DOC agrees to give the oversight group back video access to Rikers

In a recent development, the oversight board responsible for monitoring the New York City Department of Correction has regained its authority to remotely access the surveillance footage captured inside the city’s correctional facilities. The department settled a lawsuit last week, allowing the watchdog board to continue its vital work of keeping tabs on the agency.

After a legal battle between the Board of Correction and the Department of Correction, the two entities have finally reached an agreement. The dispute arose over the department’s decision to terminate the BOC’s remote access to video footage from inside Rikers Island. With the settlement now reached, the lawsuit has come to a close.

According to the latest updates, the board members and staff had to rely on in-person viewing of videos for almost nine months. They believe that this method is crucial for their oversight work, especially when it comes to investigating detainee deaths. However, there is good news on the horizon as the board is expected to regain its remote video access by the first week of October.

According to a statement released by the Board, this agreement serves as confirmation of their authority as the independent oversight agency for the DOC. It also reinstates a vital oversight tool for them. The Board believes that having direct access to video surveillance footage will enable their small but dedicated staff to monitor the treatment of the most vulnerable populations. This will help them conduct daily confidential investigations and ensure compliance with the Board’s minimum standards by the DOC.

According to a representative from the DOC, a resolution has been reached in the lawsuit, and the agency is currently in the process of restoring video access. They anticipate that access will be available again early next week.

In early August, the Department of Correction in New York City faced legal action from the Board of Correction, which happens to be one of the city’s oldest oversight bodies. The case was filed at the Bronx Supreme Court.

The center of the lawsuit revolved around a policy choice that was made by Louis Molina, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC), in January. Molina decided to revoke remote access to video surveillance on Rikers Island for members of the Board of Correction (BOC). This is particularly concerning given the fact that over 3 dozen individuals have lost their lives on the island in just over 2 and a half years.

According to Molina, the reason for revoking the board’s remote video access was due to the sharing of videos from inside the jail complex with members of the media by BOC members. These videos included incidents that were under investigation at the time. As a result, the commissioner decided that the BOC’s staff and members would only have access to view the videos in a space that is controlled by the DOC.

As soon as the policy change was implemented, it created a rift between the board and the commissioner. This incident, along with others, has been cited by BOC as evidence that Molina and the Adams administration are not supportive of oversight and have a confrontational attitude towards it.

Earlier this year, the resignation of the former executive director of the board was a direct result of the revocation of video access.

According to the BOC’s lawsuit, Molina’s move to withdraw their remote video access goes against the inspection rights explicitly given to the Board under the New York City Charter.

The lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs highlighted the detrimental effects of the limitation on their capacity to supervise the agency, which has already had seven fatalities in its custody this year.

In their lawsuit, the board expressed that the restrictions have a significant adverse effect on their ability to fulfill their duties. Video access, particularly access to a live feed, is critical for the Board to efficiently oversee the City’s correctional facilities. It enables them to ensure the Department of Correction’s compliance with the minimum standards the Board has set and conduct confidential, independent investigations into incidents such as violence, use of force, response to medical emergencies, and potential criminal conduct by DOC staff, among other things. The Board emphasized the importance of such access for effective monitoring and maintaining the safety of the inmates and staff.

According to the court documents filed by the oversight board, Molina’s recent action is just one of many attempts he has made in the past 20 months to avoid accountability and supervision.

The lawsuit stated that Commissioner Molina’s use of authority without reason is consistent with the Department of Corrections’ history of avoiding oversight, transparency, and accountability.

The Department of Correction has refuted the accusation of breaching the city’s charter in levying the charge, as stated in the lawsuit.

In a court filing, the attorney for the DOC pointed out that the lawsuit is filled with exaggerated claims that give the impression that the Board has been stripped of its authority to inspect DOC’s video footage. However, the reality is that the Board’s requests to inspect are promptly fulfilled by the Department. The attorney argued that since the Department has not violated the BOC’s right to inspect, there is no need for the Court to grant the requested injunction, and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

They stated that the limitations imposed on January 13, 2023, are reasonable and should not be disturbed. BOC asserts their absolute right to disclose DOC video footage in response to FOIL requests, particularly during ongoing investigations.

The BOC filed a lawsuit requesting the judge to reinstate their remote video access, which was granted in the recent agreement between the BOC and DOC.

The BOC has not yet finalized the agreement and will vote on its approval during the board’s meeting on October 17th.

In the past few months, the tension between the BOC and the DOC has escalated.

On the day the BOC filed a lawsuit against the agency, five of its members took to the New York Daily News to voice their concerns. They urged federal Judge Laura Swain to take control of Rikers Island away from the city.

The newly appointed chair of the BOC, Dwayne Sampson, has been at odds with the five board members – Robert Cohen, Rachel Bedard, Jacqueline Sherman, Felipe Franco, and DeAnna Hoskins. It is worth noting that Sampson was appointed to the position by Mayor Eric Adams.

According to the board members, Sampson lacks any prior experience in correctional services and has been accused of trying to exceed his authority. They believe that he is attempting to make changes to the board that would restrict its ability to function as a check to the Department of Corrections.

During the board’s September meeting, Sampson was notably absent. It is worth noting that this was the first meeting held after the board filed its lawsuit against the DOC.

It was impossible to ignore Sampson’s absence from the September meeting, which only highlighted the clear ideological rift within the citizen watchdog board. This division is largely between members appointed by Adams, who staunchly support the Department of Corrections and its commissioner, and those who consistently voice criticism of DOC leadership. It’s worth noting that two other Adams appointees, Joseph Ramos and Jacqueline Pitts, were also noticeably absent from the meeting.

Despite being a member of the oversight committee, Molina has been noticeably absent from most of this year’s meetings. In fact, she was notably absent from the September meeting as well.

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