Out-of-Their-Mind Policy At Out-of-Sight Agency

RICHARD STEIER | The Chief Leader

About an hour into the rally by jail-officer unions just outside the Hazen Street Bridge to Rikers Island Aug. 16, Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio accused the de Blasio administration of trying to make conditions there worse: "'Let's let Rikers Island fall apart so we can have a narrative that says we gotta close it down.'"

Even from a veteran of the jail system, this would have seemed to be an exceedingly cynical take on the Mayor's motives, but Mr. Boscio put some meat on the bone by noting, "When the subways became too dangerous, the Mayor sent in more police."

He added that Mr. de Blasio had a similar reaction to a public and media outcry over the rise in gun violence on city streets, and when there was a rash of anti-Asian crimes earlier this year, the NYPD created a special task force to deal with it, the union leader continued.


In contrast, no reinforcements had been provided as the jail population, which had dipped below 4,000 in the early days of the pandemic last year as many inmates were released due to health concerns, surged to about 6,000 this summer, with the detainees violent enough to be in lock-up despite the state bail-reform changes.

"What about the hate crimes against us?" Mr. Boscio asked to cheers from the crowd. "The Mayor chose to reduce Correction Officers. Why is that? They haven't hired Correction Officers in 2 1/2 years. And now we have a rising inmate population, an inmate population that is the most-violent we've seen in years."

Doctors, Nurses Fearful

A couple of hours prior to the correction-union rally, medical personnel who work in the jail system held a smaller protest in which they argued that the shortage of officers had compromised their safety as well. Noting that some of them had stuck around for the officers' rally, Mr. Boscio added, "The doctors and nurses aren't safe. The correction officers aren't safe, The inmates aren't safe," alluding to a recent instance in which an inmate wrote in a stolen log book that more officers were needed in the jails.

The current city budget offers a glimmer of relief: a plan to hire a class of 400 officers sometime this fall. But that will hardly make a dent in replenishing officer ranks that were sharply reduced over the past year, and it may not be enough to replace all the officers likely to leave before the recruit class has graduated from the Correction Academy and can be assigned to the jails early next year.

Put it all together, and even if you don't buy Mr. Boscio's claim that Mr. de Blasio is trying to create a rationale for closing Rikers, the most-logical alternative explanation is that on his way out the door of City Hall, he is not going to over-exert himself to deal with problems that aren't dominating the public conversation.

And Rikers is not exactly doing that. While the Post covered the union rally, neither The Times nor the Daily News print editions gave it any space. Aside from those who work there, the only constituency with an interest in dramatizing the problem is the detainees who are not part of the gangs that account for so much of the violence at Rikers, and their voices aren't being heard.

That was why, when the rally kicked off shortly after 3 p.m., Herman Jiminian, COBA's legislative chairman, told the crowd, "We are the forgotten agency of the City of New York."

Mr. Boscio stated that Mr. de Blasio had "forsaken us. Heroes work here."

State Sen. Diane Savino, who co-authored the bill that prohibited government agencies statewide from retaliating against employees who missed work because they were quarantining  against the coronavirus—something Correction officials routinely violated before going to a new sick-leave policy that requires officers to be seen by medical personnel after just a single-day's absence, told the crowd, "What's happening on Rikers Island is outrageous. Women are not only being sexually harassed, they're being sexually assaulted by inmates."

She said she would push legislation to boost the penalties for sexual assaults on female officers.

A Lack of Penalties

Other correction-union leaders said part of the problem was that the de Blasio administration had taken away punitive segregation, which they called the most-effective deterrent for violent inmates, while failing to prosecute those who committed egregious acts against officers and other staff.

Correction Captains' Association President Pat Ferraiuolo, talking about Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi urging the unions to persuade members who were calling in sick to return to work to alleviate the need for others to work double and triple shifts, said, "Why would I tell correction officers to come back to work to be assaulted not only by inmates but the administration?"

During an Aug. 18 phone interview, he said he had gotten a call the day after the rally from Labor Commissioner Renee Campion informing him that his instruction to Captains to send home officers once they completed a second shift violated the Taylor Law.

"I said to Renee, 'I have an obligation to make sure my officers are safe,'" Mr. Ferraiuolo recalled. He said it was unrealistic and unfair to expect COs on their third consecutive tour to remain alert enough to safely watch over 20 or 30 inmates.

