Mayor Adams & DOC Commissioner Molina on Rikers Island (photo: Benny Polatseck/Mayor's Office)
On Thursday, Speaker Adrienne Adams will chair a City Council hearing where leadership of the city’s Department of Correction (DOC) will share budget priorities. What may be perceived as a routine hearing impacts the future of thousands of New Yorkers currently suffering on Rikers Island and others who will be sent there.
DOC holds the lives of over 6,000 New Yorkers in its hands, and yet it has shown a brazen disregard for their well-being as well as the City Council’s oversight. If left unchecked, DOC’s actions will lead to more suffering and death. Lawmakers must make sure this year’s city budget brings us closer to, not further from, closing Rikers.
Since Commissioner Louis Molina started, DOC has gleefully and flagrantly ignored any oversight of its authority on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.
In January, the Board of Correction (BOC), which oversees DOC’s compliance with city policy, announced that DOC had revoked the Board’s right to independently view video surveillance of city jails in real time. BOC must now submit a request, subject to DOC’s approval. This blatantly undermines the Board’s oversight as authorized by the City Charter, while further obscuring the suffering of people in DOC custody.
Later that same month at a City Council hearing, Commissioner Molina refused to acknowledge the agency’s failure to protect the safety and lives of trans and gender expansive people in its custody, despite extensive and damning documentation by a Council Task Force and the media. Under questioning, Commissioner Molina not only revealed a stunning ignorance of how his agency operates, but embodied its indifference by refusing to stay and listen to the testimony of trans and gender expansive people who suffered unspeakable harm in DOC custody.
In that same vein, at another City Council hearing in February, Immigration Committee Chair Shahana Hanif confronted DOC with email evidence that the agency was transferring New Yorkers from Rikers Island into ICE custody without a judicial warrant, violating city laws barring such cooperation. The emails also revealed a pervasive anti-immigrant culture deep within DOC, with officers like Rikers Island Captain Deshan Rainey signing off emails to ICE with the hashtag“#teamsendthemback,” referring to ICE cooperation and deportation.
When confronted with questions about how New Yorkers could trust DOC to protect immigrant New Yorkers, DOC’s General Counsel Paul Shecthman sneered at the Council, insisting that a policy memo in 2019 had meaningfully changed DOC culture. The response was shocking, especially when advocates testified about ongoing violations as recently as 2022. It was also insulting, as if an internal memo restating the law would suddenly make Captain Rainey, who still supervises DOC staff on Rikers Island, reconsider how she communicates with ICE or treats people in her care.
Sensing Mayor Adams’ tacit approval of DOC’s actions, people who are formerly incarcerated and their family members have been steadfastly attending every BOC meeting to stop DOC’s attempts to thwart accountability, while keeping a public spotlight on the daily harm that goes unnoticed. Thanks to their persistence, BOC just rejected DOC’s plan to ban physical mail and packages at Rikers Island. But it shouldn’t fall to everyday New Yorkers to hold DOC accountable.
City lawmakers must stand up to DOC and show that it cannot continue to act with impunity. In her State of the City address, Speaker Adams affirmed that Rikers Island must close by 2027, as is the law. Mayor Adams’ and Commissioner Molina’s public doubts about meeting this legally-mandated obligation is simply one more tactic of evasion, and the City Council must not fall for it.
Instead, the Council should use every budgetary and legislative tool at its disposal to close Rikers Island – now. This includes pending legislation to further decarcerate city jails and prevent New Yorkers from entering the system in the first place.
Majority Leader Keith Powers’ and Council Member Hanif’s detainer law package would, among other things, create a private right of action to hold DOC accountable if a New Yorker thinks they were detained and transferred to ICE unlawfully. While the Public Advocate has a bill with majority Council support to finally and completely end the practice of solitary confinement. Passing both bills, while publicly supporting state legislation like the New York For All Act, would send a clear message that deliberately flouting state and city law will not be tolerated and there is a better vision for safety and justice.
The Council must also hold Mayor Adams to his promise of investing in resources that actually strengthen communities. Foremost is bolstering the reentry hotel program established at the start of the pandemic, which was incredibly successful in getting New Yorkers out of jail and into housing with medical and mental health care. At a time when the mayor says he is looking for solutions, expanding this type of rapid reentry housing, in addition to transitional housing slated for the summer, will quickly decarcerate Rikers and give New Yorkers a proven and dignified path to recovery.
These measures, while necessary, are the bare minimum. The only way to ensure there is not one more death, one more deportation, or one more violation of people’s rights inside Rikers is for Rikers to cease to exist. The City Council must hold fast to this north star, and do everything in the meantime to protect those who must endure DOC’s cruelty.
Rosa Cohen-Cruz is Immigration Policy Director at The Bronx Defenders. Julia Solomons is Senior Policy Social Worker at The Bronx Defenders. On Twitter @BronxDefenders.