It may be convenient to blame correction officers for the problems on Rikers Island, but in reality it is wrong and deeply damaging to those of us fighting for reforms in NYC’s jails.
Everyone needs to recognize there is a problem on Rikers Island — precisely what the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has been saying for years.
However, the fault for continued inaction lies with the leaders of this city and the Department of Correction who ignore our pleas for change. The union has repeatedly called for officials to help with the crisis of mentally ill inmates in our jails. Rikers should not be a dumping ground for the sick.
Fights among inmates, much of it driven by gangs, are on the rise. In fact, inmate stabbings and slashings are at an all-time high. Last year, there were more than 600 attacks on officers, many of them incidents in which staff were doused in bodily fluids, slashed, kicked or punched.
This is the work environment officers show up to every day. Yet, we’ve seen that for far too long the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson refused to prosecute felony crimes committed by inmates. And recent reports confirm the DA is declining to prosecute felony crimes on Rikers.
We can’t possibly control violence if we refuse to punish those who perpetrate it.
City Council legislation to increase transparency by requiring more formal reporting of inmate violence is a start. But the council also should enact measures to track attacks on officers and compare the statistics to ensure jails are getting safer — not worse.
Meanwhile, the jails on Rikers are falling apart, with a failing infrastructure that only exacerbates the conditions there.
To be sure, there have been well-documented instances in which correction officers were charged with crimes in our jails. As we have always said: Just like any inmate who commits a crime on Rikers, any officer who breaks the law should be punished.
But we cannot use a broad brush to paint all correction officers the same. More than 9,000 law-abiding officers do the dangerous job of patrolling our city jails — and they deserve our respect.
So let’s have a conversation about fixing Rikers Island — with everyone at the table. There is no more time to waste.
Norman Seabrook is president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association.