Mayor-elect Eric Adams on Thursday called for resurrecting solitary confinement as a tool for combating violence at Rikers Island as he named a former internal Correction Department watchdog to run the New York City jail system.
At a news conference to introduce the new commissioner, Louis A. Molina, Mr. Adams called Rikers jail complex a “national embarrassment” and vowed to swiftly improve conditions there, in part through the use of “punitive segregation.”
“If you exhibit violent behavior on inmates or correction officers, you must be removed from general population until you get the rehabilitation assistance you need,” Mr. Adams said, adding that the punishment would send a message to would-be assailants.
Few problems Mr. Adams will inherit when he takes office next month are more urgent than the crisis on Rikers Island. While the jail system there has been plagued by years of mismanagement and unrest, the coronavirus pandemic has helped drive levels of day-to-day violence and absenteeism by corrections officers to their highest points in years.
On Thursday, Mr. Adams reiterated his support for a plan initiated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to ultimately close Rikers by 2027 and replace it with four smaller borough-based jails. But the mayor-elect stressed that changes to the way the existing jails are run “cannot wait.”
His comments about solitary confinement marked a sharp reversal in tone and policy from Mr. de Blasio, a fellow Democrat, who has said the practice “corrodes the human soul” and sought to end its use in city jails by the time he left office. There are currently fewer than 70 people in solitary confinement or other punitive housing, out of an average daily population of more than 5,000, according to a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio.
Mr. Adams’s fiery remarks offered yet another example of how the incoming mayor, a former police captain who campaigned as a moderate focused on public safety and the economy, is openly pushing against the grain of some of the most progressive factions of his party, including those who have tried to rid the nation of solitary confinement.
“The mayor announced Dec. 31, he’s going to empty out punitive segregation,” Mr. Adams said. “They better enjoy that one-day reprieve. Because Jan. 1, they are going back into segregation if they committed a violent act. That is unacceptable.”
The stance Mr. Adams described appeared to track closely with the position held by the union officials who represent the department’s 7,800 correctional officers. Those officials have openly warred with Mr. de Blasio, in some cases mischaracterizing policies that were aimed at slowly curbing the use of solitary confinement in favor of less isolating alternatives.
The union leaders have praised Mr. Adams as he prepares to take office, and some flanked him and Mr. Molina at the news conference in Brooklyn Borough Hall and applauded when the new commissioner was announced.
Understand the Crisis at Rikers Island
Amid the pandemic and a staffing emergency, New York City’s main jail complex has been embroiled in a continuing crisis.
Mr. Adams framed his views on solitary confinement as a matter of safety and basic fairness to detainees and the correction officers who guard them. He said he could not restore order to the complex without removing and punishing those who have helped tip it into chaos. He said his correction department would also do so “without it being inhumane.”
But a return to the regular use of solitary confinement could be more complicated to implement than Mr. Adams has let on. The city Board of Correction, an independent agency overseeing the jail system, instituted a rule earlier this year restricting the use of solitary confinement that would not be easily overturned. Mr. Adams will also soon be constrained by a new state law, effective in April, that restricts jails from holding people in solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days.
Still, the incoming mayor’s comments drew swift rebukes from left-leaning Democrats and groups that advocate for incarcerated people. They demanded Mr. Adams reverse himself and warned that his stance on solitary confinement would undercut a broader pledge to make Rikers more humane and reduce recidivism in the city’s criminal justice system.
“This proposal throws away years of progress undoing the physical and mental harms caused by solitary confinement, and it reveals the new administration’s intent to reinstate regressive and violent policies over modern and more effective practices,” the Legal Aid Society said in a statement.
In his own statement, Mr. de Blasio sought to downplay the conflict.
“The mayor-elect and I both want the same thing — a secure environment for our staff to work in and a safe setting for detainees,” he said, adding that his plan would still separate dangerous individuals from the broader jail population.
Mr. Adams’s remarks came as he tasked Mr. Molina, the current chief of the Las Vegas public safety department, with what amounted to a complete overhaul of the institution.
Poor conditions at the complex, which sits in the East River between Queens and the Bronx, have festered for decades but grew markedly worse during the coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of correction officers stopped showing for work. Detainees — many of them jailed on the island for more than a year as they awaited delayed judicial proceedings — have grown increasingly restless, and some have escaped their cells or fashioned pieces of crumbling cells into weapons to attack officers and other inmates.
On Tuesday, a Brooklyn man became the 16th person to die after being held in the jail system this year, the deadliest since 2013, despite the population falling roughly by half since then.
Mr. Molina, 49, has some familiarity with the problems on Rikers Island. A former New York police officer, he served as the correction department’s internal monitor for 11 months from 2016 to 2017. In that role he focused on tracking the city’s attempt to comply with a settlement it agreed to in the face of a lawsuit and a federal civil rights investigation, which were related to the use of force and other conditions on the island.
He echoed Mr. Adams in his own remarks on Thursday, promising to invest in educational and vocational programs for incarcerated people, but only alongside a relentless focus on restoring order on Rikers.
“Programs and support make a difference,” he said. “But we can’t achieve that if we don’t have safety and security as a foundation.”
Mr. Molina brings a varied résumé to the role, having done stints — some of them short — in several different cogs of the criminal justice system. He will also be the first Latino ever to fill the role, Mr. Adams said.
After 13 years as a New York City police officer, Mr. Molina served as a private security adviser to New York University, an investigator for the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, an adviser to the city’s homelessness services department, and a leader of the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s enforcement division.
In 2018, he became the No. 2 in the Westchester County Department of Correction, where he helped the county satisfy the terms of its own agreement with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and end federal monitoring of its treatment of incarcerated people.
George Latimer, the Westchester County executive who hired him, called Mr. Molina “an extremely talented fellow” and predicted he “will do a terrific job.”
Mr. Molina moved in January to Las Vegas, where, as chief of public safety, he oversaw the city jail and a fleet of marshals that protected city parks and buildings. The Las Vegas system is considerably smaller than the one Mr. Molina will be taking on, with just 394 full-time employees and a jail capacity of 1,200, compared with around 10,000 employees and nearly 10,000 beds in New York City.
His appointment drew tentative nods of approval from competing factions that have tangled over how to end the abuses at Rikers.
“Commissioner Molina proved a voice of honesty and reform during his previous stint at D.O.C.,” said Jonathan Lippman, New York’s former chief judge who led a commission that recommended Rikers’s closure in 2017, “which is exactly what we need to continue progress there.”
Mr. Adams’s transition team informed Vincent Schiraldi, the current correction commissioner, on Tuesday that his term would not be extended, according to three people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Mr. Schiraldi, a reform-minded researcher who spent much of his career leading nonprofit organizations, had just taken up the correction post in June and had made no secret about his desire to stay on in the new administration. Outside advocacy groups had lobbied Mr. Adams in recent weeks to keep him amid signs that conditions on the island were improving from the low points of this summer and fall.
But Mr. Schiraldi in recent months had clashed with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, a union representing jail officers, as basic operations in the Rikers complex broke down and the city required vaccines for officers.
Dana Rubinstein and Jan Ransom contributed reporting.