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Union head rips City Hall stats on Rikers Island safety

COBA Pres. Norman Seabrook rips Mayor de Blasio for selectively choosing statiistics to show a decline of violence at Rikers Island.
Courtesy of COBA
By Bill Parry

The rift between the head of the prison guards’ union and City Hall over safety at Rikers Island is growing wider.

During a graduation ceremony for nearly 600 new correction officers last Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte highlighted the reduction in serious assaults on staff and the city’s unprecedented investments of nearly $200 million in new staff, equipment, training, technology and repairs for correction officer safety.

They said that inmate assaults on staff with serious injuryhave dropped 11 percent this year, and uses of force with serious injuries are down 17 percent department-wide during the same period.

“We know the challenges of this job, and this is why we are deploying every tool we have to fulfill our obligation to protect New York’s Boldest,” de Blasio said. “For too long, Rikers was an unsafe island for both officers and inmates, but through sustained investments and dedicated leadership, we are rewriting the tale of Rikers and transforming it into an island of safety, fairness and rehabilitation.”

The graduates will play a key role in Ponte’s 14-point anti-violence agenda, rolled out earlier this year, which includes new strategies to keep weapons and drugs out of the jails, control house inmates more effectively to reduce violence, bring comprehensive camera coverage to DOC facilities and implement educational opportunities to keep inmates meaningfully occupied.

“Our 14-point anti-violence reform agenda is creating safer jails,” Ponte said. “It has taken some time, but now the statistics are beginning to catch up to the innovations. We cannot return to the failed methods of the past, and we will continue our push until a culture of safety reigns in the Department. DOC will once again command its rightful place as a national leader in the field of correction.”

After Ponte’s comments when the mayor had departed, the president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association Norman Seabrook, went ballistic on the statistics.

“You are entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts,” Seabrook said. “Selectively choosing statistics to show a reduction in violence directed at jail staff is simply disingenuous. Just look at what happened to Officer Calderon, who was slashed within an inch of his life only last month, and it’s clear the jails are not getting safer for staff.”

Correction Officer Raymond Calderon, 31, was in the graduation audience. He needed 26 stitches to close wounds he received on his head, face and hands in a slashing attack by two inmates on Rikers Island. The union conteds that this year, through the end of November, there have been 280 serious injuries to correction officers, including fractures, stitches, slashes and more. That is compared to 216 injuries last year, they said.

“We support reform at Rikers and even some of the department’s highly publicized efforts, but our No. 1 priority must remain the safety of correction officers, civilians and inmates, and that has not been their focus,” Seabrook said.

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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