A tentative contract deal between New York City and the correction officers’ union reportedly calls for a new Central Arrest Unit at the Rikers Island jail complex, designed to prosecute inmates who assault corrections officers. The deal would mark the first time members of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) have had a contract since 2011.
While there are very few details available about the proposal, The New York Times reports the Department of Correction will work with the Bronx district attorney to create the unit and prosecute inmate-on-officer assault cases “more efficiently.”
COBA has pushed to preserve correction officers’ power and authority in the face of calls for greater inmate protections and less harmful and abusive conditions. At a Dec. 2014 Board of Correction hearing, COBA President Norman Seabrook shared his view that “It is unacceptable for people to sit here and advocate for inmates who have raped and robbed others.” The union has argued against restrictions on the use of solitary confinement and pushed for the $14.8 million isolation unit known as the ESHU.
They have complained that the punishments are insufficient for inmate-on-officer assault, and that the Bronx DA has not been aggressive in prosecuting these cases. So the Central Arrest Unit appears to be a bargaining chip in these contract negotiations.
Establishing such a unit, which will consume resources at both the DA’s office and the DOC, and ostensibly place some emphasis on these specific cases, is a decision worth examining closely because the Central Arrest Unit touches on several sensitive issues for Rikers Island. First among them is the extreme backlog of inmate cases at the foundation of the lengthy pretrial incarceration many people face. The incoming DA has pledged to assign designated prosecutors to Rikers Island in an effort to process more cases, but much more will need to be done. Allocating resources and attention to these cases is unlikely to have any impact on the major delays currently facing the courts — a solid source of any ‘unrest’ there may be behind bars.
There is also no similar unit to expedite claims made by inmates who are abused and attacked by guards — a rather large oversight considering this has been the major theme underlying most of the Rikers inmate brutality stories of the last two years. The same goes for reporting attacks by other inmates. But the ‘deep-seated culture of violence‘ at Rikers Island is by no means exclusive to the inmates; in many ways it is a product of the behavior of guards and the environment that behavior breeds.
It’s also worth considering the complicated claim of inmate-on-officer assault. While there certainly are individuals who wittingly attack corrections officers, bear in mind that attacking someone who is usually much larger than you, with weapons and pads and backup, is no small undertaking. The consequences of doing so — both for your body and your sentence and punishment — are huge. From what we know from stories of brutality on Rikers Island, much of the violence is provoked or orchestrated by guards.
Similarly, the DOC has said monthly arrest rates on Rikers have doubled to over 100 compared to the first half of 2015, citing new efforts to improve said arrest rate. But the stories behind these arrests, and whether they were justified, remain unknown.
The point is that, while such violence should be taken seriously, this issue is not so simple, and expediting these cases not only seems unnecessary but could also result in longer jail sentences for inmates on Rikers, right and wrong. The biggest sources of risk to officers and other inmates are abusive conditions, prolonged pretrial detention and isolation, and the absence of adequate mental and medical health services on Rikers. These should be the priorities, and they should not be put in jeopardy for the sake of making a deal.