Rikers hallway

THE CORNER OF RIKERS AND TROUBLE: This video provided by the Correction Captains Association shows dozens of detainees at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center milling around outside a Rikers Island medical clinic after a shortage of Correction Officers allowed them to follow one inmate who was given a pass to go to the clinic, according to union President Patrick Ferraiuolo. 'These guys are hanging out like they're on the corner,' he said, the day after the de Blasio administration filed suit accusing the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association of 'causing, instigating, encouraging or condoning a strike or other concerted action or slowdown.' All three jail-system-officer unions have denied a job action has occurred and said the Mayor brought the suit to deflect attention from his own failure to deal with the growing crisis at Rikers.

Whoever coined the phrase "You can never be too rich or too thin" was only half right when it comes to the de Blasio administration's lawsuit accusing the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association of "causing, instigating, encouraging or condoning a strike" in the form of an unexcused-absence rate among its members that's far higher than in 2019 and 2020.

Claiming the union would want 2,300 officers to miss work monthly to make life even more miserable for the larger number of colleagues who show up at Rikers Island is pretty rich.

But the closest thing to a smoking gun the city has to support this theory—a memo from COBA delegate Donna Schnirring to Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, after he solicited suggestions on how to improve conditions, that stated if he heeded her proposals, "I can promise to have officers...that are out sick and Medically Monitored return to work," is too thin to stand up.

And so it wasn't that big a shock that, less than 36 hours after it was filed, the administration withdrew the suit during a court hearing, claiming it was satisfied that the union would now encourage members to report to work.

The 22-page complaint filed by city Corporation Counsel Georgia Pestana seized on Ms. Schnirring's comment as if it were the Maltese Falcon, adding, "This statement by a duly elected COBA delegate is an admission that COBA is aware that officers are purposefully absenting themselves from work as leverage for policy change and that COBA could, if it chose, end or at least mitigate that job action if various policies are changed to their satisfaction."

Not Speaking for Union

But as COBA President Benny Boscio said in a Sept. 21 phone interview, the day after the city released the complaint to the media, Ms. Schnirring was not speaking for the union.

"That was just a response to the Commissioner's request" for suggestions, he said. "She basically did that on her own."

The de Blasio administration based its lawsuit on a dramatic increase in the monthly average of COs who were absent without official leave during the first eight months of the year2,304compared to the average of 773 last year, which was a 20 percent increase over 2019.

That jump, however, comes without mention of the steady rise in the inmate population, from about 3,900 a few months into the pandemic to the current 6,000, at a time when reluctance to incarcerate has meant that those being locked up have almost always committed hard-core crimes. Mr. Boscio noted that up to 70 percent of the detainees at Rikers are facing felony charges, and 1,200 officers have been injured in the past year, with stabbings and slashings by inmates doubling during that time.

There is a literally vicious cycle at work. While a greater percentage of inmates at Rikers tend to be more violent than in the past, they're also enabled, according to former Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association President Sidney Schwartzbaum, by the fact that the department has eliminated its search teams "because of the shortage of officers."

"This is just passing the buck by an incompetent administration," Mr. Schwartzbaum said hours after the suit was filed.

Publicly, Mr. Schiraldi is playing the good soldier for a Mayor who seems to think that if he states that demands by a Federal monitor appointed to oversee a six-year-old consent decree are unrealistic in the current climate, he will be canceled by his fellow progressives.

Isolating the Dangerous

But he is realistic enough about problems that have nothing to do with officer absences that Sept. 10 he wrote Board of Correction Chair Jennifer Jones Austin asking for a renewal of a six-month variance from the Board's Minimum Standards  "for the purpose of maintaining the safety and security of Department facilities when individuals in custody are known or reasonably believed to have dangerous contraband secreted on or within their body."

This involved a program known as separation status housing under which detainees suspected of having contraband on their persons can be placed in isolation if they refuse to submit to body scans. Commissioner Schiraldi informed Ms. Jones Austin that the threat of that had been enough to recover 171 contraband items without even having to use the body scanners, and another 325 contraband items "were recovered after the individual received a positive scan and without the need to facilitate their placement in separation status housing."

