Outrage over the human rights abuses at New York City’s Rikers Island penal colony is spreading, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and two other New York-based Congress members speaking out to decry the “inhumane conditions” at the jail after visiting it. Other New York politicians who have spoken out about the abuses at Rikers include Assembly members Jessica González-Rojas and Emily Gallagher and NYC public advocate Jumaane Williams.
Meanwhile, on September 28, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a “disaster emergency” at Rikers Island. This order did not free anyone, providing instead for electronic court hearings to ease the Department of Corrections (DOC) transport infrastructure. Nonetheless, it represented the latest acknowledgment from politicians of what incarcerated people and their supporters have been saying for months: Conditions at Rikers Island represent a humanitarian disaster.
These reports depict prisoners packed into filthy and overcrowded intake areas and other makeshift lodging — deprived of bedding, showers and functioning toilets — for days and even weeks on end. Health care is widely unavailable, and at least 12 people have died on Rikers Island this year. At least one prisoner, Robert Jackson, died after being denied medical care.
The cause of death for at least five people was apparent suicide, and federally appointed monitors reported that guards continue to fail to undertake basic suicide prevention steps, including intervening in attempts that occur in their line of sight. The monitors also report that there has been a spike in violence committed by guards against prisoners, including the rampant use of head blows and chemical weapons to discipline prisoners. The federally appointed monitors recently characterized the situation as “nothing short of an emergency posing an immediate threat” to prisoners and staff alike.
This is not to say that the island’s network of jails has ever been safe, only that even veteran observers like the Legal Aid Society’s Corey Stoughton argue that conditions today represent a crisis unprecedented in recent memory.
Conditions at Rikers have always been symptomatic of New York City’s brutal racialized class structure. Further, many observers are calling attention to the role that judges and prosecutors play in fueling the current crisis by remanding many prisoners to city custody.
But the present crisis has a more immediate cause: Members of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) — the influential union representing the DOC’s uniformed staff — are engaging in apparent “sick-outs” and work stoppages while seeking to secure money for 2,000 new hires of guards at Rikers, pushing to expand the abusive system even as outside observers call for it to be dismantled.
The reduced presence of guards at Rikers has likely reduced rates of some forms of violence, given how recalcitrantly brutal the DOC workforce has proven to be. Prisoners have stepped up to fill the vacuum, affecting basic self-management in instances where guards have simply abandoned their posts for days on end. But in a facility where guards control almost every aspect of daily life, prisoners are not acting under conditions of their own making; they do not have free access to food, water, health care or even bedding. While it is perhaps the intent of the absent guards to demonstrate how “essential” they are to Rikers, what they are proving instead is that nobody should be placed under their “care, custody, and control” (to invoke the department’s motto) in the first place.
Mayor Bill de Blasio recently filed suit against COBA, holding the union and its president, Benny Boscio Jr., accountable for what the mayor alleges is a coordinated workplace action. These are forbidden for public-sector unions by New York State’s Public Employees’ Fair Employment Act, known commonly as the Taylor Law, and can accrue hefty fines and other penalties. While COBA and the other uniformed unions deny any coordination, they have made it very clear how the city can make the absences stop. As investigative journalist Nick Pinto recently documented, union leaders are calling for 2,000 new hires and complaining about forced compliance with the Nunez consent decree, in which court-appointed monitors regularly inspect Rikers facilities, monitor guards and work, and report on what they find in often scathing terms.
If de Blasio is correct that guards’ mass absenteeism constitutes collective action, COBA follows in the footsteps of the New York City cops’ union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), which undertook a work slowdown in response to the 2014 emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Pushing back against the anti-cop zeitgeist that followed the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, the PBA appeared to earnestly believe that a police slowdown could create chaos in New York City sufficient to make everyone appreciate the cops again. But major crime complaints actually went down. The only thing that suffered was city revenue — from the bullshit tickets that cops write all day, which few people seemed to miss.
By contrast, the control DOC guards wield over every aspect of prisoners’ lives allows them to let Rikers fall into disarray much more easily than the cops can cause chaos in the streets. They can, in a word, succeed where the cops failed in 2014.
