Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What’s Really Wrong With Rikers - NYTimes.com

What’s Really Wrong With Rikers -

juvie solitary - seabrook
Norman Seabrook is the president of the
New York City Correction Officers’
Benevolent Association.

A RECENT investigation by the Department of Justice concluded that a culture of violence permeated the jails on Rikers Island in New York City, particularly the facilities housing adolescent detainees. The report came just a few weeks after this newspaper published its own investigation into violence against mentally ill patients at the jails.
These reports have led many in the public and city government to blame the correction officers at Rikers, and have generated calls for radical changes to the correction system.
There’s no denying that some correction officers have crossed the line and acted in a brutal fashion. Neither I, as the president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, nor any correction officer I know, condone this kind of conduct. Those found guilty should be punished.
Nevertheless, blaming correction officers for what is happing on Rikers Island is counterproductive, misleading and profoundly unfair.
Part of the furor over Rikers rests on a belief that correction officers are little more than hired brutes, poorly screened and barely trained. But that’s not true. They are dedicated law enforcement professionals doing an extremely difficult job. Nearly half the officers are women, and the majority of them are people of color. Many are second- and third-generation members of the department.
Like police officers, correction officers are hired after background checks, psychological exams and physical and medical screening. They undergo 16 weeks of extensive training at the Correction Academy facility in Middle Village, Queens, and are trained in everything from riot prevention to the appropriate use of force techniques and chemical agents.
After all this, they are asked to do an almost impossible job, on a daily basis. At any given time there is approximately one correction officer for every 50 inmates on Rikers Island. We don’t carry firearms in the jails, yet we are locked in with the most violent members of society. Many of these inmates, an increasing number of whom have diagnosed mental disorders, are skilled at manufacturing deadly weapons, which they regularly use on one another and on officers.
To be blunt, the fact that people are not regularly dying there is a testament to the professionalism of the officers. If it were not for their daily struggle against the mounting chaos, I am sure the federal courts would have closed Rikers long ago. The officers are blamed for the violence that exists without being given credit for the lives they are saving.
What is not apparent to the public are the physical and emotional costs that come with serving as the first line of defense in the jails system. Last year 196 correction officers were seriously injured by inmate assaults, including several whose faces were disfigured with razors. Such assaults are fully documented, but the public rarely learns of them.
Conditions at Rikers and other city jails are more dangerous for another reason. Unlike jails elsewhere in the country, court decrees here give most inmates permission to move widely around the jail and interact with one another — at group recreation, in the library — making each jail more like Grand Central Terminal then a correctional facility. This holds true even for many of the system’s violent and mentally ill inmates; care, custody and control of this kind of population in this kind of setting is demanding and very stressful.
Correction officers aren’t alone in bearing the brunt of the violence at Rikers; attacks by inmates against doctors, nurses and mental health workers increased to 39 in 2013, from eight in 2011.
And yet the response from the system’s leadership — both the top echelons of the Department of Correction and the private contractors who work alongside it — has been silence.
Top department managers repeatedly fail to supervise the safety and security of correction officers, mental health workers and inmates. And earlier this month it was revealed that, after a six-month investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a contractor, Corizon Health, was fined $71,000 for failing “to address the serious problem of assaults against its employees” on Rikers Island.

And they have done almost nothing to account for the rising number of mentally ill inmates in the city jails, even though that is clearly a major factor in the increase in violence. In fact, they have stood aside while severe reductions in correction-officer staffing in recent years cut into our already tenuous hold on order within the jails.
My colleagues and I have raised these issues repeatedly, in news conferences as well as at City Council hearings and Board of Correction meetings, but our concerns fall on deaf ears.
It often takes a crisis to provide a catalyst for public policy changes, especially when they might be costly. We certainly have a crisis now. Mayor Bill de Blasio and his new correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, have some clear choices to make. Let’s work together and use this crisis as an opportunity for real change.
Norman Seabrook is the president of the New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.

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