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Cargo Hold: NYC Jails Official Sought to Ease Dress Code Established to Block Smuggling

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A Rikers Island Correction Officer scans visitors’ items, July 1, 2021.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Days after taking over the city’s beleaguered Department of Correction, a senior official under Commissioner Louis Molina sought permission to ease a rule banning officers from wearing cargo pants with multiple pockets, THE CITY has learned. 

The ban dates back to 2014 after an undercover city investigator was able to use those pockets to smuggle in drugs and alcohol. The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) has been fighting to bring the casual attire back ever since. 

In early January, the unidentified senior department official asked Dana Roth, the correction department inspector general at the city’s Department of Investigation, to rescind the recommended prohibition on cargo pants, according to a source familiar with the conversation. 

“She told him no way,” the source said. “It’s a nonstarter.” 

Diane Struzzi, a spokesperson for DOI, told THE CITY the agency “made clear to DOC that we stand behind the recommendation prohibiting the wearing of cargo pants by correction officers.”

COBA has long argued that its members are unfairly blamed for smuggling in drugs and weapons. 

Drugs Spike When Only Guards Around

Criminal justice experts and advocates are worried Molina’s latest request is just one more example of the department becoming more friendly to staff at the expense of the safety and security of detainees. 

THE CITY reported last week that higher levels of contraband were found at Rikers Island and other jails after visitors were banned during the pandemic. 

Between April 2020 and May 2021 — when only corrections officers, staff, and eventually certain contractors and service providers could enter — authorities seized banned drugs inside city jails more than 2,600 times, jail records show. 

That’s more than double the number of such seizures made during the same time period from 2018 to 2019, when the jail population was larger and visitors and programs were all let inside. 

At a Thursday confirmation hearing, City Councilmember Rafael Salamanaca Jr. (D-The Bronx) asked DOI commissioner nominee Jocelyn Strauber about THE CITY’s report. 

“It certainly seems like an issue that warrants further scrutiny,” Strauber said of the contraband surge, noting she wants to work with the department’s inspector general to be a “positive agent for change.” 

Under former DOI Commissioner Mark Peters, the Department of Correction was a frequent target of probes with scopes ranging from hiring officers without proper background checks to guards busted for smuggling in drugs and other contraband. 

Adams Cozy With COBA

Criminal justice reformers are worried about Mayor Eric Adams’ close ties to COBA and what that will mean for a series of reforms already in motion, like strictly limiting the use of solitary confinement and the plan to shut down Rikers.

Adams and the union have both long used the same lobbying and political consultant firm, Pitta Bishop & Del Giorno LLC

And the new mayor replaced reform-minded Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi with Molina, a former NYPD detective who had been serving as chief of the Las Vegas Department of Public Safety.

When announcing the appointment, Adams vowed to bring back solitary confinement for detainees who act in violent ways. COBA has long opposed current restrictions on the use of solitary confinement — such as those excluding mentally ill people and adolescents.

Activists demand an end to solitary confinement before a Board of Correction meeting in lower Manhattan, July 9, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/The CITY

Numerous research has shown isolating people for several days is akin to torture and can cause severe psychological harm.

As one of his first big moves, Molina pushed out Sarena Townsend, the department’s acclaimed top investigator. Townsend, a former Brooklyn prosecutor, told the Daily News Molina had asked her to clear 2,000 disciplinary cases over 100 days, and when she balked she was fired.

“Since firing me, I worry about accountability and what message that was sent to the officers and what the officers feel they can get away with doing,” Townsend told THE CITY Thursday.  

The city jail system is beset by what a federal monitor calls “disorder and chaos,” with inmate deaths and self-harm incidents up, rampant absenteeism and low vaccination rates among officers, and bleak conditions at intake centers.

Some local elected officials have even called for the National Guard and President Joe Biden to step in.

As for the cargo pants, when the COBA ratified its latest contract in June 2020, then-COBA President Elias Husamudeen talked about the dress code push. 

“Now that the contract is ratified, a lot of you are asking about the cargo pants,” he told members in a video posted online at the time. “We’ve begun negotiations, and we’ve begun talking to the Department of Corrections and the city and as that progresses I’ll let you know.”

That contract includes a “uniform committee” with representatives from the union and management to “discuss issues related to uniforms, including the allowance of cargo pants for certain assignments or other alternatives to the pants currently permitted by DOC policy.” 

Husamudeen was trounced by Benny Boscio Jr. in the union election the next month.

After this story was published, the DOC sent a sent statement saying:  “Seven weeks into his tenure, Commissioner Molina remains focused and committed to improving jail conditions and creating a safer environment for all staff and people in custody. He inherited an agency with systematic issues from the previous administration and his top priority is to get things done.”

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