their Own

Transparency Is important.

2:06 PM EDT on August 25, 2022

Mayor Eric Adams on a tour of Rikers Island with Department of Corrections Commissioner Louis Molina in July, 2022. (City Hall)

For those following the brutal and tragic saga of Rikers Island in its (possibly) final years of operation, the numbers have been staggering. 

Twelve people incarcerated in the island’s jails have died this year so far, following sixteen deaths last year. There are over 10,000 missed medical appointments each month. Twenty-six percent  of staff were on sick leave this past January. It’s a lot to wrap your head around—especially when those numbers are scattered among various sources, either buried deep within the City’s Open Data portal or only revealed to the public during periodic reports from a federal monitor put in place through the City’s consent decree with the federal government over conditions on the island jail. 

When Comptroller Brad Lander came into office in January, his office decided it was best to get all those numbers out in the open, and centralized in one location—data regarding the jail population, the number of guards who were out sick, the use of force on detainees, and assaults on staff members. 

Beginning in January, Lander’s office met regularly with Department of Correction officials, in order to hash out how best to collect the data, which sources were most accurate, and the best way to present the information. The two even signed an agreement in April, with the first tranche of data coming late that month. The comptroller’s office was clear that ultimately the data would be presented as part of a “dashboard,” with the goal of making it easier for New Yorkers to keep track of what was happening on Rikers. 

What an unexpectedly collegial relationship between the DOC and the comptroller, right? Well, read on…On August 5, according to the comptroller’s office, the comptroller sent a mock-up of their dashboard to the Department of Corrections for a final round of feedback, per the agreement they had reached. The DOC shared some notes, and the comptroller’s office set about getting ready for the public release of their dashboard. 

Except—earlier this week, before the comptroller’s office could release their dashboard, the DOC went ahead and released their own data portal, which appeared suspiciously suspiciously like the one the comptroller’s office had sent over earlier this month, except…worse.

The comptroller’s data 
The DOC Data

While pulling from the exact same data sets (and using a suspiciously identical color-coding system), the DOC’s dashboard emphasizes different data points—like top charges for people in detention, instead of, say, the total headcount of DOC staffers. 

In a press release from Monday, the DOC made no mention that they had worked with the comptroller’s office at all.

“This is a major step forward in our goal of transparency in our operations as we continue to modernize our jails,” DOC Commissioner Louis A. Molina said in the press release. 

On Thursday, when the comptroller’s office released their own dashboard, their press release included a salty aside, referring to the stolen homework. 

“The comptroller’s office shared a mockup of its new dashboard with DOC for feedback on August 5 pursuant to an information sharing agreement, in anticipation of public release. DOC then announced its own dashboard on August 22, so the new data will now be available to the public on both the Comptroller and DOC websites (and downloadable from the Comptroller’s site),” the release said. 

Staffers at the comptroller’s office told Hell Gate that they’re just glad the statistics are out there, and that coordination and data-sharing between their office and the DOC continues. 

Why would DOC, knowing the comptroller’s office was already building a transparency tool, go to the trouble of ripping it off and making a less-informative version? Maybe the Department is eager to appear to be making strides towards transparency, and saw an opportunity to claim credit for someone else’s work on that score. Maybe the idea of a transparency tool not under DOC control feels like a threat to the Department’s ability to control the message it wants to send, and having two competing tools serves to muddy the water. Maybe, with its own tool up and running, DOC will be better positioned to eventually stop reporting its data to the comptroller and can regain control of what people know about what’s happening in city jails. Or maybe there’s an entirely un-nefarious explanation. We asked DOC why they did it, but they didn’t answer.

Whatever their reasons for this dashboard-lifting, we’re sure the DOC has been hard at work

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