NYC to hire civilians as wardens, instead of promoting from rank-and-file

President of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association calls the plan “unfair, unequal and devastating”


By Graham Rayman
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — Assistant deputy wardens in New York City’s jail system are frustrated that they suddenly see themselves in dead-end jobs.

Correction Commissioner Louis Molina — with the backing of a federal court monitor assigned to track violence at Rikers Island — is pushing to enlist civilians as wardens. Those positions have traditionally been the next step up for uniformed personnel with assistant deputy warden titles.

Photo/AP

Wardens are paid north of $200,000 a year — most who held the job during all or part of 2022 had base annual salaries of $201,587, according to the salary-tracking website SeeThroughNY. The highest base salary for a warden on the website is $231,250.

The base pay for deputy wardens is typically $135,511 per year.

Manhattan Federal Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who is overseeing class action litigation aimed at reducing violence at Rikers, in November endorsed a plan proposed by the lawsuit’s federal monitor, Steve Martin and backed by Mayor Adams to upend decades of practice and allow the city to hire wardens from outside Department of Correction ranks.

The plan is “unfair, unequal and devastating” to the career ambitions of assistant deputy wardens and deputy wardens, says Joseph Russo, the president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association.

In a letter to Adams, Russo also griped that “the pending changes have been packaged, polished, and sold as a solution to the Rikers Island crisis.”

“This is a fake narrative, which I assert will certainly not fix our crisis. Instead, these changes will insult and demoralize my union members and limit their career paths.”

Though there are currently only about five warden spots, the move has caused an outsized uproar in the rank and file who see an age-old path to promotion squelched. Molina has fueled that narrative by hiring at least 10 civilian assistant commissioners from the NYPD and outside correction agencies, and taking steps to eliminate the rank of chief.

It’s the first public sign of fault lines in the tight relationship that has existed thus far between Molina and the three correction unions.

Russo’s union has 125 members, making it the smallest of the three correction unions. But they basically run large swaths of the jails and have significant influence in the agency.

“We believe that the impact of the commissioner’s actions is not intentional, but these members are supervisors that are being treated unfairly and unequally, and the changes being imposed by the DOC [Department of Correction] will have a devastating effect on them,” he said in the letter.

The Daily News obtained Russo’s letter through a source. Russo declined to comment.

Kimberly Joyce, a lawyer for the city, said Nov. 17 there was no legal impediment to making the change, but she still requested Swain’s approval. Russo argues in the letter the move breaches city law and the spirit of collective bargaining agreements.

Indeed, Section 9-117 of the city’s administrative code states, “Only members of the uniformed force shall be eligible to compete.”

Patrick Ferraiuolo of the union representing captains — the rank one rung below assistant deputy wardens — said he isn’t opposed to replacing uniformed wardens with civilians.

But Ferraiuolo does not believe the move will fix what ails the jail system, which has been plagued by 19 detainee deaths in 2022 and extensive absenteeism by correction officers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s my opinion that many of the wardens and chiefs were not doing the right thing and showed poor leadership,” he said. “With that said, I don’t see this as a magic wand. I believe we need to hire more staff. Since Molina took over, I’ve seen improvements. However, there’s a lot of work ahead.”

Mary Lynne Werlwas of Legal Aid’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, calls the move important but “one very small bureaucratic change that should have been made years ago.” She also backs bringing in outsiders for the deputy warden and assistant deputy warden posts.

Werlwas says the city is only agreeing to expand the hiring pool, and has not said it would reject all current DOC staff for the posts.

“It’s meant to solve the fact that facility leadership has been a consistent failure, though some leaders do try,” she said. “For it to be more than Kabuki theater, we have to see if they hire anyone. It took 11 months of foot-dragging for the city to even do this.”

Martin, the federal monitor, has long advocated for the change. “The department needs to imbed leaders with strong expertise in sound correctional practice so that leadership can call out and untangle staff’s poor practices and address the poor culture directly with staff,” he wrote in an Oct. 28 report.

But Russo noted that the de Blasio administration, for all the criticism the unions heaped on it, didn’t make changes like these.

“The Rikers Island/DOC crisis is due to the DOC’s lack of control and authority over the inmates, and the lack of consequences for their bad and criminal behavior. Things will never get better until we fix this,” Russo wrote.

The Correction Department has also signaled it will replace deputy wardens in charge of programs in the jails with civilians and make deputy wardens work nights and weekends, which has never been the case.

And finally, Molina is removing the requirement that assistant deputy wardens work in a jail for a year before being shifted to other duties.

“This change will make overt favoritism and unfairness unchallengeable,” Russo wrote. “This will do nothing to improve our agency crisis.”

Russo is under pressure from his members on this issue. “This would never happen in the NYPD,” said one angry assistant deputy warden. “The department would rather seek people who retired from other agencies then train their own.”

Fabian Levy, a spokesman for Adams, did not respond to a request for comment.

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