Correction Unions: Longterm Closing Of Rikers an Improbable Distraction

By: 
Mark Toor | THE CHIEF LEADER

Leaders of the three correction unions last week derided a report on how to close Rikers and replace it with smaller jails in the five boroughs as “Fantasy Island,” saying Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to shut it down when the inmate population drops by nearly half is a cover-up of his failure to control rising violence in the troubled facility.

“I would like for [retired state Chief Judge Jonathan] Lippman and this commission to tell me what we’re going to do today to solve our problem today,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers Be­nev­olent Association, at a joint press conference April 4. “Not what we’re going to do to solve our problem 10 years from now. Not that we’re going to make high-tech jails that are like the Starship Enterprise. I’m interested in today. What are you going to do to protect correction officers, and inmates and civilians, today?”

He said that the correction unions would soon release their own plan for controlling violence.

 

Questions Mayor’s Change

He quoted Mr. de Blasio as saying in February 2016 that a shutdown is “a noble concept that would cost many billions the city doesn’t have.”

Mr. de Blasio reversed course March 31, joining City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a press conference at which he said the city could close Rikers when the Department of Correction’s daily population, now about 9,300, drops to 5,000. It was Ms. Mark Viverito who created the Lippman Commission.

The Mayor cited NYPD figures showing continued declines in crime as well as programs allowing people accused of nonviolent offenses to avoid money bail in arguing that the decline in inmate headcount was within reach. He conceded, however, that it could take 10 years or longer.

Mr. De Blasio and Ms. Mark-Viverito spoke two days before the Lippman Commission issued a report that also called for cutting the jail population and closing Rikers in 10 years.

More Supervised Release

It recommended expanding and enhancing the city’s supervised-release program, which is substituted for money bail for some defendants. “Many charge-eligible misdemeanor and nonviolent-felony defendants are excluded from the city’s current supervised-release program due to a high-risk classification on the city’s risk-assessment [system],” the report said. “The commission recommends that these defendants be allowed into the program.”

Further, it said, the State Legislature should “consider reclassifying four charges as civil, and not criminal, matters: theft of services (using public transportation without paying the fare), low-level possession of marijuana in public view, prostitution and possession of gravity knives.”

“For anyone who wants to release 5,000 inmates to the streets while they await trial—it’s ludicrous,” said Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains Association. Though 80 percent of the people imprisoned at Rikers have not been convicted, he said, they “do not go out and abide by society. They’re criminals. Unless there is some type of miracle…they’re not going to change. Ninety percent of those men and women are going to commit more crimes.”

A poster displayed at the press conference was headed “New York City: ‘Meet Your New Neighbors’ Courtesy of the Lippman Commission’s ‘New Supervised-Release Pro­gram.’” It carried mug shots of 34 “known Bloods gang members with long criminal histories” arrested March 29. “New York City correction officers are professionally trained to handle these criminals 24/7,” the poster continues. “How prepared are you?”

Predicts Crime Rise

“I say that letting them out on low bail is going to bring crimes up by thousands,” said Faisal Zouhbi, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association.

In Rikers itself, he said, “the Mayor says things are getting better, but violence is increasing.” He said attacks by inmates on correction officers and fellow prisoners rose 18 percent last year compared to 2015.

DOC and the unions have been at odds for months over violence figures. DOC spokes­man Peter Thorne said that assaults on staff, especially those resulting in injuries, fell last year. He said uses of force, especially those resulting in injury, also dropped, as did serious injuries to inmates from assaults and fights. Union leaders claimed DOC had changed the way it classified incidents to make them look better.

Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Mark-Viverito and the Lippman Commission said the city would have to build new, smaller community jails to hold some of the reduced pop­ulation of 5,000 inmates. Existing jails that are not on Rikers hold a total of 2,400.

The expected pushback from community residents arguing “not in my backyard” was one of the reasons cited by Mr. de Blasio 14 months ago when he initially rejected Ms. Mark-Viverito’s vision of the closure of Rikers. He was already backpedaling on April 3, when he said he would not build a jail on Staten Island because so few inmates come from there.

Some for All Boroughs?

 

That goes against the Lippman report, which said, “Each of the facilities would have varying capacities proportional to the population held from each borough.”

When the Mayor announced his change of heart on closing Rikers, he said the City Council would take the lead in selecting locations for the community jails. Council Members have been largely silent on the issue.

The union leaders also addressed the contention in the Lippman report that the number of correction officers could be slashed by 65 percent, from 10,500 to 3,700, to oversee fewer inmates in jails designed with better sight lines for easier supervision.

“You can’t reduce the staff,” Mr. Ferraiuolo said. Hundreds of officers in all ranks are out on sick leave from injuries caused by attacks from inmates, he said, adding, “Our men and wom­en are working 16 hours a day, five days a week.”

624 COs Assaulted in ’16

Mr. Husamudeen said that the overtime budget for Ri­kers was $165 million and that 624 correction officers had been assaulted in 2016. “I can’t address the job cuts, because it’s a fantasy,” he added. But, he said, if the city can do with fewer correction officers, it should be able to similarly cut the number of police officers, prosecutors, judges, parole officers and other criminal-justice employees.

He compared Mr. de Blasio’s problems with Rikers to his woes at the Administration for Children’s Services, which has seen several deaths of at-risk youngsters, and the Department of Homeless Services, where the issue of dealing with the homeless seems to defy solution.

“The Mayor was forced to finally confront the harsh reality that all the performance indicators have now revealed that the Mayor’s progressive policies have not achieved the goals he set out to accomplish three years ago,” said a poster at the press conference.

Mr. Husamudeen said the plan was designed to give Mr. de Blasio cover in an election year by distracting from the rising violence in the jails. “This is all a Jedi mind trick to take the public mind away from what’s going on,” he said.