Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, the former Las Vegas public safety chief who for nearly the last two years has been given the unenviable task of righting the tilting ship of the Rikers Island jail complex (and who failed so absolutely that Judge Laura Taylor Swain has allowed the plaintiffs to motion for the whole system to be put under federal control), is leaving his post at the middle of this month.
He is not stepping away, tail between his legs, though; Mayor Eric Adams is promoting Molina to the job of assistant deputy mayor for public safety, where he’ll have an expanded portfolio that will still include general policy direction over Rikers as well as public safety more generally. No announcements have been made, but the default replacements would be either First Deputy Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie or Senior Deputy Commissioner Charles Daniels. Removing Molina comes at a key moment when his working relationship with both court-appointed Federal Monitor Steve Martin and with Swain seems to have cratered to the point that it could influence the decision whether to take Rikers over.
The mayor, meanwhile, has been effusive in his praise for Molina, gushing in a statement that he was able to “reverse decades of mismanagement and neglect [and] brought this organization back from the brink of collapse.” That’s a different perspective than that of the monitor, whose team blasted the DOC leadership in the latest status report by writing that it “continues to offer narrowly tuned rhetoric about the context of the problems in the jails (e.g., prior administrations’ failures, Covid, all jail systems are currently struggling) without taking ownership of the problems and the way in which current decisions, actions and inactions perpetuate and, in some areas, worsen the problems.”
So what’s actually going on at Rikers? As with many issues of public policy, the only way to accurately gauge them is at a comparative scale. So, two things can be true at once: the levels of recorded violence are lower than they were at the height of the crisis a couple of years ago, meaning that the Adams administration has been able to bring some concerning indicators down, and the levels are far higher than they were when the settlement was first reached eight years ago, at which point the situation on the ground was already so bad that it was found to be a violation of the Constitution.
It’s a little bit like an airline singing its praises for having only four plane crashes per year as opposed to the six it was averaging two years ago. Sure that’s… better, technically, but it’s not exactly the marker of a job well done. In fact, it’s the marker of a horrifically unsustainable calamity. Through it all, Martin has been emphasizing that the city’s metrics are generally well outside the norm. In what has become something of a refrain, the monitoring team’s nearly 300-page mid-July status report on the city’s progress noted that the “current state of affairs and rates of use of force, stabbings and slashings, fights, assaults on staff, and in-custody deaths remain extraordinarily high—they are not typical, they are not expected, they are not normal,” (emphasis theirs).
That’s the kind of language that you might expect to see coming out of an advocacy brief, but Martin and the rest of the monitoring team are subject-matter experts and consultants who aren’t a party on either side of the case. This kind of raw horror and astonishment are their genuine reactions as people who’ve closely observed correctional systems around the country for decades, as if Michael Jordan himself was horrified at your dribbling. The report itself goes into great detail about not just the statistics but the reasons why the statistics are both probably undercounts and how the department has consistently failed to remedy them.
For example, the report states that the “average monthly use of force rate from the most recent five-month period… is 25% lower than the average monthly rate at the apex of the crisis (2021)… but is 131% higher than the average monthly use of force rate at the inception of the Consent Judgment (2016),” which, remember, is when the conditions were declared unconstitutional, and when the DOC had many more people in custody to look after. It then delineates how a lack of enforceable policies, staff repercussions for misconduct, and general dearth of long-term planning or supervision has led to these issues, and how the department has basically waved away or even resisted the reforms that the monitoring team has put forward. Ditto for everything from in-custody deaths to detainee health treatments.
It’s not just that things are going in the wrong direction, but for the past several months, the DOC leadership seems uninterested in receiving counsel or oversight at all. Coordination between the department and the monitor broke down so much that Judge Swain had to issue a standalone order in June simply reminding the department that it had an obligation to notify the monitor about things like deaths in custody and was expected to provide the information the monitoring team had requested. This came after Martin noted several instances when the DOC simply didn’t provide required notifications or appropriate information around serious incidents. That’s without even getting into the department’s stonewalling of the separate Board of Correction oversight body, which could be an article in itself.
I suppose it’s easier to shut out your overseers than it is to make the complicated fixes needed. I want to emphasize here that no one can or would dispute that the problem of Rikers isn’t an easy one to fix. Beyond the fact that the actual infrastructure is crumbling, it features a pretty rigid and accountability-averse internal culture, and criminal defendants aren’t the world’s most manageable population. I also know from firsthand experience how difficult it can be to even get people to care about detainees, who some percentage of the public views as essentially undesirable and disposable. Yet we really can’t or at least shouldn’t ignore just how bad things are on that island just offshore, right here in the five boroughs.
What happened here isn’t that Molina strived valiantly against an obstinate system and just couldn’t quite get there. After winning some initial plaudits from the judge and the monitor, it’s clear that he understood his mission as primarily to protect the city and the Adams administration, and remain chummy with the politically well-connected and powerful correction union. For that understanding, he’s been rewarded. That doesn’t bode well for the future of the project to protect life and safety at the complex.