Correction Department gets new commissioner as possible Rikers Island federal takeover looms

Newly appointed Department of Corrections Commissioner Lynelle Maginley-Liddie (left) and Mayor Eric Adams (right).
Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

Lynelle Maginley-Liddie will replace Louis Molina as the head of the city’s troubled Correction Department as the threat of a federal Rikers Island takeover looms ever larger.

Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday that Maginley-Liddie was promoted internally to department commissioner from first deputy commissioner and chief diversity officer — the most recent positions she has held in her eight year tenure at DOC. Prior to that, she was deputy general counsel and has provided legal advice on the agency’s reform efforts.

She will be only the second Black woman to lead the city’s jail system, according to the mayor’s office.

Molina, whose tenure as correction commissioner has been marred by nearly two dozen detainee deaths in the 23 months since his appointment, was named assistant deputy mayor for public safety on Oct. 31, but continued serving as jails boss until Maginley-Liddie’s Dec. 8 appointment.

During a City Hall press conference announcing Maginley-Liddie’s appointment on Friday, Adams said she’s the “right leader for the right time.”

“It takes a steady hand to run the agency,” Adams said. “Many people are detached spectators but you have to walk through the correctional facilities to see exactly what is taking place there and how much pain is being experienced. And you need someone that’s willing to bring not only the professional capacity but the humanity to the job and that’s what I believe Lynelle is going to take and bring.”

Rikers decision looms

A jail on Rikers Island.
A jail on Rikers Island.File photo by Dean Moses

The appointment comes as Judge Laura Taylor Swain is seriously weighing whether to put Rikers into federal receivership, in which the federal government would be in charge of the facility, due to the city’s longstanding inability to stem violence and poor conditions at the island complex.

Rikers appears to be headed towards receivership after the federal monitor overseeing the troubled jails system in the ongoing civil rights case Nunez v. the City of New York, Steve Martin, has blasted the city’s management of its jails under Molina in a series of damning reports over the past few months.

The monitor, U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York Damian Williams and the Legal Aid Society have all formally asked Swain to hand Rikers over to the feds.

But Maginley-Liddie says she intends to comply with the violence reduction reforms required by the Nunez consent judgment. She said that she is very familiar with the 2015 ruling and has a “strong” relationship with the federal monitor.

“Immediately, I will focus my attention on the reforms required under the Nunez consent decree,” Maginley-Liddie said. “During my time at the department, I have established a strong working relationship with the monitoring team. They know me and my values and commitment. I will strengthen that relationship through continued openness and transparency.”

Maginley-Liddie also said she does not believe a federal takeover of Rikers is a “foregone conclusion.”

Martin seemed pleased with Adams’ choice of Maginley-Liddie, praising her appointment in a Friday court filing where he said she is “transparent and forthright.”

“The monitor and the monitoring team have worked with Commissioner Maginley-Liddie for many years and have developed a good working relationship with her during this time,” Martin wrote. “In her work at the department, the monitoring team has found the commissioner to be transparent and forthright.”

Mending fences?

That stands in sharp contrast to Martin’s icy relationship with Molina’s DOC, which he said in a report last week has “eroded.” The mayor expressed confidence that Maginley-Liddie can mend the fractured relationship.

Adams has long defended Molina’s tenure, maintaining that he has actually reduced violence and improved conditions on Rikers Island since taking it over from former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration nearly two years ago. He also often points out that the issues with Rikers far predate his or Molina’s tenures.

“[The] system has been deplorable for decades, for decades,” the mayor said. “And in 24 months, we have been able to make great strides that others weren’t able to.”

The mayor has resisted a federal takeover and insists his administration is still the best positioned to fix the longstanding problems with Rikers.

Legal Aid, in a Friday statement, expressed optimism about working with Maginley-Liddie, but said the only way forward is to put Rikers into federal receivership.

“The current deteriorated state of the Department of Correction is well past the ability of a single commissioner to correct,” they said, “and only an independent body in the form of a receiver can secure the necessary systemic changes that two administrations, multiple Correction commissioners, [and] countless recommendations from the Nunez Monitor, remedial … have all failed to achieve.”