Correction Officers need more input, training and especially respect if violence, particularly against officers, in city jails is to drop. So testified the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association’s legislative chairman, Frederic Fusco, at a City Council hearing Feb. 3.
While the 10,000-member union is not strictly opposed to discussing wholesale reforms, such as those envisioned in closing Rikers Island and building borough-based jails, city officials—within the Council, in the Mayor’s Office and within the Department of Correction and the Board of Correction—need to provide Correction Officers with additional tools, such as increased authority, if violence is to be quelled, Mr. Fusco, a 15-year CO, told the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee.
Blames DOC, BOC
Citing what he said were 37-percent increases in assaults on COs in both 2018 and 2019, he reproached city officials for not giving sufficient attention to violence perpetrated by inmates on uniformed personnel.
“While the voices of many members of this body are loud and clear expressing concern for safety of inmates, the voices expressing concern for the safety of Correction Officers are much more muted today,” Mr. Fusco said in his opening remarks.
Despite publicizing the lack of safeguards for COs, including at a similar hearing in April 2018, few, if any, of the unions’ concerns are being addressed. He suggested that officials’ determination to close the Rikers Island jails had obscured the “critical issue” of jail violence.
“New jails, whenever they are built, will never be safe and secure if the current BOC and DOC policies which...have made them much less safe are permitted to continue,” he said during nearly 30 minutes of testimony.
Although he did not detail the type and degree of policies he suggested had hastened violence, he did say that would-be Correction Officers needed a longer training-academy tenure in “a better facility” and more training as new programs and initiatives come online.
He suggested that recent rhetoric about reform needed to be “anchored” through a front-line approach “that puts law and order ahead of politics and ahead of ideology with no exceptions.”
In written testimony to the panel, Mr. Fusco enumerated four of COBA’s detailed recommendations for safer jails. They include disciplinary sanctions, such as revoking visitor privileges, commissary access and recreation; punitive segregation for inmates, regardless of their age, who use violence; the re-arrest of inmates found guilty of criminal acts while incarcerated; and stronger charges levied by District Attorneys.
In response to questions from the committee’s Chairman, Councilman Keith Powers, Mr. Fusco intimated that COs are handcuffed by barely defined rules and policies that don’t sufficiently reflect the realities of correctional facilities.
“There has to be rule-making,” he said. “We have to hold individuals accountable. Nobody wants to go into work and mistreat anybody, no matter what side you’re on. We want everybody to be safe.”
He said that 90 percent of uses of force result from inmates’ non-compliance, with the balance stemming from interactions with inmates with mental-health issues.
Mr. Fusco reserved his staunchest critique for those who would put dogma ahead of practice. Reform for the sake of reform, without practicable solutions to curbing excess violence by a jail population that, because of a loosening of punitive measures, has become more dangerous and violent, is irresponsible, he said.
Creating and maintaining safer jails is not merely a matter of policy, he said, “it is a question of doing what is morally correct as well.”
“The question before you is whether your allegiance to your political ideology should trump your obligation to do what is morally correct,” Mr. Fusco said. “What is morally correct is protecting Correction Officers and inmates alike and giving us the necessary tools to do just that.”
The union legislative chairman said it would not permit COs “to continue to be demonized” if and when progressive reforms fail.
Nevertheless, he said it would be a mistake to think Correction Officers would shirk their responsibilities.
“My officers are smart, intelligent” Mr. Fusco said. “They don’t want to go to work and have to get into a use-of-force. They don’t want to have to go work and get hurt. They don’t want to have to go work and get something thrown on them...They’re just hoping to go in and hoping the day goes right.”