Citing a litany of shortcomings, including a “failure to provide a safe and healthy work environment,” the union representing Correction Officers has filed suit against the Department of Correction.  

The union’s Article 78 action, which also names the state Department of Labor, says the department has subjected COs “to unsafe and and unhealthy work environments” by denying meals, bathroom breaks, breast-feeding accommodations, and access to water and protective equipment. It also alleges that the department failed to fix broken jail doors. 

'Continued Indifference'

The suit, filed in Queens Supreme Court July 13, also says the DOC has unnecessarily created an unsafe environment for COs by housing members of the same gangs together, which it claims violates the City Charter. 

The union’s president, Benny Boscio Jr., blamed the “continued indifference” of agency officials  for what he said were “deplorable working conditions”--the worst, he said, he had seen in his 22 years with the department. 

He said the state of affairs for Officers was particularly lamentable given their critical role in ensuring that the coronavirus pandemic did not overrun the facilities. 

“Here we are a year later, and rather than supporting our officers and providing them with basic rights all workers are afforded, this agency has created a hostile and unsafe work environment, which has led to over 1,000 Correction Officers resigning over the past two years,” Mr. Boscio said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.

The DOC deferred comment on the suit to the city’s Law Department, whose spokesperson said it was reviewing the matter and would respond in court.

Schiraldi: Triples to End 

But Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, addressed—coincidentally, the department said—some of the complaints and concerns outlined in the suit when he detailed a DOC initiative called #NewDayDOC that launched July 16. 

For instance, he said that repairs of broken jail doors would be fast-tracked and that triple tours would end “as quickly as possible,” in part by requiring that all eligible staff work double shifts before assigning triples, and realigning staff tours. Commissioner Schiraldi, who succeeded Cynthia Brann June 1, said the agency would also implement a plan “to break up gang housing,” starting with young adults.

“As you can see, #NewDayDOC increases safety and fair accountability for everyone,” he wrote in a memo to staff.

The union submitted several affidavits from Correction Officers in support of its action.

COs: Get No Breaks 

One Officer, Bernadette Uniberg, a 45-year-old assigned to the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island, said that while she was previously given a 40-minute meal break during her 8-hour shift, she is now constantly being denied breaks of any sort despite being compelled to work substantial overtime. 

“I am now being forced to regularly work consecutive double and triple tours with no prior notice and not being afforded any meal period, bathroom break or access to food or water,” the 5-year DOC employee wrote.

Several of the affidavits also attested to a shortage of officers. 

But while the DOC expects to graduate a class of 400 Officers later this year, Mr. Schiraldi and the union have recently engaged in a heated back-and-forth, with the Commissioner saying that some officers were falsely claiming to have been sickened by the virus and using that as an excuse to not come to work, thereby cutting into available staff. Mr. Boscio called Mr. Schiraldi’s insinuations “disgraceful” and “an insult.”

Hire COs or Pay Price

The union leader is calling for thousands more COs to be hired or face the prospect of increasingly violent jails. As of the end of June, there were 7,651 Correction Officers, about 600 fewer than a year ago, even as the jail population  increased, Mr. Boscio said, after thousands of inmates were released in the early days of the pandemic. 

The city’s borough-based-jail plan, however, envisions even fewer COs on the rolls. 

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