The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association’s effort to get the city and the Department of Correction to provide Correction Officers with better protection from violent inmates can proceed.
In what COBA General Counsel Steve Isaacs called a “novel and significant decision,” a Bronx Supreme Court Justice rebutted the city’s contentions that courts do not have jurisdiction to address the matter.
Not Enough Trained
In effect, Justice Rúben Franco found that Correction Officers are entitled to protections outlined in a state labor law covering public employees, refuting the city’s claim that relevant state labor laws do not cover injuries sustained in the line of duty.
COBA, in an action filed in 2016, alleged that the city had failed to provide a workplace that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to its employees and which will provide reasonable and adequate protection to the lives, safety or health of its employees,” as Labor Law 27-a reads.
“DOC has failed to address what is a small population of predatory inmates who cause the largest and gravest types of injuries to Correction Officers, as well as others within the system,” Justice Franco wrote.
At issue was the union’s request that the city and the DOC give more Correction Officers training and equipment to deal with particularly violent inmates. Although the DOC has a corps of Correction Officers assigned to oversee the jail system’s most violent inmates, their numbers total fewer than 200 of the department’s 9,000 COs. In its filing, the union said that those Emergency Service Unit Correction Officers do not constitute a sufficient number, leaving non-ESU COs to assume their duties.
That cadre of officers, the suit said, is inadequately trained and not sufficiently equipped—with, for instance, spit-masks, mittens and restraints—to effectively oversee that violent jail population.
“This is such an important issue because the Corrections union has said over and over, ‘you’re not making jails safe,’” Mr. Isaacs said.
He said the ruling applies not just to correction officers but to all law-enforcement groups that are confronted with violence.
COBA’s president, Elias Husamudeen, said the city’s reluctance to institute a comprehensive training regimen has resulted in an increase of serious injuries to Corrections Officers. The “ideal,” he said, would be to have all 9,000 COs trained and equipped to deal with violent prisoners.
Mr. Husamudeen has said that recent criminal-justice-reform efforts, including the curtailing of solitary confinement, have left jail populations by and large more violent.
“We have a whole host of Correction Officers who have been assaulted...and it’s because of a lack of training,” he said.
Both the city’s Law Department and the Department of Correction declined to comment on the decision.
Although Mr. Isaacs said it was possible the city could appeal the order before the suit proceeds, he was hopeful it and the DOC would instead address the issue and provide the training and equipment. He characterized the reluctance to do as “a systemic failure.”
“We’re hoping to get to the stage of deposition,” he said. “We look forward to the putting of evidence before the court.”
Mr. Husamudeen said that although superior officers within DOC “who understood the dangers” have addressed the training and equipment shortcomings to the degree they can, a more systematic regime needs to be initiated.
“Rather than appealing, fighting and dragging this thing through...it would be advantageous for [DOC and the city] to sit down with the union and say, ‘let’s resolve this and make the jails safer,’” he said. “We’re not going to stop fighting and were going to keep fighting for safer jails, as other people just talk about it.”
The suit also asserts that the DOC has not adequately conducted risk assessments.
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