Correction Officers’ Union Boss Slams Plan to Close Jails, Fearing Overcrowding During Pandemic

Faraz Toor

NEW YORK — As the city moves to close two jail facilities by the end of November, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) is sounding the alarm about overcrowding during the coronavirus pandemic.

“What sense does it make, Errol, to put us all together by closing two facilities, especially when everyone’s talking about this second wave that’s upon us?” Benny Boscio said in a Tuesday evening interview with Inside City Hall anchor Errol Louis. “It absolutely makes no sense at all.”

The city is moving to close the Manhattan Detention Complex — also known as the “The Tombs” — and the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island by the end of November. The decision is a part of a larger plan to close Rikers by 2026.

The city has argued — mostly before the pandemic — that the declining population in jails, which are already aging, means they can be closed and replaced. Last year, the city projected a continued drop in inmate population due in large part to bail reform passed on the state level earlier this year, but also the city's efforts on diversion programs, like supervised release. A dipping jail population is crucial to any strategy to shutter Rikers.

But those plans are under fire now with the realities of 2020. The reduction in crime that the city in 2019 argued was sustainable has come to a head with a spike in shootings and murders this year, although the levels are still small compared to the 1990s or even the early 2000s. And Boscio argues it’s illogical to close two jail facilities during a pandemic when inmates are already too close together. He told NY1 that inmates cannot socially distance, a complaint inmates and advocates have echoed.

“If the department and the city of New York really cared about violence and not enhancing the spread of COVID, they would…put less inmates in each housing area,” Boscio said. “There should be an inmate at least in every other bed. But we have inmates on top of each other, and closing two facilities is just going to make it worse.”

Boscio said the union is trying to negotiate with City Hall over the closure of jails, hoping to spur a change of course.

He also criticized some criminal justice reforms, arguing correction officers need tools, such as punitive segregation, to handle inmates who often target them.