By Jo Ellen Nott
Sarena Townsend, the attorney heading internal affairs investigations for the New York City Department of Corrections (DOC), was abruptly fired by new DOC Commissioner Louis Molina on January 4, 2022.
One of the first priorities announced by incoming Mayor Eric Adams (D) was smoothing relations with the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), after tensions mounted under the previous administration of Bill DeBlasio (D) and his DOC chief, Vince Schiraldi, over the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the city’s Rikers Island jail complex. Tapping the Bronx-born, ex-Marine Molina, who came up through the city police department and the district attorney’s office in Brooklyn en route to DOC, was widely seen as a move to placate rank-and-file members of the guard’s union.
Townsend, 40, who also worked in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, was Deputy Commissioner of DOC’s Intelligence, Investigation and Trials Division. Steve Martin, the federal monitor in a long-running case over conditions at Riker’s Island, had lauded Townsend’s work as recently as December 22, 2021, telling Judge Laura Taylor Swain of the federal court for the Southern District of New York that Townsend had reduced a backlog of some 8,000 disciplinary cases by 75% and that her “continued leadership and expertise is critical to the success of this reform effort.”
That same month, however, Molina told Townsend that she needed to “get rid of” those other 2,000 cases pending against Riker’s Island guards. Townsend had struck a deal with Martin to close out 400 cases by April 2022—a number she saw as a major accomplishment—so she offered to re-focus on non-use-of-force cases, making clear to Molina that she had to follow guidelines on use-of-force cases and underscoring her refusal to simply “get rid of” the backlog.
In Martin’s report, an ever-increasing backlog of disciplinary cases for DOC staff was named as a reason for the dysfunction at Rikers Island. The cases involved high rates of use-of-force against prisoners, despite six years of court oversight. Martin criticized DOC leadership for a “pervasive level of disorder and chaos” and characterized the disciplinary process as “convoluted, inefficient and overwhelmed.”
Townsend declared, “I was fired because the unions did not like that I was holding their members accountable and the Commissioner wanted to be in good favor with the unions.”
COBA declined comment. Mayor Adams said that he trusted Molina to “get Rikers under his control,” adding that “we have to allow him to build his team”
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