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“Cynthia in Blunderland”, or How New York City Lost Control of Its Jails

Former Commanding Officer of Intelligence at Rikers Island tells us, “We have lost control of our jails” 

by Marc Bullaro

Rikers Island (Photo Wikimedia Commons, by Tim Rodenberg)

It should be obvious that the objectives of the Correction Department  cannot be accomplished unless the Correction Officers are in control of the jails. Yet this is no longer accepted as a basic premise. The reasons for this are many and complex, but one of the principal ones is that Commissioner Cynthia Brann, like Alice in Wonderland, fell down the “rabbit hole” and has now become Cynthia in Blunderland.

The objective of the New York City Correction Department should be to provide a safe environment for staff and inmates without violating the law or an individual’s Constitutional Rights. But what most of us don’t think about is what happens once people are arrested or convicted and enter the penal system. The fact is that the most dangerous place to be is behind bars. Surprisingly, this is true not only for the inmates but even more so for the correction officers who supervise them. In an article in The Telegraph we learn that in one of the latest prison riots in Birmingham, UK,  the inmates had to step in to protect the officers from violence.  

If you’re hoping that the situation is any better here in the US, stop hoping. As a 29 year veteran of the New York City Correction Department and former Commanding Officer of the Correction Intelligence Bureau on Rikers Island, I can confidently assure you that we have indeed lost control of our jails.  For the past five years media coverage has shown the brutal assaults on staff, many perpetrated by groups of inmates targeting one or more staff members—in short, in-house gangs.  Just a few days ago following an incident in which an inmate slashed 10 others, all Trinatarios gang members barricaded themselves in a cafeteria unit on Rikers Island. Emergency Service Unit Correction Officers in riot gear had to break through the barricade and use chemical agents to subdue the inmates to regain control of the area.  

It should be obvious that the objectives of the Correction Department  cannot be accomplished unless the Correction Officers are in control of the jails. Yet this is no longer accepted as a basic premise. The reasons for this are many and complex, but one of the principal ones is that Commissioner Cynthia Brann, like Alice in Wonderland, fell down the “rabbit hole” and has now become Cynthia in Blunderland. This rabbit hole is the land where the inmates constantly disregard and disrespect Correction Officers, where staff is assaulted with urine and feces regularly, where the administration offers little support for Correction Officers.  Indeed, in this topsy-turvy world it is the staff that faces departmental discipline for the smallest inconsequential violation and the inmates who angrily demand to know why they are being given instructions. Giving an inmate a lawful order or instruction is often followed by the inmate’s resistance and then the inevitable long negotiations with him to gain the compliance that should be an unnegotiable condition of incarceration. Often the only way to break the deadlock is to resort to “bribing” the inmate into compliance. This inmate refusal to comply with simple instructions  causes  delays and sometimes leads to the use of force to gain acquiescence if the bribe doesn’t work. In “Blunderland” it is the inmates who refuse to lock in their cells after a violent slashing, or who refuse orders to appear for a scheduled court date. Staff are perpetually yearning for leadership at the highest level, yet rarely find it.  Correction Officers are blamed for political failures in an agency whose upper echelon embraces weakness and fear. To be fair, we should mention that roughly 80% of the inmates want Correction Officers to be in control and to protect them. They too want to live peacefully. They want to attend programs that encourage inner development, they want to re-enter society as better citizens.  Unfortunately, the remaining 20% of the inmates are controlling the jails to the detriment of staff and the other inmates. This DOC rabbit hole is not a children’s story in a fiction novel written in 1865 , it is a real life law enforcement malady with serious consequences in 2018.

Because of the Mayor’s policies and Commissioner Brann’s ineffective leadership, the staff has lost some of their legal authority and most of their respect. As a result, some uniform staff members don’t enforce many of the rules, simply to avoid  confrontations with inmates. To the Mayor and Commissioner, avoiding confrontations may seem like success, but to Correction professionals this is the road to ever escalating violence and chaos. To achieve safety in the prisons, the one thing that you never want is for the staff to be afraid to take action.

During his election campaign Bill de Blasio promised to reform the criminal justice system. Once Mayor, he pushed the agenda of liberalizing it with rhetoric that defied truth and logic, claiming that “we can stay safe while building a fairer criminal justice system. With record-low crime and fewer inmates, the Mayor has shown we can have less incarceration and a safer city”.  Reform, according to the Merrian-Webster dictionary means to improve by removing or correcting faults or problems. Given the current chaos in the jails and the low morale prevalent among the staff, we can safely say that de Blasio’s political agenda is not reforming the system, it is deforming it.  Perhaps they could take a cue from the “First Step Act” that was just passed by the Senate as an example of criminal justice reform that New York should emulate.

To implement his agenda de Blasio gave away many advantages necessary to keep control of the jails, thereby endangering the safety of all concerned. He relinquished some of uniform staff’s legal authority to act, and he appointed feckless Commissioners who refuse to speak truth to power. In an ironic twist, while de Blasio has alleviated the discipline on inmates, he and Commissioner Brann impose Draconian discipline on first line staff who are charged with the duty to enforce rules that his  own policies make almost impossible to administer.

Let me be very clear, I believe DOC can be saved notwithstanding the long term damage Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Brann have caused. Presently, there are some Deputy Commissioners and Chiefs that are respected and have the knowledge, leadership ability, and policy making skills to stop the tailspin DOC is in, but political turpitude can kill any such good intentions. As can the hypocrisy of the mantra chanted by the political appointees safely ensconced at the Headquarters in the Bulova building on Astoria Boulevard, who claim that the DOC will not tolerate inmate assaults on staff. This kind of blatant deceit lowers the already low staff morale, especially when another assault occurs immediately after it.

If the DOC was a business corporation the CEO would have been replaced years ago and  the company would have declared bankruptcy—moral and financial. Currently, the DOC has the lowest inmate population in decades, yet it has the highest amount of overtime cost; the highest number of Correction Officers yet still high number of assaults on staff and inmates. This is not a brilliant record from any perspective.  However, the tax payers through no fault or choice of their own, continue to bankroll this failing strategy that the Mayor claims to be “Correction reform”. Bill deBlasio and Cynthia Brann continue to chase the rabbit down the proverbial hole, oblivious to the dysfunction that not only surrounds them but that was created by them.

 

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