He also noted that he recently received a text from a CO he knows stating, "I'm on my fourth tour and I still haven't gotten meal relief." The Captains-union leader said when he texted Commissioner Schiraldi about that situation, the response he got began, "Oh, gosh."

More than an hour elapsed, Mr. Ferraiuolo said, before the CO was finally relieved. And contrary to the department's recently announced policy to accommodate triple-shifting officers, he said, "Guess who drove him home? No one. He drove himself."

It was 16 months ago that Mr. de Blasio, asked about officers triple-shifting, responded that it constituted "dumb management" and that he would make sure it didn't recur.

Wardens: Less Safe Now

Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association President Joe Russo said at the rally,  "The changes in the last eight years have destroyed this department" by limiting "our ability to defend ourselves...We just do not punish inmates for any wrongdoing. Sexual assault has become commonplace."

But instead of bringing new criminal charges against the offenders, he continued, top department officials "blame us, they punish us. We are sick and tired of the chaotic gangland that the department has created."

The unions have long railed against the policy during Mr. de Blasio's tenure of keeping gangs with large presences at Rikers Island such as the Bloods and the Trinitarios away from each other by housing them in separate jail facilities. While the intent "is to keep warring gangs from going after each other," one union official said in an interview, "it's only emboldened the gangs and allowed them to create armies"  that dominate their facilities.

Captain Ferraiuolo said that while keeping members of each gang in separate facilities limited the likelihood of gang battles, it increased the possibility that officers would be assaulted, saying that if you put 20 members of the same gang "in one dormitory, it's a very dangerous environment for a correction officer."

A smarter way to assign gang members, he continued, would be to ensure that equal numbers from each gang were placed in a jail, preventing one group from having a numerical advantage. "If you basically just spread them out," he said, "sometimes they just have to learn to live together."

Media Can Stir Outrage


Harvey Robins, a former career city official whose high-ranking posts included Director of the Office of Operations under Mayor David Dinkins, noted that in the early 1970s, William Vanden Heuvel, a longtime adviser to Mayor John Lindsay, as head of the Board of Correction highlighted the abysmal conditions in The Tombs—which has since been renamed the Manhattan Detention Complex—by bringing reporters into the jail not far from City Hall and giving them a chance to observe conditions and speak to inmates.

It created an outcry against top Correction brass for allowing such conditions to fester, but it also alerted the public to the harm done to inmates in the form of physical assaults and rapes by the most-violent among them. The Times noted one case in which an inmate suffering from a head wound when asked to stand up in his cell refused because all he was wearing was a blanket—another inmate, he said, had taken his clothes from him. 

Despite Mr. de Blasio's pledge as a candidate to run the most-transparent administration in the city's history, it would be hard to imagine him allowing reporters onto Rikers Island to expose similar abuses. And except for the occasional extraordinary case, like the one culminating in the suicide of Kalief Browder after he was locked up at 16 on a specious charge and victimized over the next three years by every entity in the jail system—inmates and officers, prosecutors and judges—the jail system operates beneath the radar.

It sounded like Captain Ferraiuolo was just letting off steam when he said of the Mayor, "You think he gives a rat's ass about a Correction Officer?" and followed with a sarcastic reference to Black Lives Matter. Noting that 80 percent of the officers at Rikers are people of color, he asked, "How come their lives don't matter? 'Cause they're not out there committing crimes?"

But evidence supporting his anger surfaced several years ago when a Times editorial writer referred to city correction officers as "thugs." It wasn't aimed at a group of violent officers, just a lazy, throwaway reference. It would be hard to imagine the newspaper permitting such a reference about any other group that was overwhelmingly black and Latino to be printed in its pages.

Bad Tone From Top

And Mr. Ferraiuolo said the longtime perception that "Corrections has never been respected like the police or the Fire Department" had been compounded by the Mayor's seeming indifference to correction officers.

He said he could remember Mr. de Blasio attending only one of the department's graduation ceremonies, while he regularly attended NYPD graduations.

"If a police officer's injured in the line of duty or shot, the first thing you see is the Mayor rushing to visit him," the CCA leader said. "I've had a Captain die in a house fire, and I had seven suicides on my watch—I've never seen the Mayor respond to any of them."

