NYC Jails Commissioner Revoked Watchdog’s Camera Access for Making His Department Look Bad
Newly public documents show that Louis Molina made it harder for the Board of Correction to view video of jails because he thinks the oversight agency has an "agenda."
4:08 PM EST on February 23, 2023
Last month, the head of New York City jails sparked an outcry when he abruptly revoked a watchdog body's independent access to video from surveillance cameras and body-worn cameras from inside the jails.
"We are an agency deeply committed to transparency," Correction Department Commissioner Louis Molina said at the time, referring to the termination of the Board of Correction's access as a "change in protocol."
Molina did not offer an explanation for why BOC members, who are tasked by the City Charter with overseeing the jail system, would now have to physically view the footage from DOC facilities and take notes, rather than having independent access to video evidence. But documents obtained by Hell Gate, first reported by City & State, reveal that Molina revoked the oversight board's access because he felt it wasn't being nice enough to his agency, and was making it too easy for the public to see conditions inside the jails.
In correspondence obtained through a Freedom of Information request, Molina told the BOC that their staff "seem to have an agenda" and "a desire to portray DOC in a negative light." In cutting off the BOC's independent video access, Molina also accused the BOC of leaking information to a journalist—information that was readily available to anyone who asked for it at the time.
The Department of Correction cut off the BOC's access to footage on January 9. On January 11, Board of Correction Chair Dwayne Sampson wrote to Molina, saying that the restricted access to camera footage "is not a workable option," because BOC staff need the ability to "monitor, in real time, the Department's compliance with the Board's minimum standards." In any case, Sampson, wrote, "the Charter grants the Board unfettered access to the Department's records."
"I understand that the Department may have some concern regarding redacted footage that was produced in response to a request made pursuant to the state Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL")," Sampson wrote. "However, as of the date of this letter, the Board has not received any evidence from the Department that Board staff misused any systems or abused any processes."
Just what Sampson was referring to becomes more clear in another letter he wrote to Molina the next day, in which he noted that Allie Robertson, the Department of Correction's executive director of intergovernmental affairs and policy, had asked for a copy of of a November FOIL request for video footage made by NY1 investigative reporter Courtney Gross. That request led to NY1's publication of jail video of Erick Tavira's final months in custody before he died by suicide. (Hell Gate wrote about how Tavira found himself on Rikers in the first place.)
Sampson enclosed a copy of NY1's request, and explained that the BOC, as required by state law, "responds to all FOIL requests with an understanding that FOIL is based on a presumption of access and transparency. Any video footage in the Board’s possession is subject to production under FOIL, unless an exception applies."
Sampson also enclosed guidance from the New York Committee on Open Government (COOG), the authority on the state's Freedom of Information Law. In June of 2022, COOG had provided the BOC with guidance on how to handle public records requests for video from New York City's jails.
"Video footage from correctional facilities is generally available except to the extent it shows inmates undressed, engaged in acts of personal hygiene, being subjected to strip frisks, or in other comparably degrading or humiliating situations," a COOG staffer wrote.
The next day, Molina replied with a letter of his own, a litany of grievances outlining perceived mistreatment of the Department of Correction by the agency tasked with its oversight.
Molina began with NY1's public record request to the Board of Correction seeking security camera footage of Erick Tavira's cell in the half-hour period around his death, as well as guards' body-worn camera footage from the date of Tavira's transfer between jails a month earlier.
"The specificity of this request makes it obvious that someone told the reporter what to seek," Molina wrote.
The insinuation that BOC officials leaked details of the footage to reporters in order to encourage them to file public records requests for them is so easily disproved that it's difficult to credit that Molina believes it himself. All of the details in NY1's Freedom of Information requests are contained in a redacted version of Eric Tavira's death report submitted by BOC investigators last October. The Board of Correction conducts investigations into every death in DOC custody within five days of the death as a matter of course. Gross didn't need BOC staffers intent on besmirching the good name of the Department of Correction to know which video to ask for. She just had to ask for the death report—basic journalistic diligence.
"BOC's actions in this matter are deeply disturbing," Molina's letter continues. The video footage NY1 requested may have been in Board of Correction custody, but, he says, "the records that the reporter sought are DOC records." Gross "chose to go to BOC to obtain them. Undoubtedly she concluded that she would find a more receptive audience with BOC than with us."
Molina also griped that the BOC released the video related to Tavira's death even though multiple agencies—the Department of Investigation and the New York State attorney general's office, which can both bring criminal charges, as well as the Board of Correction itself and the State Commission of Correction—still have open investigations.
"As you know, FOIL exempts disclosure of materials that 'would interfere with law enforcement investigations,'" Molina wrote.
Molina's reading of New York's Freedom of Information Law (his letter is written on the letterhead of DOC General Counsel Paul Schectman) is not persuasive. The provision he cites says that agencies "may" deny access to records if their disclosure might compromise law enforcement investigations, not that they "must."
"The law says that an agency can withhold documents citing that exception—it doesn't say that they have to," Kristin O'Neill, assistant director of the New York Committee on Open Government, told Hell Gate.
Sarena Townsend, who until last year served as deputy commissioner for investigations, intelligence and trials for the DOC, said avoiding the release of evidence during ongoing investigations is considered a professional courtesy. "The concern, as an investigator or a prosecutor, is you don't want the people you're investigating to be able watch the video before they talk to you, and craft better, harder to discover lies," Townsend told Hell Gate.
The New York attorney general's office confirmed that it is conducting a "preliminary assessment" of Tavira's death, but noted that it does not and cannot prevent other agencies from releasing video footage or other information. The Department of Investigation declined to answer Hell Gate's questions.
Molina's letter then ticks through a list of additional petty resentments: In another public records disclosure, BOC redacted a sentence that praised staff at the Eric M. Taylor Center, a jail on Rikers, for "doing a great job with the limited resources given." In another instance, the Board of Corrections made a presentation to the Manhattan district attorney's office that included photographs showing the fetid, crowded conditions on Rikers Island. WNYC reporter Matt Katz made a public records request for the presentation and published the pictures.
"I have been informed that the presentation sought to inform Manhattan prosecutors that the conditions on Rikers were such that they should be reluctant to recommend an arrestee be detained here," Molina wrote. "I have read the city Charter, and nowhere do I find authority for BOC to do roadshows to present DOC in the worse [sic] possible light."
Molina further complains that last October, the Board of Correction issued a report on lockdowns, and only gave the Department of Correction less than two days of advanced notice that it was doing so, "hardly how a responsible oversight agency should act."
"All of these actions have a common theme," Molina's letter concludes. "BOC staff seem to have an agenda that gives me no confidence that unfettered access to video footage is warranted."
Molina wrote that he had consulted with the corporation counsel, the lawyer for the New York City government, before making the determination to restrict Board of Correction access to the videos.
Going forward, he concluded, Board of Correction investigators would be permitted to view footage on site at a DOC facility between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. They will not be able to view the videos outside the site, but they may "take notes on what they see."
Rachael Bedard, who with her husband made a donation to Hell Gate, was subsequently appointed to the Board of Correction, after the events described here. Read a statement on Hell Gate's independence policy here.
Nick Pinto served two tours as staff writer at the Village Voice. His reporting has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gothamist, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, The Intercept, and elsewhere.
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