NYC Correction Dept. blocks watchdog from unfettered access to Rikers video footage


The Adams administration is blocking the government agency that oversees Rikers Island from independently accessing video footage from inside the jails, officials said Wednesday.

The Board of Correction watchdog agency posted the news on its website. The group will still be able to watch videos if members or staff request to do so at a designated location during business hours. But they will lose their unfettered access to video footage, both archived and in real time, from about 14,000 wall-mounted surveillance cameras in the jails, as well as footage from officers’ body-worn and handheld cameras.

And given that the board will not be able to obtain such videos for later use, it will effectively prevent them from being shared with other officials and the media, particularly in the board’s regular investigative reports into jail deaths and other matters. The Department of Correction, which runs the jails, did not explain the reasoning behind the change.

Videos released by the Board of Correction have been a critical way for the public to learn about conditions at the jails and officer negligence in detainee deaths, which last year reached the highest rate in a quarter-century.

Gothamist also used video obtained from the board through a public records request in a story last fall revealing graphic images from inside the jails, including of an incarcerated man who was not provided a change of clothing after defecating himself due to a lack of working toilets. Those images were initially presented to Manhattan prosecutors. But under the new policy, the videos would not be released to anyone.

By law, the Board of Correction is empowered to ensure that the Department of Correction meets minimum standards for the health and safety of nearly 6,000 people in city custody. The board will continue to be able to describe video in its investigative reports, but won’t be able to share video or watch corridors and living areas in real time.

The department changed its practice last week, forbidding oversight staffers from accessing videos on their own computers. Patrick Rocchio, a spokesperson for the department, told Gothamist that the department is “deeply committed to transparency.”

Board members said the move violates the city charter and prevents it from acting as the “eyes and ears” inside the jails. In a statement, the board asked the department for the “immediate and full restoration” of video access.

The board’s videos were often used as evidence in its public reports. The reports provided a window into the correctional system — which by its nature is among the most opaque of government entities — for journalists, elected officials, civil rights attorneys, law enforcement and other stakeholders. Cutting off access to video could kneecap the board’s ability to show outsiders evidence of whether humanitarian standards are being met, like in the provision of food, recreation time and medical care.

Two sources familiar with the decision, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the department cut off video access following the airing of a NY1 investigation into the suicide death of a mentally ill man at Rikers last year. The story included body camera footage, which the reporter said was obtained via a public record request.

The video platform that the department uses, Genetec, does not include audio and is activated by motion. Footage is saved for 90 days.

Early in the COVID pandemic, Genetec footage allowed the board staff to monitor social distancing and use of masks.

Lawyers at the Legal Aid Society, who represent many detainees at Rikers, issued a statement laying the blame on Mayor Eric Adams, saying he is “obstructing the Board of Correction.”

“Viewing real-time video footage from the jails allows [the Board of Correction] to immediately dispatch field staff to address situations like impending riots, to investigate deaths in custody, and to monitor the conditions in the jails,” it said. “The mayor’s ham-fisted move serves no purpose except to hide the violence, chaos and mismanagement that pervades his jails and endangers our incarcerated clients every day.”

A spokesperson for Adams referred questions to the Department of Correction.

The installation of thousands of cameras at Rikers was ordered as part of a 2015 consent decree with the federal government that brought in a federal monitoring team to oversee the jails. That team has since collected nearly $20 million from city taxpayers, Gothamist previously found, but conditions have only worsened during that time.

Department of Correction Commissioner Louis Molina told the City Council last year that he believes in transparency. “I am unequivocally committed to transparency and restoring public trust in this agency,” he said. “I believe that working with the council as well as other stakeholders throughout the city is essential to making our jails better. You will surely hear me say this again today, and throughout my tenure at this agency. These are the foundational principles that guide my work.”

But transparency concerns have nonetheless dogged the city when it comes to corrections. Last year, city attorneys backed a move by the federal monitor overseeing Rikers to keep a report on violence statistics secret.


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