The correction unions insist, however, that violence has continued to rise involving inmates attacking both officers and fellow detainees because the virtual elimination of solitary confinement in the form of the Central Punitive Segregation Unit has taken away their most-effective deterrent to egregious behavior.

"They need to challenge some of the Nunez litigation," Correction Captains' Association President Patrick Ferraiuolo said, referring to the 2015 consent decree arising from the case brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan. "You've created a dangerous environment because of [the scrapping of] CPSU."

Mr. Schwartzbaum agreed, saying, "The policies that have been implemented by de Blasio have taken away every tool. There's just no consequences [for inmates who commit assaults]. I'm not saying put somebody in 'The Bing' for a minor violation, but when it's violence...they need to bring back punitive segregation."

Deny It's Orchestrated 

Both men said the claim that COBA was orchestrating the high number of absences made no sense, given the fact that, besides doing so being a violation of the Taylor Law (the city is seeking $1-million-a-day penalties for both members of the union's board and the union itself), that kind of job action would create greater danger for the officers who continued to report to their posts.

Mr. Ferraiuolo said if officers were not showing up with no medical excuse for their absence, "They're doing it on their own because they're petrified of going into these jails and they're tired of being abused by this administration."

Mr. Schwartzbaum added, "When you have people working three and four [consecutive] shifts, sometimes without food, they get sick; their immune system gets broken down."

Conversely, he said, "If you build up morale on that job, people are gonna want to come to work. Create an environment where inmates and officers are safe."

Captain Ferraiuolo echoed that point, saying, "No union supported a sick-out. We want officers to come back to work, but they have to feel supported."

And  the Mayor's failure to visit Rikers Island since June 2017, when he was campaigning for a second term while vowing to shut down the giant prison complex, sends a stunning message of indifference to the situation officers find themselves in, the CCA leader said.

That, Mr. Boscio said, was what made the charges in the city's lawsuit so exasperating.

'His Criminal Negligence'

"The thought that we are doing a job action to keep members from going to work and cause more of an unsafe situation than we already have in the jails, that's ridiculous," he said. "The Mayor's trying to turn this around and scapegoat us because of his failure to hire correction officers for three years. He's trying to take the responsibility away from himself. This is criminal negligence, what he's done on Rikers."

The unions protested a policy implemented by Mr. Schiraldi in mid-summer requiring officers who missed a day of work to be examined by doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital before they could returnwhich the Commissioner initially claimed had reduced absencespredicting it would backfire, and the city lawsuit suggests that they were right.

Mr. Boscio cited the case of one of his members who called in sick Sept. 7 and was unable to get an appointment to be examined at Mount Sinai until Sept. 10. He said that despite assurances from Mr. de Blasio and First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan that the problem would be addressed, it hasn't been.

When it was mentioned that the lawsuit seemed to imply that the union had an affirmative duty to tell its members to suck it up and get back to work, Mr. Boscio said it showed the Mayor's lack of caring about the physical and mental well-being of the officers.

"I think there are multiple reasons" for the soaring absence rate, he said, starting with the triple and even quadruple tours while trying to control a more-violent detainee population.

"People are mentally and physically exhausted," Mr. Boscio said of his rank and file. "It's like this is a jail system in a Third World country."

Skeptical on 'Triple' Pledge

Mr. de Blasio has promised that triple shifts will cease in October, mentioning a new class of Correction Officer trainees due to enter the department's Academy.

Mr. Boscio wasn't buying. For one thing, he noted, those officers won't have completed training and come to work in the jails until January, after the Mayor has left office. More importantly, he said, nearly 18 months ago Mr. de Blasio described triple shifts as "dumb management" and declared they would soon end.

