by Greg B. Smith and Reuven Blau, Published October 25, 2022
The city Department of Correction has pulled the plug on a $5 million contract with the nonprofit Exodus Transitional Community after four of the group’s employees were caught in various bad acts on Rikers Island, including smuggling drugs and burner phones into the troubled jail, THE CITY has learned.
Exodus specializes in assisting inmates and the formerly incarcerated, placing them in jobs and helping them rebuild their lives. During the pandemic, City Hall hired them to place hundreds of just-released inmates into hotels under a problem-plagued taxpayer-funded contract that is now the subject of a Department of Investigation probe.
While that contract was growing in scope from $835,000 to $91 million, Exodus won a separate $1.8 million three-year contract with the city correction department in April 2021 to work with inmates serving time or awaiting trial at Rikers to help reduce violence there. Since it started, that contract has since grown to $5.6 million, records show.
Under the contract’s terms, Exodus staff — 90% of whom are formerly incarcerated individuals — worked on-site at Rikers, with the goal of de-escalating tensions and preparing inmates for life after jail. The contract language states the “overarching goal is to help individuals cope with the stressors of incarceration, promote positive engagement while in custody and minimize the likelihood of further involvement with the justice system post-release.”
The staff was to provide inmates with a wide variety of services, including counseling, therapy, jobs training, substance abuse education and relationship and parenting support.
The contract was supposed to run through April 2024, but that changed after a recent series of incidents involving Exodus staff working at Rikers. Last week the DOC sent a letter to Exodus’ President Julio Medina notifying him that the nonprofit’s services would no longer be needed after Oct. 28.
Four incidents triggered the termination, according to two sources familiar with the events leading up to the contract’s cancellation, who spoke with THE CITY on the condition of anonymity.
In one case, an Exodus employee was able to smuggle fentanyl and burner phones into the facility and was caught giving fentanyl to an inmate. DOC found more fentanyl in his pockets and several fake IDs — including a fake chaplain’s license — inside his wallet, the sources said.
That Exodus worker was escorted out of Rikers and the situation is now under investigation by DOC.
A second Exodus worker was caught trying to sneak a pound of marijuana into Rikers. That individual was also escorted out of Rikers and resigned his position at Exodus.
A third Exodus worker was turned away after trying to bring in high-tech eyeglasses with a built-in camera. And a fourth worker was caught on security camera urinating in a hallway. Both were escorted out of Rikers. It’s not clear if they are still employed by Exodus.
When asked by THE CITY late Monday to comment on each incident, Exodus CEO Medina declined to discuss them specifically, but confirmed that DOC had terminated its contract with the group.
On Monday Joe Russo, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens / Deputy Wardens Association, confirmed that an Exodus staffer was recently caught on camera dropping some sort of illegal drug in a garbage can outside the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.
“That’s a tactic used in delivering drugs because people are less likely to search the garbage,” said Russo, praising the DOC for the scheduled contract cancellation with Exodus.
On Friday THE CITY sent a list of written questions about the cancellation of the Exodus contract to the Department of Correction, which a press spokesperson acknowledged receiving. On Monday the agency declined to answer any of the questions.
Exodus CEO Medina reaffirmed the company’s advocacy to close Rikers and shift to borough-based jails, and said the non-profit would continue its mission of “highlighting unacceptable conditions of confinement, demanding an overhaul of the toxic corrections culture, and reminding the public that when programs and visits were suspended, contraband thrived.”
“Despite the death toll on Rikers Island reaching a record breaking high since 2013, the NYC Department of Correction terminated a contract with Exodus Transitional Community to provide vital programming and services to individuals detained,” Medina replied via email. “Upon learning of alleged impropriety by an Exodus employee, Exodus took immediate action to investigate and appropriately respond. The safety and well-being of people in confinement, particularly on Rikers Island, is paramount to our mission.”
Carlina Rivera (D-Manhattan), chair of the City Council criminal justice committee, said the Council became aware recently during budget discussions that Exodus “had issues with their contract, that they were in violation of their contract, with the city but we did not receive details.” She said one of the issues was about Exodus’ employees “potentially bringing in substances” to Rikers.
Rivera is set to hold a hearing Tuesday addressing the issue of drugs at Rikers, a problem DOC has struggled to address for years.
Recent statistics indicate the influx of drugs into the facility skyrocketed since the pandemic hit in spring 2020.
As THE CITY reported in February, between April 2020 and May 2021, DOC seized banned drugs inside Rikers 2,600 times — more than double the number of such seizures during the same time period in 2018 and 2019.
Rivera noted there was only one reported overdose death inside Rikers between 2017 and 2020. From January 2021 through June there have been nine, with at least 431 overdoses or suspected overdoses reported by DOC.
“The fact remains that drugs were getting into the jails even when visitation was suspended during the pandemic,” she said. “So what is the screening process for staff? And what is the process for mail like?”
In March THE CITY revealed Exodus was relying on an unlicensed firm to provide security at the hotels where it was placing released inmates, including one in Fresh Meadows, Queens. Mayor Eric Adams ordered the city Department of Investigation to open a probe into how the firm landed this assignment.
At the hotel in Fresh Meadows, the local NYPD precinct commander discovered that 42 individuals arrested for a wide variety of crimes, including including robbery, burglary and grand larceny,, listed that hotel as their address last year, THE CITY reported in May. THE CITY also reported that a female resident of that hotel alleged that she’d been raped by an Exodus case worker there.
The group has since struggled financially. Presidential Security, a licensed firm hired by Exodus to replace the unlicensed firm, has not been paid since June, leaving dozens of security guards unpaid for putting in hundreds of hours of work. And last month, Exodus workers had to skip a paycheck for two weeks, according to several workers who spoke with THE CITY.
Russo, the head of the supervisor’s union, argues that the use of formerly incarcerated individuals to run programs because they can better relate to the detainees “is risky business” and “debatable whether it is worth the trouble. I say it is not.”
But Vincent Schiraldi, who served as Correction Commissioner during the last seven months of the de Blasio administration, said he liked working with Exodus.
In October 2021, the New York Post published photos of jam-packed intake cells inside the Otis C. Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island, Schiraldi recalled.
“We were trying to figure out what kind of combination of emergency things we could put in place,” Schiraldi said. Exodus CEO Medina offered to “swamp the place” with his staff to provide programs “so at least people would be productively occupied,” Schiraldi remembered.
DOC began to do that but, Schiraldi said, the union that represented counselors who work at the department threatened to sue, arguing that their jobs were being taken over by Exodus staff.
“So we pulled the plug on that,” Schiraldi said. “But I always found them to be pretty good.”