The names scream from headlines: Jerome Murdough, Jason Echevarria, Andy Henriquez, Victor Woods, Bradley Ballard, and now, Fabian Cruz. What do they all have in common? They died while in custody at Riker’s Island. The other common thread running through all these tragic deaths is this. New York City Correction Officers are blamed for their deaths. Never mind that Correction Officers have partners in the care, custody and control of inmates. In all of the cases mentioned, media accounts have made Correction Officers alone, whether through negligence, inattentiveness, or just plain malice, the ones responsible for their deaths.
It’s time for this scapegoating to stop!
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) represents the nearly 10,000 officers who patrol the toughest precincts in New York, the city jails. I have been President of this union for 20 years. During that time, I have consistently admonished Correction Officers not to “cross the line”, that is, engage in abusive, brutal behavior. Yet the officers being bashed in the press aren’t accused of being brutal. They’re accused of not following proper procedure, or not looking in on an inmate, or not hearing an inmate’s cries for help. A Correction Officer tasked with maintaining a post in a mental health unit that has little or no experience dealing with the mentally ill isn’t the fault of the officer. Would a reasonable person rightly be surprised – even shocked- that someone just out of their probation -- with a smattering of training some 3 years prior—had only once before worked a unit of inmates deemed to have mental or adjustment disorders?
Our officers have partners in the jails, particularly when it comes to the mentally ill. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the private healthcare entity Corizon Health are the primary caregivers to this population.
Any untimely death is a tragedy. And regardless of the crime accused of, or as in this case plead guilty to of child abuse, no one should be able to take their life if capable and professional medical staff are in place to divert these matters properly into a medical setting. The question is- is Corizon up to the task of this? The answer is no and more questions need to be posed as to the mounting evidence of incompetence by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in supervision, or that of Corizon and their procedures – or BOTH – in these deaths for which Correction Officers have been blamed.
Almost one year ago the Doctor’s Council raised to the Board of Correction the issue of violence in the jails – which includes the violence inmates perpetrate on each other and themselves. Thereafter the Correction Officers Benevolent Association and other Unions joined to give the DOC advice on how to better staff the jails and train our Officers to avoid these unfortunate outcomes. With the exception of increasing some security staffing in the clinics, this advice was roundly ignored out of concerns over finances of the DOC and the profits of Corizon.
Corizon’s history of putting profits over care is too lengthily to document here, but suffice to say it includes prison and jail systems across America. Still, when it comes to the deaths of inmates like Victor Woods or Fabian Cruz, it’s always the Correction Officer that bears the brunt both the scrutiny and the blame. This is spin control, pure and simple. The fact is Correction Officers are currently poorly equipped to properly respond to incidents such as that taking the life of an inmate on October 1, 2014 or January 1, 2015, or the infamous “perfect storm” of the death of Jerome Murdough.
Our members come to work each day and perform their duties in a professional manner. No one wants to see an inmate die by their own hand (or the hand of other inmates) on their watch. The maintenance of our integrity is important to us, and we’re not prepared to sit idly by while it’s being repeatedly impugned by those who know better.