In New York’s largest jail, a “deep-seated culture of violence is pervasive,” in which “brute force” is a first option, not a last resort, solitary confinement is used to punish teens for offenses that would be mere disciplinary violations outside of prison, and staff are intimidated out of reporting misconduct, according to a recent Department of Justice report.
Overall, the DOJ found the conduct of Rikers Island staff constitutes a “pattern and practice of constitutional violations” against inmates — most of them charged with crimes and not even yet convicted. But a bill quietly passed by the New York State legislature and awaiting Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature would take away the power of prosecutors in that county to file charges against staff for violations of the law.
The corrections officers’ association that represents prison staff complained that the Bronx District Attorney was prosecuting too many prison staff and not enough prison inmates. So they asked the legislature if they could just put together a plan to stop the prosecutions, by switching the jurisdiction of the jail over to Queens instead.
“We believe we will be treated a little bit differently in Queens, in Richard Brown’s county,” Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook told the New York Post. “[Bronx District Attorney Robert] Johnson doesn’t give the correction officers the benefit of the doubt.”
That doesn’t seem to jibe with recent decisions of the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. In a recent incident even after the DOJ’s scathing report, Bronx prosecutors declined to file charges against officers who had beaten inmates so severely that blood splattered on the walls. The New York City Department of Investigation had referred the case for prosecution, and the New York Times pointed to the case as “a striking case study of just how rare it is for Rikers guards to be punished.”
The recent Justice Department report found that at Rikers, “a culture of excessive force persists, where correction officers physically abuse adolescent inmates with the expectation that they will face little or no consequences for their unlawful conduct.” These findings jibe with a nationwide dearth of accountability for police and other law enforcement officers.
Nonetheless, corrections officers seem to think they will be punished even less if jurisdiction is moved to a different county, perhaps because of the message that the bill would send. In fact, the district attorneys for both Queens and the Bronx oppose the bill, arguing along with the New York Civil Liberties Union that the bill is likely unconstitutional, and sends a terrible message to counties that they could lose their jurisdiction over some areas if they pursue cases that are controversial or politically unpalatable. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s office also opposes it, pointing out that the bill would also strip other agencies’ power to prosecute some crimes at the jail, the New York Law Journal reports.
No one other than corrections officers seems to support the bill. The attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society piled on to complain that the bill will transfer jurisdiction to an office that has no experience with the sorts of violent incidents typical of Rikers.
Despite all this opposition, the legislature passed the bill under the reasoning that Queens County would have more time and resources to prosecute these cases — a rationale disputed by the two counties’ district attorneys, who also refuted claims that the bill would save money.
In a letter urging Cuomo to veto the bill, New York Civil Liberties Union leaders call the proposal an “ill-advised special-interest bill that slipped through the legislative process on a false premise.”
“It is firmly opposed by every public stakeholder with an important interest in the matter,” the letter adds. “It threatens fundamental constitutional guarantees, and it purports to relieve state officials of the responsibilities of office simply for performing as the New York State Constitution demands.”