THE CHIEF LEADER: 400 New COs Approved for Training, But COBA Leader Wants More

By: 
RICHARD KHAVKINE

A class of 400 Correction Officer recruits, the first in two years, has been OK’d by city officials, but the head of the union that will represent them said that contingent amounted to a fraction of what’s needed. 

Benny Boscio, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, said that given the number of COs lost to retirements, suspensions and taxing overtime shifts, his members are being overworked and it's taking a toll on their well-being. 

How Soon is 'Soon'?

 

“As we discussed, we are authorizing a new class of 400 Correction Officers,” First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan wrote Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann April 5. “The Department of Correction should make any necessary preparations to facilitate the process of screening and on-boarding qualified candidates. We look forward to welcoming this class of recruits soon.” 

A spokesman for Mayor de Blasio, Bill Neidhardt, said the influx of COs would help address staff shortages, particularly since the DOC “is currently operating in a larger physical footprint to ensure social distancing, and the court system is still not running to its normal capacity.”

It is unclear whether the new class has been budgeted for, however. 

The DOC’s press office declined to answer questions about the incoming class, including when it might begin, how soon the department could expect to deploy the newly minted Officers, the cost of the academy training and how current staffing numbers compare to past years.

Mr. Boscio said he had not been told when the six-month academy training might start, adding that it can’t begin soon enough. The Correction Officer headcount (not including Captains, Assistant Deputy Wardens and Deputy Wardens) currently stands at 8,200. But given the physical and mental demands of the job, the safety of Officers is increasingly being compromised, not least by the number of triple shifts they are obliged to undertake, the union leader said.

'Fighting for More Officers'

“I’ve been fighting with Commissioner Brann for more officers,” he said. “It’s essential for us to get the officers that we need.”

He said that nearly 1,000 COs had resigned during the last two years. He blamed rising violence inside coupled to increased deference to the jailed population, which Mr. Boscio said came at the expense of officers’ safety and was designed to appease a Federal jail-monitoring team. 

Officer discipline “is through the roof, but the inmates who are assaulting us are doing so with impunity," Mr. Boscio said.

“It’s almost like the department is sweeping things under the rug. It’s almost like they don’t want to show the violence in the jails,” he said. As a result, he added, “inmates understand there are not consequences for their actions.” 

26 Full Triples on Easter

Mr. Boscio said the department is shy about 2,000 Officers, and that the shortage could become even more acute in the coming months, given the city’s rising crime rate.

“That’s really what it’s going to take to get us out of this abyss,” the union leader said of his hiring target. 

 

He is particularly keen to get more Officers to put an end to triple shifts, which he said have not abated despite Mayor de Blasio’s promise a year ago that full 24-hour shifts would no longer be assigned and DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann’s assurances to lawmakers that those shifts were not happening. 

In a March 9 letter to Councilman Keith Powers, the chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, and State Sen. Julia Salazar, the Commissioner said that as defined by the DOC, triples are instances where staff work “even one minute beyond” 16.5 hours. “In the majority of instances where triple tours have occurred, staff have worked three or fewer hours into a triple tour,” she wrote.

She wrote that “no staff are working 24-hour tours.” 

According to COBA paperwork and emailed communications between union officials, including Mr. Boscio, however, 26 Officers worked 24 straight hours at AMKC, finishing their shifts at 3 p.m. Easter Sunday. The union says full triples are a regular occurrence.

Rising Jail Population

The COBA leader said the city and DOC planned for the inmate population to remain steady as crime continued to ebb and failed to consider alternate scenarios. 

“They didn’t prepare for this,” he said, alluding to the crime spikes. “They thought the inmate population was going to drop. This has backfired on them.”

Although city and DOC officials moved to close two facilities, the Manhattan Detention Center downtown and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island, at the end of 2020, the two facilities remain open, at least in part to help house the increased jail population.

As of April 8, 5,682 were in city jails, nearly the same number incarcerated in mid-March 2020, when rising coronavirus infections led to the release of about 1,500 from city jails before April ended. The number of jailed individuals has been steadily rising ever since.

As of this week, the DOC altogether had about 8,450 officers on active duty (working various shifts within jail facilities and performing other tasks), 1,210 fewer than at the start of December 2019, when 6,787 were in custody. Five years before that, 8,646 were on active duty when 10,698 were in custody.

Long Goodbye for Rikers?

Regardless of when any new uniformed recruits join the department, plans are for them to be among the COs ushering in an entirely new set of jails and, significantly, the closure of Rikers Island as the city’s de facto penal colony, as officials rethink the carceral system and endeavor to make the jails safer for both officers and those behind bars. 

The most recent graduating class to enter the DOC’s ranks, in July 2019, comprised 382 COs. 

Mr. Neidhardt, the mayoral spokesman, alluding to a 2019 report on criminal justice and incarceration by an independent commission, suggested that the upcoming class, like the previous one smaller than usual, “is necessary for bringing a culture change.”