Governor Cuomo late last night vetoed a bill drafted by the correction officers’ union that seeks to protect guards from prosecution for acts of brutality against inmates at Rikers Island facilities. The bill would have given the Queens District Attorney exclusive jurisdiction in such cases.
“We’re relieved that Gov. Cuomo has put the health and safety of people, kids and even prison guards at Rikers Island over the political gamesmanship of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “We need more accountability at Rikers, not less, and a wholesale reform of the culture of corruption and abuse that has gone on for too long.”
In August, the NYCLU sent a letter urging Gov. Cuomo to veto the correction officers’ union bill. Norman Seabrook, head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, made no secret that the bill was intended to protect guards at Rikers from rigorous criminal prosecution. In commenting on the bill, he said, “We believe we will be treated a little bit differently in Queens… [Bronx District Attorney Robert] Johnson doesn’t give the correction officers the benefit of the doubt.”
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The Bronx District Attorney has prosecuted crimes at Rikers Island since the county itself was established 100 years ago. If Gov. Cuomo had signed this bill, it would have been the first time in history that the New York state government overrode a county’s authority to prosecute crimes that take place within its borders. Moreover, the bill made its way to the governor’s desk just as US Attorney Preet Bahara released a report on the deep-seated culture of violence against young prisoners at Rikers Island. Teenagers were reportedly beaten with radios, batons and broomsticks, and left in solitary confinement for months at a time. The report blamed this brutality on a failure to hold guards accountable for using excessive and unnecessary force.