Commentary: A look at the new New York City Department of Correction Commissioner’s attempts at transparency show slow to no progress

Lynelle Maginley-Liddie, previously the first deputy commissioner of the department, made tall promises to the Board of Correction that she didn’t deliver on.

New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie

New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Newly appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie faced her first public test in federal court on Dec. 14 after taking over for her predecessor, Louis Molina. Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is presiding over a class action lawsuit in the Southern District of New York aimed at reducing violence in city jails, ruled the department in contempt.  

However, Swain allowed a chance to “purge” the ruling if the department heeded orders aimed at bringing the chaotic agency into lockstep with a federal monitor overseeing reforms at its institutions, including the troubled Rikers Island jail complex, according to the settlement terms of the lawsuit. 

"We must be honest, the department’s issues are complex,” Maginley-Liddie told the judge, while referring to her mandate as the new commissioner. “I promise there will be action … I wouldn't have taken this position if I didn’t think progress could be made.” 

“I find the remarks of the commissioner particularly encouraging,” the judge said, before warning, “If the contempt is not purged, the court will not hesitate to consider a daily fine in at least four figures a day,” she told Maginley-Liddie. “I urge the department not to put me in this position.”

As a possible federal receivership looms, City Hall’s decision to change up the leadership shows its calculus in heeding the court’s request that to meet the necessary reforms, the mayor demonstrate “requisite objectivity and transparency.” Maginley-Liddie, previously the first deputy commissioner of the department, was appointed during Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. Sarena Townsend, the department’s former deputy commissioner of Intelligence, Investigation and Trials, when asked about Maginley-Liddie’s elevation under the Adams administration, noted the irony of the decision. 

“City Hall’s mantra has been ‘blame the previous administration’ for all issues in our City jails,” she told me in a text message. “It’s confounding that they would select not one of the dozens of hires brought in to ‘fix’ the department, and instead promote an individual who has been the longstanding second-in-command.”  

Townsend added, “This decision is confirmation by Mayor Adams that his selections were failures,” referring to the many outside upper-management hires the department recruited to help address the ongoing crisis at Rikers and to fill its top leadership positions under Molina. 

Did Maginley-Liddie, in her previous role while working under Molina, display a tendency to comply with reforms? Here’s a look at how she lived up to her public promises, sometimes with little progress or none.

Solitary confinement reform

The city’s response to calls for reform to solitary confinement were to be addressed by the department’s implementation of a “Risk Management Accountability System,” designed to reduce violence by placing people in housing units that correspond to their risk level. 

Former Commissioner Molina promised in February of 2022 he would implement the accountability system, which had been years in the rule-making process, and even doubled-down on his commitment a month later. However, by September, he claimed he was unable to move forward with the plan, because of tweaks and changes that were recommended by the federal monitor. Maginley-Liddie, at the time, promised the Board of Correction, which provides oversight of the department, that she was working with James Austin, a specialist on jails who had made the recommendations, “to design a restrictive housing system that adheres to correctional best practices and that will be approved by the monitor.” She said the plan would be shared “with all stakeholders as soon as it is finished.” It has been unclear on where the revisions stand.

A spokesperson, when I asked for an update on the changes, said, “The Federal Monitor directed that the Department was not to move forward with (the Risk Management Accountability System).” The spokesperson, however, added that an alternative restrictive housing unit approved by the monitor has been tested.

Meanwhile, the City Council during a stated meeting on Wednesday approved a bill banning solitary confinement overall, a move Adams promised to veto. Even if the mayor fails to block the legislation, it would still need to be reviewed and approved by the federal monitor, which likely will make more recommendations that the department will have to address. 

Staffing updates

The department has reduced absenteeism, but requests to share complete staffing data have gone unanswered.  In September of 2022, the board asked Maginley-Liddie to begin tracking housing units without jail officers posted alongside people in custody, as required. Maginley-Liddie said she would look into providing the data on these so-called “B” post officers, as well statistics on officers asked to work triple shifts to make up for the absences.  The following month the board reported, “our requests for staffing data have been ignored.” 

The spokesperson, when I asked about the board’s comment, said that in December of that year, “the Department notified BOC that the specific data request was not tracked and therefore could not be produced. DOC has not received complaints from BOC on this subject.”  

Last June, the department stopped providing timesheets to the board and a month later, Molina reported the department was working on a digital timesheet system.  Two board reports on 25 recent deaths of people in custody reveal five people died on units without officers present.

The board, when asked whether it ever received the data, referred me to a released statement. “After BOC recently discovered that more officers are working triple shifts than had been officially reported, the DOC simply rescinded our ability to audit their time sheets. DOC now says they will show us discrete data upon request, but will not allow us to contemporaneously monitor for patterns in absenteeism, overtime usage and other critical staffing issues.”

Data reports

Maginley-Liddie also in September 2022 unveiled a public data dashboard, providing monthly statistics on incidents of violence, slashings, stabbings and other critical metrics.

Last month the monitor retracted data provided by the department claiming, “Practices for reporting stabbings/slashings are so unregulated that the monitor no longer has confidence in the accuracy of the department’s data in this area.” 

Maginley-Liddie told a gaggle of reporters after the federal hearing last week that she was “absolutely” committed to transparency. 

Time will tell if she will deliver on her pledge to ensure that sunlight shines on the department. Until now, her attempts to honor this pledge have fallen short.