When it Comes to Rikers, the City Never Learns

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Norman Seabrook at the downtown offices of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association. The powerful union leader goes to great lengths to defend his members.

The chaos and violence inside Rikers Island has been making headlines for months — but the problems inside New York City's jails have been around much longer than that.

Over the last 25 years, the city has settled five class-action lawsuits resulting in a series of court orders and reforms. Yet dysfunction continues to resurface within the city's Department of Correction, creating dire circumstances for both inmates and staff.

A sixth class action lawsuit, this one alleging system-wide, constitutional rights violations and brought by Legal Aid, is now pending. The suit describes brutal scenes of guards bashing inmates in the face with their hand-held radios, and incidents of guards pummeling handcuffed inmates in places without witnesses or cameras. Sometimes, supervisors looked on.

The lawsuit also alleges that staff are not being punished for excessive uses of force. Instead, some are being promoted, despite past histories of serious violence. According to the lawsuit, conditions inside jails have deteriorated. Once again, Riker's is afflicted by a culture of violence and lack of accountability. 

Unlike the current lawsuit, the class-action suits of the last few decades typically targeted one particular part of the jail system. In 1983, it was the Eric M. Taylor Center on Rikers Island. In 1981, it was Bellevue's Prison Psychiatric Ward. In the late 1970s, it was for guards beating adolescent inmates. Richard Pagan, a retired correction chief, said that suit was very similar to the findings in a federal investigation released earlier this month.  "It was the same thing, where there were a number of abuses of force...where you had substantial injuries and they were poorly investigated," he said.  

Pagan said that as a result of that suit, the Outlaw Consent Decree was born, requiring every use of force against an adolescent to be investigated within 12 hours. Investigators had to respond 24 hours a day. Pagan said the decree meant the number of teens abused started to drop, because staff knew they were being monitored and watched. The decree has since expired.

In 1998, a different class-action settlement resulted in a court order that demanded a thorough review of the correction staff working at the Central Punitive Segregation Unit at Rikers, also known as the "Bing" or solitary confinement. Jonathan Chasan, an attorney with Legal Aid's Prisoner's Rights Project who was representing inmates at the time, said that whenever a review revealed that a staff member had injured an inmate, the employee was forbidden to work in the unit.

Chasan said the thorough vetting of staff was effective, especially when it led to the introduction of new supervisors. "After they got to that unit and were working there for a period of time, we began to see significant improvement," he said. 

But that court order is no longer in effect either and according to attorneys and advocates, the situation has declined. Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, said, "Numbers [of violent incidents] started to go north in 2010 under the Bloomberg Administration, when the mayor, who I have a great deal of respect for, began to distance himself, if you will, from different agencies — and one of the agencies that had been forgotten about is the New York City Department of Correction." 

Seabrook said he had warned people about the spike in violence, but nobody was listening. He said the situation is complicated and that correction officers are the ones often put in harm's way, leading them to defend themselves.

Seabrook is a skillful political player who has won many perks for his members, winning him their loyalty. But he is also known to use strong-arm tactics. Last November, the Bloomberg administration accused him of stopping the buses to city court in order to keep an inmate from testifying against the guards accused of assaulting him. And back in April, he mocked the newly-appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte. But lately, he's striking a more conciliatory tone. Recently he apologized to Ponte and praised him for trying to weed out bad managers. 

But the problem goes beyond incompetent management. Pagan said the one intractable, underlying issue is that Riker's is an isolated island full of marginalized people who are both out of sight and out of mind.

"Nobody cares," he said. "It's only when it bubbles up to the surface that people start looking at it for a short while, then it goes away again."