New York Daily News: Rikers Island detainees can continue receiving paper mail and packages from family, friends and acquaintances after action by the city Board of Correction on Tuesday.

Correction Commissioner Louis Molina had wanted the board to limit detainees’ mail to images that would be scanned digitally so they could only be read on tablet computers.

Molina also wanted to limit detainees packages’ to items shipped directly from mail-order vendors like Amazon.

DOC Commissioner Louis Molina
DOC Commissioner Louis Molina – Barry Williams/for New York Daily News

The proposal’s aim was to keep contraband from being smuggled into the jails — including the deadly drug fentanyl, which is sometimes soaked into paper mailed to inmates. “If we do not change our mail and package policy, fentanyl will get in,” Molina said. “It is more important that we keep individuals alive.”

But no Board of Correction member supported even bringing the plan to a vote at the meeting Tuesday, after the measures were roundly criticized by public defender groups and other advocates for the detained population.

“If the board passes either measure, we are prepared to bring legal action,” said Andrew Case, senior counsel with Latino Justice. “DOC’s own mismanagement of the jails cannot serve as the basis for emergency action.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams added that the Correction Department has not presented compelling evidence that the mail is the source of contraband, when there is far more evidence that correction staff has a much larger hand in bringing in drugs.

A correction officer at a security post in a jail unit on Rikers Island in New York.
A correction officer at a security post in a jail unit on Rikers Island in New York – Seth Wenig/AP

Molina disclosed that on Monday, the long-awaited use of a body scanning machine to check for contraband on staff had started at the Robert N. Davoren Center, a Rikers Island jail. Molina said staff would be searched at random and pledged more machines would be added in other jails.

Also on Tuesday, a proposal by new Board of Correction chair Dwayne Sampson to slash the number of meetings each year from nine to six was roundly slammed by critics during the meeting. No board member would bring that measure to a vote either.

“Fewer meetings and less public testimony will gut the Board of Correction,” said Daniele Gerard, a staff attorney with the advocacy gropu Children’s Rights: “This measure smacks of authoritarianism and we hold the mayor responsible.”

Contraband from Rikers Island detainees was displayed to reporters in June 2022.
Contraband from Rikers Island detainees was displayed to reporters in June 2022 – Shawn Inglima/for New York Daily News

Molina has drawn criticism for blocking the board’s remote access to security video since Jan. 11. Board of Correction staffers now have to go to Rikers Island to view video and are only allowed to take hand-written notes of what they see, sources said.

Meanwhile, the number of detainees with serious mental illness at Rikers rose to 1,153 in January, figures released Tuesday by Comptroller Brad Lander show. That’s nearly double the number in July 2020 of 672, and about one-sixth of the total jail population of 5,952.

Since December 2021, when there were 843 people in jail with a serious psychiatric diagnosis, the number has gone up in each of the 12 ensuing months.

Lander acknowledge that the overall plan to replace Rikers with smaller new jails in Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx is off track. The timeline for the new Brooklyn jail might blow through the 2027 Close Rikers deadline by two years.

Rikers Island
Rikers Island – Seth Wenig/AP

“The month-to-month trends indicate a lack of serious efforts to decarcerate or provide alternatives-to-incarceration for people with serious mental illness,” Lander said in a statement.

“Without an accelerated plan to reduce the jail population and build the new facilities, justice and safety will remain out of reach for people awaiting trial at Rikers.”