When Molina took over the reins of the department, Rikers Island was in a serious state of disrepair after years of failed maintenance by the previous administration, in part due to the imminent closure of the penal island. The problems plagued staff and inmates alike, the commissioner said, with all signs pointing to the prison itself having to be re-examined.
“We replaced just over 700 cell doors. This is a way to ensure that not only the detainees are safe, but the staff as well,” Molina told amNewYork Metro. “We ended gang housing – we used to have a gang housing strategy, which never worked in any jurisdiction. We had a situation where not only were our employees at a disadvantage when trying to manage a housing unit with the same gang affiliation, but when one person in that group decided to have a different opinion than the other 19, it puts that person in a dangerous situation. So we finished the gang housing.”
Even with improvements in quality of life, the DOC faced one of its deadliest years in 2022, when 19 people died in the department’s custody. This sparked public outrage in the form of rallies and protests in the five boroughs and outside City Hall.
It was widely reported that a contributing factor to these deaths was prisoners failing to show up for scheduled medical appointments – an issue amNewYork Metro pressed the commissioner on.
“From my perspective, we’ve made significant improvements in this area,” argued Molina. “It is important to note that in fiscal 2022 – if my memory serves me right – there were over 500,000 medical appointments booked, and this ranges from an ophthalmologist and dental appointment to some other type of physical medical appointment.
“What we found was that the majority were refusing, and they are refusing for a variety of reasons,” the commissioner continued. “They may be refusing because the experience of waiting for medical services is unpleasant. They can refuse because it conflicts with the court date. They may decline because their loved one is visiting that day. They might decline because they’re doing vocational training and they value that more than, you know, having an eye exam for whatever reason to get glasses.
Looking to the future, Molina said the department is striving to find a middle ground whereby detainees meet all of their scheduled appointments — not just medical ones, but also court hearings and the like. The head of the DOC underlined that, although there have already been improvements in the area, the department is also looking to become more efficient “using technology” to guarantee the management of services and appointments.
But missed doctor appointments aren’t the only concern when it comes to life hazards, he said.
Prison smuggling, such as illegal weapons and substances, has also contributed to serious injuries and even death in some cases – something Molina says he has cracked down on and believes saves lives.
“We have re-instituted tactical search operations. In 2021, in the previous management, they had only one [search] that year,” explained Molina. “By 2022, we had over 80. So with increased tactical search operations and facility-level search operations, we removed over 5,000 smuggled weapons from the facility and over 1,300 smuggled narcotics, narcotics paraphernalia.”
The DOC has also ramped up its drug interdiction strategy when it comes to mail — a move that has sparked controversy among advocacy groups and elected officials.
“We want to move to mail scanning, but until that happens, we’ve increased the ban on smuggled narcotics coming through the mail,” Molina said. “We saw in 2022 a 26% increase in us interdicting drugs that come in the mail. And that’s about 500 different items that we crossed out of those 500 or so items. About 133 of those items were fentanyl. So, in the fentanyl ban, this increase was like 291% in relation to the ban that happened in 2021.”
According to DOC statistics, more than 3,500 uniformed personnel have been trained and certified in how to use and deploy the life-saving drug Narcan to help those who suffer overdoses. Stopping the flow of smuggling also means using dogs to screen visitors, a controversial practice for some, but Molina sees it as a key step in saving lives.
“In 2021, we had over 100,000 overdose deaths in America. Two-thirds of the deaths were fentanyl-related. And, you know, jails and prisons in the United States are a reflection of the same kind of challenge,” he said. “I understand the desperation of those who are going through detox, see their loved one suffering, want to do something to alleviate that suffering, and from time to time, we have loved ones who bring drugs and we also increase the ban. this happens with the visits too. So, you know, we’ve done a lot to address this issue.”
The Commissioner also mentioned a new facility for young adults called The Peace Center, where detainees can experience driving simulators, digital literacy, fitness and exercise equipment, and gaming systems, among other amenities. Still, with all these improvements, Molina candidly stated that he is not declaring, nor is he claiming, that his work is done. He, however, feels that things are moving in the right direction.
“I’m certainly not doing any victory laps. You have a long way to go,” he said. “We are dealing with systemic challenges that exist and have been ignored for a decade. And listen, I get it, these are complex problems and they’re hard to solve, but they’re worth solving because the people who are affected by them – both our employees and the people in custody – deserve a commissioner and a mayor who are dedicated to solving this problem. problem . And we are not going to transfer this problem to someone else.”
At the end of the day, Molina’s priority is solving problems.
“My goal as a commissioner, at the end of what will be just one of the greatest honors of my professional career, is that whoever comes after me is solving a different set of problems than the problems I am solving. today, ”he said. “If they are solving the same set of problems, then we have failed.”