By Graham Rayman, January 30, 2023

Rikers Island does not just hold detainees — it also holds many secrets about its operations, critics of its administration claim.

Correction Department officials recently cut the Board of Correction’s access to internal security video, sparking a new skirmish over transparency.

The Board of Correction (BOC) — an oversight body that issued several hard-hitting reports in 2022 on deaths in New York City jails — issued a statement decrying the Jan. 18 move to restrict access to the jails’ surveillance video system, employees’ body cam video and handheld camera video.

Security video has been a central tool for Board of Correction investigations that have found that staff and management breakdowns contributed to the 35 deaths in custody in 2021 and 2022. The 19 deaths in 2022 took place at a higher per capita rate than in any year in memory.

Despite the board’s complaint, the restrictions — which came with little explanation — remain in place.

The Correction Department’s move was just the latest by Mayor Adams’ administration to restrict information on the city’s beleaguered jail system.

Moreover, city officials have shrugged off a demand for data from Congress, resisted providing certain data to the City Council and convinced a federal judge to keep secret a key report from the federal monitor due in February, critics charge.

“I think it’s an effort to control the narrative. They are closing ranks and being less transparent than in the past,” said Darren Mack of advocacy group Freedom Agenda, who is unaffiliated with the board.

“It’s like Giuliani 2.0. We seem to be going into an era of a lack of transparency and accountability. It seems like they are digging their heels in.”

During a Wednesday City Council hearing, Councilwoman Carlina Rivera asked Correction Commissioner Louis Molina why video access was cut off.

“The board’s investigations don’t focus on criminal wrongdoing,” Rivera told Molina. “Instead they seek what lessons can be learned.”

She asked the commissioner: “Do you not agree that the oversight and reports produced by BOC can be helpful to identify areas where the department’s procedures can be improved?”

Molina began his answer by attacking the board, saying he was “highly aggravated and disturbed that the BOC didn’t once for two years visit Rikers Island … while uniformed and nonuniformed staff came in every day during a global pandemic to manage a vulnerable population.”

In fact, board staffers were routinely in the jails during the pandemic, according to a statement posted publicly to LinkedIn Thursday by BOC Executive Director Amanda Masters.

“At great personal risk, many of them remained inside the jails even while COVID levels peaked, even when they could have worked from a safer location,” Masters wrote in the LinkedIn post. “They did that because they care passionately about our mission.”

In addition, the Correction Department struggled to fill jail posts because of massive numbers of officers calling out sick for legitimate and illegitimate reasons.

Molina insisted he stripped BOC of remote video access to “align our rules” involving the board with the City Charter.

“They have access to view these videos at our headquarters facilities,” he said. “We have set up stations so they can view in private during business hours.”

But the Charter says Board of Correction staff have the unrestricted right of access to all “books, records, documents and paper” of the Correction Department and can compel production of records, the board’s Jan. 18 statement said.

“Independent access to security video without someone from DOC looking over your shoulder is hugely critical to the board’s operations,” a former BOC staffer said Thursday. “The board is the public’s representative and I would think the average New Yorker would be concerned about this.”

Rivera and Molina butted heads again later in the hearing over another cause of tension — a feeling in the council that DOC has resisted complying with data requests, particularly about contraband smuggling.

“We are still waiting on data from previous hearings and I want to ensure that transparency and the partnership continues going forward,” Rivera said.

Molina bristled at this. “For the record, Madam Chair, we provided you with all of the data requests to your office and your team,” he said. “I don’t know if your team maybe hasn’t provided it to you.”

The News has previously reported that the council has struggled for months to get the Department of Correction to turn over certain information.

Neither has the city responded to a Dec. 22 request from Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-Queens, Bronx) and two other members of a congressional oversight committee for information about the jails.

“Time and again, members of the Rikers Island Interagency Task Force, including (the Correction Department) have failed to deliver on promises of transparency,” Democratic members of the committee said on Twitter last week.

Additionally, the city and the federal monitor overseeing Rikers convinced U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain Nov. 17 to keep secret a statistical report due in February, suggesting the public may “misinterpret” the data.

The administration recently appointed a new Board of Correction chair – retired MTA employee Dwayne Sampson, who is a longtime contributor to Adams campaigns going back to 2008. Sampson gave $1,300 to Adams’ 2021 mayoral campaign, records show.

He also gave $1,250 to Adams’ state senate campaign committee from 2008 through 2018, and another $550 to Adams borough president campaigns in 2013 and 2017, the records show.

During the same period, Sampson made contributions to the campaigns of other state and city legislators largely from Brooklyn, including Bill de Blasio.

Reached by The News, Sampson said he would be issuing a statement on his priorities “in a couple of weeks.” He declined further comment.

Meanwhile, the council is poised this week to confirm two of its own BOC appointees – DeAnna Hoskins, president of Just LeadershipUSA, and Dr. Rachel Bedard, a former director of geriatrics and complex care for the jails’ health system.

“Every day that Rikers remains open equals horrific human suffering and harm including death,” Hoskins said in 2020 well before the 35 jail deaths in 2020 and 2021.

Hoskins was scheduled to be interviewed by The News last week but abruptly cancelled on the day it was supposed to happen.

Bedard advocated for the release of aging or ailing detainees and wrote in a March 2022 piece in the New Yorker that Rikers during the pandemic was like “the worst cruise ship in the world: our patients held in close proximity, in violent, unsanitary conditions.”

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