State Sen. Diane Savino, who late last year introduced legislation that put an end to the Correction Department's practice of placing officers on a "chronic sick" list if they missed more than a couple of weeks of work after contracting the coronavirus, pointed out that there were "female officers who are being sexually assaulted and nothing is done."

While Mr. de Blasio has blamed the court system for allowing a huge backlog of cases, Ms. Savino, who represents Staten Island and a slice of western Brooklyn, said that he has not pressed Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clarkwhose office has jurisdiction over Rikersto pursue additional criminal charges against inmates who commit assaults that would carry sentences that should be tacked on to whatever they received for the offenses that got them locked up.

Noting that Mr. de Blasio has recently caught flak from some fellow progressives among lawmakers who visited Rikers and were astonished at how conditions have deteriorated there, she wondered at how he could bring a lawsuit charging dereliction of duty against an organization whose members are 85 percent people of color.

"This is just pouring gasoline on a fire," Senator Savino said. "Even Rudy [Giuliani], who was an asshole, never sued a union."  

Calls COBA Rogue Union

One of the more-astonishing aspects of the lawsuit was that nearly five pages of the complaint rehashed past problems it said were part of "a decades-long history of illegal job actions either instigated or condoned by defendant COBA, its officials and members."

It cited job actions by the union and its members that occurred starting with the administration of Mayor John Lindsay in 1972, continued under Ed Koch in 1987, intensified in 1990 with the blocking of the bridge linking Rikers to Queens during David Dinkins's first year as Mayor, and then plagued Michael Bloomberg's final six weeks as Mayor in 2013, when then-union President Norman Seabrook prevented buses that were scheduled to transport two inmates to the Bronx courthouse to testify about alleged physical abuse by officers from leaving Rikers by having them declared mechanically defective.

That incident, perhaps the most of any of the job actions, represented an abuse of power by a correction-union leader that at the least should have led to charges alleging Taylor Law violations being brought against Mr. Seabrook. He was later removed from office and convicted of receiving $60,000 in bribes in return for steering $20 million in union funds to a hedge fund that soon after filed for bankruptcy. 

But unlike some city unions that in the past were linked to organized crime, there is no connecting thread for improper behavior running through the incidents cited. It makes no more sense to allege such a pattern with COBA than it does to paint Transport Workers Union Local 100 in a similar light based on three major transit strikes over the past 55 years and a bunch of threatened walkouts that were ultimately averted.

'So Weak It's Laughable'

Mr. Schwartzbaum, noting the 1972 incident in which the city sought a temporary injunction against the officers union, said "trying to tie it into what is occurring today is so weak it's laughable. Equally ludicrous would be for unions to blame the incompetence of management's indifference in the 1970s, which led to citywide riots in the jails, for today's problems...I guess when you have no solutions, and only want to fix blame, you file a lawsuit against COBA."

Mr. Boscio seemed amused by the attempt at Mr. de Blasio's behest to allege a 49-year pattern of reckless behavior by the union, saying, "I was born in 1971. I just think this guy is grasping at straws and trying to deflect attention from his own failures."

The following morning, Mr. de Blasio essentially decided, let's call the whole thing off. It wasn't clear that detente had emerged between the two sides. In a late-morning briefing, he served up this message: "to the union that aided and abetted mass absenteeism, you should be ashamed of yourself."

And even after the suit was shelved, Mr. Boscio was still steaming, issuing a statement calling him a "pathologically lying Mayor."

AOC: Turn 'em Loose

But Mr. de Blasio could live with that more easily than he could with the call the previous day by a group of elected officials, most prominent among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for Rikers to be closed immediately and the entire inmate population to be released.

Was this a wake-up call that the mess at Rikers could not be passed off as the fault of a union. Or was it panic on Mr. de Blasio's part that he was squarely in the sights of The Mighty AOC, the second-term Congresswoman who is, for better or worse, the progressive deity he once hoped to become?

Either way, the decision was an unintentional reminder that there were exactly 100 days left in his mayoralty, and the end couldn't come quickly enough.     

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