Despite Mayor de Blasio's statement last April that it had been "a horrible mistake" to make Correction Officers work triple shifts to compensate for staff shortages, the leader of the officers' union asserted Feb. 18 that it has become a regular feature in the jail system and is undermining the health of his members.
Starting three months ago, Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Benny Boscio said in a phone interview, the Department of Correction resumed the triple shifts because it failed to get city funding to hire new officers at a time when many were leaving the system, hundreds of others are out with the coronavirus and the jail population continues to increase.
'Weakening Immune Systems'
While most of the roughly 1,400 COs who have contracted the virus got it last spring—with eight of them dying—since September more than 280 of his members have been sidelined with the disease. This has occurred while another 1,400 officers left the system, either retiring or finding work elsewhere, reducing the number of officers to 8,200, Mr. Boscio said.
The number who can be involved in dealing with inmates has been further reduced, he noted, because hundreds of officers who were injured in trying to subdue violent inmates were on "medically monitored" status, a form of light duty. And while the jail population over the past year has risen from roughly 3,900 to 5,400, consistent with the significant rise in crime on city streets during that period, there has been no new hiring to replace the COs who departed.
That stands in sharp contrast, Mr. Boscio said, with the appointments since late October of two classes of Police Officers, who while still in training will be able to offer needed reinforcements to the NYPD by April.
The shortage of COs has led to his members working an increasing number of double and triple shifts, he said, without adequate rest and sometimes without taking meal breaks. For those officers, the COBA leader said, this has meant, "You're weakening your immune system, you're missing meals and you have the pandemic."
Blames Brann for Shortage
He claimed that Commissioner Cynthia Brann had not been forceful enough in communicating the urgency of the situation to City Hall, saying, "They put in a class of 800, 900 cops—you would think they would realize they're gonna need more Correction Officers, too."
While the Correction Department lists 700 posts in the jail system that are not staffed because they're "unbudgeted," Mr. Boscio said that as many as 1,500 new officers would be needed to staff those posts around the clock without having to require double and triple shifts from current COs.
And, he said, the personnel shortages have impacts that go beyond officers being worn down by long hours and missed meals. At a time when assaults by inmates continue to rise because of what he claimed was a dubious decision to house members of the same gangs together, "My officers have to wait an average of 30 minutes for [the department] to get a probe team to respond when they push their personal body alarms."
Mr. Boscio added, "It's been open season [on] Correction Officers. Officers are ready to walk out—that's how bad it's gotten."
Adding financial injury to the physical ones, he said some of his members had not been compensated for up to 100 extra hours they had worked in recent months because "the overtime slips are not making it to the Chief of Administration's Office. It's gross mismanagement."
'She Won't Talk to Me'
Addressing the problems in-house, he said has been complicated because his past criticism led Commissioner Brann to "cut off communication. I've tried to work with her but she refuses to deal with me. You can't do business like that."
The Correction Department did not respond to a series of questions about Mr. Boscio's complaints.
A recent news piece on WNBC-TV, which featured a female officer with a young son to care for who was in tears when she spoke of coming off triple shifts and attempting to drive home, "but I'm falling asleep at the wheel," got the Mayor's attention. It secured Mr. Boscio a meeting with First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, who he said "assured me they're gonna do everything that they can to rectify the situation."
The union has also enlisted outside political support. Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who heads the Committee on Governmental Operations, issued a statement calling on the city to "end this abusive policy," adding that officers "are often forced to sleep in their cars rather than risk driving home" after working for 24 hours straight. "This alone should be of great concern to all New Yorkers."
Queens Assemblyman David Weprin, who is running for City Comptroller, said the impact that working extended shifts can have on COs in the form of "poor judgment, disorientation" also posed a threat to inmates they were supervising.
Couldn't Afford TRO
COBA last summer obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the DOC from having officers work triple shifts, but the city subsequently got the order amended so that it would have been prohibitively expensive for the union to keep it in effect.
When Mr. de Blasio was first asked about the triple shifts last April, he told reporters that requiring officers to work for 24 hours straight was "just a dumb, managerial mistake...You know, a 24-hour shift just doesn't make sense, and my strong impression was there were other options here, and that's what I want to see happen: that we not do that again."
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