New Head of COBA: Building Faith Among Members Key to Success

By: 
RICHARD KHAVKINE

Benny Boscio’s stands on punitive segregation, on Rikers Island, on the causes of violence in city jails and their remedy, among other pressing issues, don’t markedly differ from those of Elias Husamudeen, his predecessor as president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association. 

But he hopes his tenure diverges in one significant aspect from that Mr. Husamudeen, whom he outpolled by a margin of nearly three to one in June to assume leadership of the roughly 8,500-member union. Those “hardcore issues,” he said, need to be addressed in a different way—transparently. 

“We needed to do a better job of disseminating information to our members,” the 49-year-old Bronx native said during an Aug. 5 interview. “That’s basically one of the things I want to change within the union, keep them abreast of everything that’s going on. The Correction Officers have to have faith in their union leadership in order for us to move as one.”

 

Common Goals

Since he took office July 1, Mr. Boscio, a 21-year Correction Officer who served as sergeant-at-arms during his predecessor’s term, has been touring jails and posts, including, he said, “problematic areas,” to get a sense of COs’ concerns and impressions. 

“Hearing from my members first-hand about what their issues are is paramount to me,” he said. 

He has since also met with Department of Correction brass, First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan and Labor Relations Commissioner Renee Campion. 

But his most fruitful exchanges have so far been with Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann, whom he’s met with several times over the last few weeks to discuss what he said was “a multitude of problems” within the jail system. 

Foremost among Mr. Boscio’s concerns is how the department is housing inmates, which is by gang affiliation rather than classification. That arrangement, he said, has a built-in us-vs.-them quality that multiplies tensions and violence between officers and inmates. 

'Built Little Armies'

The thinking behind that configuration was that it would decrease inmate-on-inmate incidents, he said. “What they’ve done is they've built little armies in each little area, where the focus is on us,” he said. Officers have come to refer to inmate housing areas as a Blood house, or a Crip house, or a Trinitario house. 

He said the decline in the prison population―about 4,000 inmates are in custody, more than 50 percent fewer than 2018’s average daily population―gives the department latitude to reconfigure inmate housing. 

Although Mr. Boscio, a COBA delegate in 2005 who joined the union’s executive board in 2010, said Ms. Brann “basically put the onus on some commanding officers” for the arrangement, he found her receptive to his concerns. 

The DOC did not make Ms. Brann available, but a spokesman said the department and the union have a common goal in that regard. 

“Safer jails and a secure environment are goals we share with COBA and decisions about housing individuals in custody are made with safety as the top priority,” Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Peter Thorne said in a statement. “We are always exploring ways to stop gang activity and enhance security for those who work and live in facilities.”

Wants to Keep Rikers

 

The decrease in inmates also gives added credence to the argument that it would be both cheaper and more prudent to refurbish Rikers rather than push ahead with the city’s plan to build borough-based jails, Mr. Boscio said. 

“Rikers is perfectly situated where it is,” particularly because escape attempts are hindered by the fact that it’s nearly surrounded by water, he said. “They can tear down one jail at a time and rebuild Rikers.” 

Mr. Boscio also said he would lobby for the department to retain the option of putting troublesome inmates in “punitive segregation,” or solitary confinement, particularly since, he said, assaults on staff were increasing. Efforts by prisoner advocates and some city officials to reduce or eliminate solitary altogether have gathered momentum in recent months, which Mr. Boscio attributed to naivete. 

“We can’t have a system without there being consequences for inmates that assault my members and other inmates,” he said. “We need to be safer in order to do our jobs. The agency has to do everything they can to make everyone in jail safer, not just the inmates.”  

Using Force for Good

He was similarly dubious about the Federal monitor’s oversight of the jail system, including a conclusion, enumerated in his most recent report, that despite the decrease in the number inmates, uses-of-force by COs, blamed in part on “hyper-confrontational Staff behaviors,” had reached their highest rate since the consent decree's establishment five years ago.

“We’re using force to stop inmates from harming each other. I think we don’t get enough credit,” he said. “The reality is some of the uses-of-force are saving lives. But no one wants to talk about that...Hyper-confrontational is the monitor’s language, and I don’t really understand where that’s coming from.” 

In essence, he called the monitor’s conclusions about uses-of-force “a false narrative” he is intent on combating. 

“The jails are very dangerous right now. The assaults on staff are high, and these are things I want to bring to everyone’s attention.”

He said he intended to put together “a marketing plan” to enable the union to publicize what he called “the true story about what Correction Officers are going through, the real story.” 

New Worry: Layoffs

Regardless of whether the city goes ahead with the borough-based jail plan—the city's increasingly precarious financial straits appear likely to at least delay the planned closing of Rikers—Mr. Boscio's greatest challenge could be preventing or at least minimizing layoffs of COBA rank and file now that the Mayor has requested of every city agency rough parameters for job cuts, as well as his earlier announcement that a priority is to reduce the inmate population to just over 3,000.

Still, he and his board intend to lobby state legislators and be regular attendees at meetings of the Board of Correction, the city’s independent jail-oversight panel, which he said “has basically been listening to a bunch of inmate-advocate groups,” and not sufficiently to the people who, day to day, run the jails. 

“Because,” he said, “the reality is you can’t have care, custody and control without safety and security first.”