Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina on Rikers: "We're making sure that there's accountability"

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina on Rikers: “We’re making sure that there’s accountability”

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NEW YORK – Violence, detainee deaths and widespread staff absences have plagued Rikers Island for months. 

But now, a new commissioner is tasked with doing what no one before him has accomplished: Fixing the troubled jail complex. 

CBS2’s Aundrea Cline-Thomas had an extensive sit down with Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina. 

Molina has been on the job just over three months, inheriting a crisis on Rikers Island which he has described as a systemic failure. 

“It was it was glaringly obvious to me. Something as simple as search operations were not being conducted by the prior administration. And we’ve ramped that up to address issues like contraband weapons that are in the facility,” Molina said. 

Now they’re confiscating weapons contributing to the high rate of stabbings and slashings among detainees. 

Violence, he says, is a learned behavior. 

“I want to talk about detainees calling me. I get calls sometimes. And they’re, you know, they’re saying, I’m afraid for my life,” Cline-Thomas said. 

“We’re making sure that there’s accountability. There was really not any accountability to deal with deficiencies,” Molina said. 

“Mayor Adams, when you were announced, was talking about accountability should also include punitive segregation. And so what are your thoughts about that? That solitary confinement?” Cline-Thomas asked. 

“I’m not a supporter of solitary confinement, and the department really has not had solitary confinement in its traditional sense. But any jail or prison needs restrictive housing, to address individuals who commit violent acts,” Molina said. 

“What does that look like?” Cline-Thomas asked. 

“Removing that individual from what was known as general population, bringing them to restrict or restrictive housing, where they have limitations on other privileges that might be available in general population, but that they’re getting the treatment interventions that they need to sort of unlearn their behavior,” Molina said. 

“How do you address criticism that saying, what it’s really going to be, a solitary confinement with a different name,” Cline-Thomas asked. 

“So it’s not that,” Molina said. 

The death of three detainees this year alone are under investigation. 

A major barrier in addressing the chaos – 30% of the staff is still not at work or can’t work with detainees, according to the federal monitor tracking jail operations. 

“The people who did come to work because of the widespread absenteeism, it made their job 10 times harder and more dangerous. So how do you address people not being able to work with the incarcerated population? Or on extended sick leave when there’s a crisis underway?” Cline-Thomas asked. 

“Since I’ve been there, we’ve had over 1,300 officers come back, right. Part of that was engagement,” Molina said. “You have to show your employees that you care about their well being for them to be vested in the mission of the organization. So I did a lot of those things. I listened to staff.” 

“Do you think that there have been abuses to the sick leave policy that have led to this widespread absenteeism?” Cline-Thomas asked.

“People have to remember we were in a huge pandemic, and we had an Omicron surge,” Molina said. “It’s a very physical, demanding job. So the percentage of our workforce that is out because of injuries sustained while they were working. So I think all of that in totality has to be taken into consideration.” 

Support from the top correction officers have been longing for. 

Still, Molina says accountability includes him already addressing more than 600 staff disciplinary investigations, with consequences including termination and the loss of vacation days. 

“What should what should staff expect when they come to work? And what should the incarcerated population expect?” Cline-Thomas asked. 

“Both should expect to be supported. Right. I think our staff needs to be supported to do their job. I think that those that are incarcerated need to be supported and getting services to address a lot of their issues, but also, we should not be a barrier to access to justice,” Molina said. 

“Why would you ever want to come and take on this problem?” Cline-Thomas asked. 

“I have family members that were just as involved, spent years on Rikers and spent years upstate and state prisons. I’ve also had loved ones and family members that have been the victims of very violent crimes. So I’ve see both sides of it. I’m also a big believer in diversity and equity in positions, especially in law enforcement, of people that look like you and I. And as a person of color that grew up in the Bronx, when Mayor Adams saw that I had the capability to be able to take on this role. I had an obligation as a member of our community to say, you know what I’m stepping in,” Molina said.

Stepping in as the first Latino commissioner of the Department of Correction, a job historically with little track record of success. 

Molina says assaults on the staff are trending down. 

He wants to focus on providing training to staff and bringing rehabilitative services to detainees, but acknowledges there’s a long way to go.

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