And, he added, after one of his members honored a warrant from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and released an inmate to it for possible deportation a couple of years ago, "The Mayor himself called Commissioner [Cynthia} Brann and ordered her fired. Didn't talk to her or check her service record, just said, 'This is a sanctuary city.' Brann, to her credit, said 'it's just not that easy, Mr. Mayor,'" and began the lengthy disciplinary process required to fire a tenured city worker.

"To this day," Mr. Ferraiuolo said of his member, "I'm still fighting for her job."   

He added that one reason officers may seem slow about returning to work after being out with legitimate illnesses is that there have been too many cases in which department brass took away "60 vacation days from someone because they think they threw one extra punch" in subduing an inmate.

Also Reflected in Board

The lack of caring about the burdens on officers is also reflected in positions taken by the Board of Correction, particularly during Mr. de Blasio's tenure, and the Federal Monitor appointed under a consent decree reached between the city and then-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. It came about because of documented abuses in the jails, but the failure of the city to provide mental-health training to officers despite the reality—as one union official pointed out to a city Health Commissioner during a hearing seven years ago—that roughly 40 percent of the detainees at Rikers suffer from mental illness doesn't seem to be factored into the equation.

Nor do the BOC and the Monitor seem to give appropriate consideration to the more-violent inmates who inhabit the jails compared to a couple of decades ago, and the fact that eliminating as inhumane the use of solitary confinement for younger inmates has, rather than reducing violence in the jails, seemed to contribute to its rise—and against inmates as well as officers.

As the controversy over the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Officer 15 months ago has faded due to public concern about rising gun violence on city streets, the Mayor has attempted to undo some of the overreactions he and the City Council made in reining in the Police Department, with one of the more-egregious ones subjecting cops to criminal charges if they compressed someone's diaphragm while trying to arrest them being sidelined by a judge's ruling.

In recent weeks, Mr. de Blasio has touted the takedown of violent gangs due to a stepped-up enforcement effort by cops and local prosecutors, while promising there will be more to come.

Mr. Boscio alluded to that in demanding the hiring of more COs beyond the 400 in the budget, telling the crowd, "Guess where everybody's coming when they clean up the streets of New York?"

Rikers Not Gone Yet

However wistfully the Mayor may speak of the day when Rikers is closed for good, that's unlikely to be around the corner, if it happens at all. He actually originally rejected the idea of a shutdown, with borough jails taking over, as impractical, before he concluded in running for a second term in 2017 that championing it was a good re-election strategy—and it wasn't as if he would still be in office if and when it occurred.

The prime movers for the shutdown were former Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman and then-City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, one of the most left-leaning members of that body. The Council has actually moved further left since she left office in 2018, which may explain why it hasn't held a hearing on violence in the jails since last December, when Councilman Danny Dromm did his best imitation of that anonymous Times editorialist by calling Mr. Boscio a "thug."

But the borough-based jails are designed to hold only 3,300 inmates. In the early days of the pandemic, when the jail population was down to 3,900, they seemed like a feasible replacement. With 6,000 inmates now behind bars, something dramatic would have to occur for Rikers to be phased out even five or six years from now.

In the meantime, when medical staff working at Rikers Island are urgently calling for more officers, yet city officials seem unconcerned about the steady exodus of COs who are not close to eligible for retirement yet are moving on from a job that pays decently and has good health benefits, at a time when that is a relatively rare commodity.

And that trend seems likely to continue unless there is a drastic change in how officers are treated. As COBA spokesman Michael Skelly put it Aug. 18, "When officers see everyone is turning their backs on them, it's lowered morale to the lowest level it's been in 20 years."

Mr. Robins, the man who made his living in several city administrations as an efficiency expert, said someone in city government with a pulse has to recognize the problem the Correction Department is facing because "there are not enough officers and overtime is through the roof."

But while Commissioner Schiraldi said that he shares many of the concerns expressed by union officials at the rally, empathy alone won't solve the problem.

Which was why Mr. Boscio concluded his remarks by vowing that unless the city addressed the unions' concerns swiftly, there would be more, larger protests.

"This is only the beginning," he said.