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Locked Up

Summoned to Testify Before Watchdog, NYC Jails Chief Just Doesn’t Show Up

Is it still an oversight hearing if the agency being overseen just ditches it?

DOC Commissioner Louis Molina testifying at a City Council hearing last fall.

DOC Commissioner Louis Molina testifying at a City Council hearing in October (Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit)

At the same time that the Eric Adams administration is fighting in federal court to convince a judge that it actually is capable of running New York City's jails in a way that is organized, constitutional, and meets basic minimum standards for jail conditions, its top jail officials decided not to even show up to a hearing of the City's own oversight board. 

Tuesday's Board of Correction hearing had been scheduled for months, and an agenda published October 6 anticipated Department of Correction staff testifying about a number of pressing issues: the availability of educational and other programming in Rikers facilities since the department shut out most outside service providers, pledging to manage programming with its own staff; the ongoing use of "restraint desks" to which incarcerated people are shackled, and what the Department is doing about the fact that people shackled to these desks have been the helpless subjects of brutal attacks; and the department's ongoing reliance of a "state of emergency" declared two years ago that permits it to violate many of the basic minimum standards for conditions for people in custody.

"I recently was contacted that the Department of Corrections will not be able to be here today, because they're preparing for a City Council hearing," BOC Chair Dwayne Sampson said at the beginning of the hearing. 

Time was evidently not so pressing last month, when Correction Commissioner Louis Molina and his staff took a taxpayer-funded jaunt through England and France, visiting tourist sites such as the Tower of London.

The news of DOC's no-show clearly took some board members aback. "The last time the department didn't come to a meeting, it was to demonstrate something," board member Bobby Cohen replied. "I'm not sure what they're trying to demonstrate today."

DOC did not further explain its absence from the meeting, referring Hell Gate to Sampson's statement.

Commissioner Molina and his team may not have shown up to give answers, but that didn't stop others from testifying to the issues they had been scheduled to address.

Natalie Fiorenzo, a correction specialist at New York County Defender Services, described a client who has been locked up on Rikers since October 8, during which time he has had access to a shower once, and to a telephone or tablet not at all. He's had no access to recreation, Fiorenzo said, no access to a law library. He doesn't have a toothbrush. He doesn't have toilet paper. As the weather chills, he has one sheet and one blanket, but they're not clean because there has been no laundry services in two months. 

These conditions clearly violate the minimum standards established by the Board, Fiorenzo said, but those standards were suspended by an emergency order in 2021 when a mass sick-out by Rikers guards created a crisis in City jails. While the Adams administration touts numbers showing more guards are actually showing up to work now, the emergency order remains, and, Fiorenzo said, the Department of Correction continues to use it in "shedding its legal obligations to ensure minimally humane conditions."

"We had this on our agenda today," Cohen said, "but the department didn't feel it was important enough to come." 

Tahanee Dunn, director of the Prisoners' Rights Project of the Bronx Defenders, told board members that she has been talking with young men held in restrictive housing on Rikers who don't have access to showers, schooling, even their own court dates, because of shortages in guard staffing. "Countless clients have been without tablets for months, despite repeated requests made by them. Without a tablet they cannot apprise their legal team of these egregious violations. They cannot exercise their right to file 311 complaints. They're effectively silenced allowing DOC to continue to evade accountability with impunity."

Cohen again bemoaned the fact that no one from the Department of Correction was in the room to hear Dunn's litany of abuses. "I just think that we should subpoena the commissioner and other senior people if they say they're not coming to a meeting," Cohen said. "We have to get answers to your questions." Other board members were silent.

As the board meeting dragged on, a new court order hit the public docket in the case in which a federal judge is considering whether to take over the City's jails. The Adams administration had fought to avoid turning over evidence that lawyers for people held at Rikers said they needed to make their case that jail officials are incapable of reforming the jails to meet a minimum constitutional standard. Lawyers for people in custody had asked for records of guard's use of force, deaths in custody, and other serious incidents. The City's lawyers had resisted, claiming a "law enforcement privilege" allowed them to keep these secret because the incidents were the subject of ongoing investigations. 

That doesn't wash, Judge Laura Taylor Swain ruled in Tuesday's order. Public officials can't just keep investigations indefinitely in order to avoid turning over records. She gave the Adams administration until October 25 to turn over the contested documents. DOC officials will testify before the City Council hearing on Wednesday.

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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