The long-simmering conflict between the city Department of Correction and its unions over violence in the jails is boiling again, with the Correction Officers Benevolent Association advising COs that if they are assaulted by an inmate they should report it not only to their supervisor but also to the NYPD.
“First, notify your commanding officer...of your intention to file a criminal charge or complaint,” stated a bulletin posted on the COBA website July 20. “Upon the end of your tour of duty, and on the way back from receiving medical treatment for any injuries incurred, stop at the local police precinct where the incident occurred and immediately file charges against the inmate to insure the inmate is arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
‘Management Won’t Protect Us’
“We will not allow inmates to continue to assault us with no repercussions,” the announcement continued. “The safety of you and your family is one of our top priorities. The DOC upper management [generally] refuse to protect us. If the Department of Correction won’t enforce the penal law, then COBA will!”
“DOC is not doing enough to protect its employees,” COBA President Norman Seabrook said in an interview last week. “...Inmates continually assault COs, and DOC and the District Attorneys are slow to charge them with a crime.” He compared assaults on correction personnel to attacks on police officers, which he said are treated with consistent severity. “That’s just not happening in DOC,” he said, adding that “inmates generally go right back into their cell after beating the s--- out of a CO.”
When assaults are reported to the local precinct, he said, “hopefully the Police Department will conduct an investigation.
The level of violence in the jails is increasing, Mr. Seabrook said, citing union figures that show 84 assaults on correction officers in the first half of the year. He said that number is on target to easily pass the 2011 total of 140.
‘Aggressively Pursue Arrests’
DOC rejected charges that it was not doing enough to prosecute inmates who attack officers. “No inmate who harms or tries to harm an employee or another inmate should evade justice,” spokeswoman Sharman Stein said in a statement July 24. “The department aggressively pursued the arrests of 227 inmates for criminal acts against staff in FY 2012, an increase of 4 percent over FY 2011.” (Fiscal year 2012 ended June 30.)
“Likewise,” the statement continued, “immediately following an inmate assault on a tour commander (an Assistant Deputy Warden) in a housing unit this past Saturday morning, and [an attack on] a Warden in a jail intake area yesterday during an institutional search, the department immediately contacted the Bronx DA, and began the process necessary to gather evidence about both incidents to effect their arrests this week.”
Ms. Stein disagreed with the union’s numbers for assaults on COs. Since the beginning of the calendar year, she said, DOC counts 40 injuries to officers in which the officer required treatment greater than over-the-counter medication. Twenty-five of those injuries were the result of an inmate assault.
DOC sources stressed that they provide information for the Bronx DA to seek indictments in every case of an inmate assaulting an officer, delivering written reports, videos and, when possible, witnesses. But they stressed that however difficult it is to persuade witnesses in the outside world to testify, it is even tougher when the witness is locked up with the assailant.
DA: Not the Way to Handle It
Steven Reed, a spokesman for Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson, whose office handles prosecutions for incidents at Rikers Island, said, “We do not think that what he is advising is the ideal way of handling this issue, and we are in discussions with the union to determine the best way to expedite these important prosecutions without sacrificing quality.”
DOC regulations allow COs to report assaults to the police as long as they notify their commanding officer, he said. Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association, said the regulations had been changed in recent years to allow such reports.
Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains Association, agreed with Mr. Seabrook that “the DA’s Offices are slow or failing totally to prosecute.”
A sentence for assaulting a correction officer should be served consecutively with the inmate’s original term, he said. Now, sentences are generally concurrent, so the inmate gets no additional penalty, he said.
“The real answer to jail violence is that inmates need to know they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Mr. Ferraiuolo also noted that prosecutors are much tougher on correction officers who run afoul of regulations than they are on inmates who assault officers. “We need the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “DAs don’t give us the benefit of the doubt. They give inmates the benefit of the doubt.” As a result, he said, correction officers “are afraid to defend themselves because they’re afraid of prosecution.”
‘Never Seen Worse Morale’
“There’s a real perception among staff that inmates have more rights than us,” Mr. Schwartzbaum said. “I’ve never seen morale at a worse level in the department.”
The Bronx District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute more than 20 assaults that took place in adolescent units although the attacks were clearly shown on video, he said. Further, he said, staffing in the Gang Intelligence Unit, which makes most of the arrests involving assaults on officers, is down by 40 percent.
He suggested that the Bronx DA assign an Assistant District Attorney full-time to Rikers to deal with inmate-on-officer assault prosecutions, and that a high-ranking DOC official be given the same responsibility. To avoid potential “political problems” involving increases in crime statistics, he said, crimes at Rikers should be reported separately from the citywide stats.