The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has been on a tear as of late.
You’ve probably seen jail officers and union president Elias Husamudeen make their case to the media that the Horizon Juvenile Center, where the city is sending 16- and 17-year-olds instead of Rikers Island, should be closed.
The union’s push, which centers on videos of fights between teens and guards at Horizon, scored it a temporary victory: The state handed down a seven-day waiver to allow the use of pepper spray (read: a chemical agent), which was prohibited at Horizon.
COBA has been furious since the Raise the Age law — passed last year and in effect this month — moved New York out of the shameful but short list of states that treated 16- and 17-year-olds like adults in the criminal justice system. North Carolina is the only state that still does. However, instead of allowing New York to get up to speed with the rest of the country, the union has dug in its heels and thrown a fit about fights in Horizon. The guards want to go back to the old status quo, even if it’s immoral or against the law.
While that makes sense for them, fighting fire with pepper spray doesn’t produce even a semblance of justice in the juvenile justice system. While no one says incarcerated teens aren’t capable of violence, a return to the same heavy-handed tactics will take us back to a familiar theme: violence breeding violence.
Vidal Guzman is an organizer of the #CloseRikers movement and at 16 was locked up there. He experienced and saw violence by guards. He says the union’s “power moves” are about securing jobs at Rikers and showcase why the Department of Correction “should not be caretakers of youth.”
He says the guards’ position fuels a cycle that the guards “are responsible for.” This echoes conversations I’ve had with formerly incarcerated friends who say they become more violent because of places like Rikers. Yet, this is the status quo the union wants. It’s hardly surprising given the union’s record of fighting even moderate reforms (not to mention the corruption of its former president, Norman Seabrook).
Guzman says the guards shouldn’t be at Horizon. Administration for Children’s Services workers who are at Horizon, he says, should get more of the responsibility to treat the teens more humanely and work to end the cycle of violence.
Makes sense. If guards can’t do the job, maybe they shouldn’t do the job.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist.