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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Do jails need solitary to keep guards safe? Correction officers think so

An assault on a correction officer has brought

An assault on a correction officer has brought renewed focus to solitary confinement. Any plan to close Rikers Island will need to deal with that debate. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / EMMANUEL DUNAND

Earlier this month, retired NYC Department of Correction Capt. Clayton Jemmott went to New York-Presbyterian Hospital to visit Jean Souffrant, the officer whose neck had been fractured by a Rikers Island inmate on Feb. 10.

“He was completely immobilized at that time,” said Jemmott, 48. They talked a little, and Jemmott told Souffrant to “keep his head up,” and that he’d be praying for him. They also talked about the brief call that Mayor Bill de Blasio had made to Souffrant, ahead of mentioning the officer in his State of the City speech.

But Jemmott didn’t think the mayor’s mention meant much.

Add another uniformed union to the list of those unhappy with de Blasio, and an example of the divide and deep challenges at Rikers Island.

The assault on Souffrant, who is still hospitalized, by a group of alleged gang members led to renewed criticisms from the correction union and former officers about de Blasio. Much of that criticism focuses on punitive segregation, which de Blasio has worked to limit even as the correction officers’ union says it is useful. That is just one of the many quarrels among reformers, the mayor and the correction union about Rikers.

Punitive segregation — or solitary confinement — has become controversial after activist attention and the publication of studies linking the practice to higher incidences of suicide and mental health difficulties among inmates, particularly young ones. When President Barack Obama ended the practice for juveniles in federal prison in 2016, he mentioned the story of Kalief Browder, who was held in solitary on Rikers Island and later killed himself in 2015.

De Blasio ended punitive segregation in city jails in 2016 for inmates 21 and under. It’s not entirely gone: solitary is not allowed for the seriously mentally ill but can still be used for certain serious offenses committed by adult inmates, including assaulting officers. But some former officers like Jemmott say that limiting solitary amounts to a loss of control in jails that is endangering inmates and officers.

“The actual respect for authority is gone,” says Kevin Calabrese, chairman of the New York City Correction Retirees Benevolent Association. Calabrese says de Blasio’s actions have helped remove the “control” aspect of a correction officer’s job description.

Their argument dwells little on the experience of those who have spent long periods in solitary, more on an appeal to order. If an inmate slashes someone across the face or breaks an officer’s nose, “shouldn’t there be some kind of way to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” asks Jemmott, who spent more than 20 years on the job at Rikers and other city facilities.

Since Souffrant’s assault the mayor has increased protections such as adding more stun guns.

But more broadly, there is a sense among some correction officers that their difficult work is treated less respectfully than that of other city employees. They are “demonized,” Jemmott says, and tasked with too much: asked at time to take on the roles of counselors, lawyers, priests, social workers, brothers, plus disciplinarians.

Reforms imposed by the mayor and his jails commissioners tend to rankle. Jemmott, for example, opposed former Commissioner Joseph Ponte changing the tradition of inmates facing the wall when high-ranking officials walked through, what Jemmott characterized as a symbol of respect for authority.

The data on violence in city jails is complicated: slashings and stabbings were down 15 percent in the 2017 calendar year, but assaults on staff resulting in serious injuries are up. The mayor’s office notes that was a one-year increase against the backdrop of larger declines.

The impetus for reform is not new. In 2014 a U.S. Justice Department report found that Rikers was plagued by a “deep-seated culture of violence” in adolescent facilities. The island has been marred by harsh attacks and mistreatment of inmates by the officers who patrol it, including rape and beatings and cover-ups. Some officers also have been nabbed bringing dangerous contraband into facilities. Eventually, New York’s political leaders agreed that Rikers had so many problems it needed to be closed, now planned for sometime in the next decade.

Jemmott doesn’t think closing Rikers will do much in terms of improving safety. Not that he thinks it’s a terrible idea — he doesn’t believe the jail is a “healthy” environment.

There’s no denying that the island’s facilities have physical problems in addition to the violence ones. A damning report released by the state this month found that “Rikers Island continues to be plagued by managerial failures, significant structural problems, regulatory compliance failures, identified deficiencies that remain unaddressed, and unabated harm to both staff and inmates alike.” Just one element of the chaos was supposedly secure cell doors that could be “popped open.”

That’s the state of things on Rikers, as the city contemplates what its replacement will look like. It seems unlikely that de Blasio would cave in to union calls for more solitary, given the problems with the practice. But that doesn’t mean the road to NYC’s new jails will be easy.

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