Multiple members of the city’s jail oversight board this week urged Mayor Eric Adams to stop relying on emergency executive orders to circumvent rules to ensure the safe housing of people behind bars. 

In November 2021, then-mayor Bill de Blasio first signed executive orders suspending multiple Board of Correction regulations, citing chaos brought on by the COVID pandemic.

The move froze a highly-anticipated plan to implement the Risk Management Accountability System designed to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement. It also allowed the Department of Correction to move officers to 12-hour shifts and limit out of cell time for detainees. 

Mayor Eric Adams has since extended the emergency orders every five days — even as the pandemic urgency faded.

“The mayor can’t just order an emergency executive order for the hell of it. There has to be a reason … some kind of emergency,” Board Commissioner Dr. Robert Cohen said during the BOC’s monthly meeting on Tuesday.  

At that meeting, Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina, who is leaving sometime this month to serve as an assistant deputy mayor for public safety, testified before the board on Tuesday that an analysis of the emergency orders was “probably long overdue.” 

“And that’s something we should think about,” he added. 

Critics of Molina and Adams noted they have made no promises to end the emergency orders, which are used to evade rules set by the board. The status loosens the rule that people behind bars must be given 14 hours out of their cells. Additionally, it gives jail supervisors permission to suspend correction officers who are out sick leave for 30 days without pay. It 

The Case for a Receiver

The questioning of the recurring emergency orders comes as the troubled city jail system inches closer to a possible takeover by a court-appointed third-party colloquially known as a receiver. 

Despite the years-long “emergency” situation, Adams has vehemently opposed the idea of a receiver taking over the department, arguing his administration should be given more time to implement reforms. 

On the other side, The Legal Aid Society, the largest organization of public defenders in the city, on Friday submitted its written case in favor of a receiver to Laura Taylor Swain, the chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina speaks at a Board of Correction meeting in Lower Manhattan about restricting physical mail to people housed on Rikers Island, March 14, 2023.
Outgoing Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina speaks at a Board of Correction meeting, March 14, 2023. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The DOC is on track to have approximately 6,500 use-of-force incidents this year, records show. By contrast, that’s 2,000 more than when the federal monitor was first appointed in 2016 — and the detainee population was higher. 

“We’ve been through four commissioners, countless recommendations from the monitor that have gone unheeded, several court conferences, several judicial interventions in the form of new orders…with so little gain to show for it,” said Mary Lynne Werlwas, director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project at Legal Aid, during an August court hearing

Most recently, Judge Swain slammed DOC leadership on Thursday after they secretly opened a small unit for detainees accused of setting fires. Jail officials closed the Arson Reduction Housing Unit after one day following opposition from the federal monitor. 
“There is an urgent need to ameliorate the risk of harm, yet haphazardly and furtively opening a specialized restrictive housing unit is likely to increase the risk of harm rather than diminish it,” Martin wrote to the judge on Wednesday.

Out of Reasons

As for the emergency orders, Cohen, the board commissioner, pointed out that the DOC initially cited a massive staff shortage as the reason for the extreme action.

The department had more than 2,600 members out sick or injured on average each day during the peak of the pandemic, according to Molina. That included over 1,000 people who were out sick for 30 or more days in a row and 800 people on medically restricted duty. 

Now, there are an average of 70 people who call out sick each day and as low as 40 people in June, according to Molina, who noted that the uniformed staff have unlimited sick leave. 

Cohen questioned why it is still considered an emergency situation if staffing has improved. 

“Is there inadequate staffing? Is that why you shackle as many people as you do?” he asked. 

Molina said the issue was “significantly addressed” but that recruiting and retaining officers is still a struggle. 

“All of that together puts a strain on the agency but staffing challenges are not what they were in January 2022,” Molina responded. “But there’s still a day-to-day challenge everyday.”