Op-ed | Punitive segregation ban will only endanger more correction officers on Rikers Island

Rikers Island jail
Rikers Island
File photo/Dean Moses

Like many female Correction Officers, I joined the New York City Department of Correction in 2006 to provide a better life for my family. I was also interested in pursuing a career that gave me opportunity to make a meaningful difference to serve on the front lines in the Criminal Justice System.

Initially, I was assigned to work with mentally ill inmates at the medical clinic at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers Island, ensuring all of their medical needs were met.

As a young mom, I knew that working in a jail environment would never be easy, but I also never expected to encounter the vile and outright deplorable sexual harassment and abuse that so many of my fellow officers were subjected to on a daily basis.

One horrific encounter haunts me to this day. While assigned to the midnight tour at the medical clinic, an inmate faked a medical emergency in order to lure me from my post. He then masturbated in front of me.

He knew I was alone and despite ordering him to stop, he continued anyway. This same inmate would pull the same stunt night after night until he was finally rearrested for spreading his bodily fluids on another female officer. Years later, that same inmate is still at Rikers and that trauma still haunts me to this day.

Sexual harassment incidents like this are never recorded and only in the last couple of years have sexual assaults against Correction Officers been recorded by the Department of Correction.

During my time in the jails, I witnessed other female officers almost get raped by inmates. Over the past three years alone, over 50 female Correction Officers have been sexually assaulted by the sexual predators in our jails, who even after being rearrested, are right back in the same housing areas with the officers they assaulted.

In New York State, the #MeToo movement rightfully declared war on sexual harassment in the workplace with new laws aimed to protect the victims of sexual harassment. The only workplace those laws didn’t include was the city’s jails.

In addition to the epidemic of sexual assault and sexual harrasment in our jails, the last three years have been some of the most painful ones for our officers.

Over 6,500 Correction Officers have been assaulted by violent inmates. These officers have been beaten unconscious, slashed, spit on, splashed with bodily fluids and sustained broken bones. No other workforce in this city is subjected to these heinous attacks on a daily basis.

To make matters worse, the inmates are emboldened to attack us because they know there are little, if any, consequences for their crimes committed in jail. A crime is a crime, no matter where it’s committed.

Last year, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association brought female victims of sexual assault to testify before the City Council Committee on Criminal Justice as the Council was considering legislation to eliminate punitive segregation in our jails.

Despite the false narrative driven by those who have never known what it is like to work in a jail, punitive segregation is not solitary confinement. It is a jail within a jail.

It is a tool that Correction Officers use to separate violent offenders from the general population. Every inmate in punitive segregation has recreation time, access to the medical clinic, access to the law library and receives the same exact food that is provided to every other inmate. If an inmate doesn’t assault another inmate or a Correction Officer, that inmate will never go to punitive segregation.

Now sensing a political opportunity to do what no other city in the country has done, Public Advocate Jumanne Williams has pushed forward a new version of last year’s Bill to ban punitive segregation, with the help of 38 sponsors, including even the Speaker of the City Council, whose mother was once a New York City Correction Officer.

Most of the sponsors of this proposed legislation, which is set to be voted on before the full City Council on Dec. 20, have never asked our union for our input on this legislation, even as other unions representing health care workers in the jails were consulted.

If passed, Intro. 549 will all but ensure that inmate assaults against Correction Officers and non-violent inmates will surge, jeopardizing thousands of lives in our jails. On behalf of my fellow officers, whose voices deserve to be heard and whose lives are at stake each and every day, I call on every New Yorker to call their City Council Member and tell them to vote no on Intro. 549. Everyone in our jails deserves to be safe!

Antoinette Anderson is a New York City correction officer and the corresponding secretary of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.