In response to de Blasio’s suit, COBA issued a belated and lukewarm denunciation of guards’ widespread failure to show up at work. But its members know better than to take union leadership at the word. Over the last five decades, COBA has carved out a powerful niche for itself in New York politics, due in large part to workplace militancy aimed at improving wages and benefits, growing the union’s ranks and combating civilian oversight of how guards do their jobs. This power has not always existed.
COBA was founded in 1901, when Rikers Island was a far-flung corner of the DOC system. The union’s history is illustrative of the rise of Rikers, and New York City’s guards, to prominence in city politics. While New York City municipal unions were not legally recognized until the 1950s, “benevolent associations” provided avenues for municipal workers to pool their money to cover hardships like burial expenses of members, and served as increasingly powerful lobbying bodies capable of enlisting politicians to defend their interests in city government.
City unions became increasingly independent after Mayor Robert Wagner’s 1954 recognition of their legitimacy, legally codified in the 1967 Taylor Law. This period saw the rise of unions — such as the United Federation of Teachers and the PBA — as not only lobbyists but political actors in their own right. This political power was backed by the threat of strike action which, though illegal, was anything but rare. While notable strikes of this era included sanitation workers and teachers, COBA followed more closely in the footsteps of the PBA, which undertook ticketing slowdowns (similar to that of 2014) and other public-facing activism, most spectacularly in the 1966 electoral defeat of a restructured Civilian Complaint Review Board.
COBA’s inauguration into labor militancy came in 1970 under the leadership of Leo Zeferetti, as guards undertook work slowdowns and sickouts to demand more hires. Though Mayor John Lindsay threatened legal action, as de Blasio did recently, Lindsay ultimately capitulated and hired 300 new guards. When rebellious prisoners took over Manhattan’s Tombs jail that same year, guards threatened to quit en masse unless they were allowed to deploy more force against rebellious prisoners.
Shortly thereafter, when rebellion erupted in five facilities across the city, Lindsay allowed for considerable brutality by guards, who faced virtually no repercussions for crushing the rebellions with disproportionate violence. This included systematically beating Long Island prisoners, after they had surrendered, in full view of City Hall and DOC officials. Simultaneously, COBA agitated against the civilian watchdog Board of Correction and sought to neutralize its power.
Demands for exemption from civilian oversight and demands for new hires have been even more central to COBA’s history than demands for higher wages and better benefits, which the union also won with great alacrity. In 1972, for instance, COBA slowed down court transport as part of its contract bargaining, ignoring the State Supreme Court’s demands that the action cease.
New York City’s 1974 fiscal crisis represented a turning point for COBA and other uniformed unions operating under the banner of “law and order.” City unions had largely hung together under so-called pattern bargaining, using their collective power to demand comparable contracts for all. With the city’s public expenditures contracting amid neoliberal restructuring, guards and cops argued aggressively for their superiority over other city workers. This betrayal paid off. As Wall Street restructured the New York City government in terms more favorable to the finance, insurance and real estate sector, police and jails stepped into the vacuum created by the withdrawal of public assistance, gainful city employment, and other social services that had particularly benefited Black and Brown New Yorkers excluded from many private employment and housing opportunities.
Cops and guards were encouraged to control the largely non-white poor by any means necessary, as politicians like Mayor Ed Koch gave them free rein to use violence as they saw fit. The result was a massive buildup of Rikers Island as a repository of people the city’s ruling class had no use for, and there were nearly 22,000 people locked up/held on Rikers by 1991. This buildup was also a boon for COBA, as the DOC’s uniformed staff more than doubled, from 4,800 to just under 11,800 between 1978 and 1989.
As the Rikers population surged in the 1980s, and the New York City government stood back and let the forces of “law and order” run wild, the federal judiciary sought, time and again, to curtail the violence and neglect which characterized the guards’ rule of the island. These efforts were violently resisted by the city’s guards. In 1986, dozens of Rikers guards staged a staff riot at two different jails, attacking largely defenseless prisoners and causing dozens of serious injuries, including head wounds. COBA President Phil Seelig was present and reportedly at the center of the action, giving speeches and cheering on the assaults. Seelig and a mob of COBA rank-and-filers also confronted, physically threatened, and briefly detained civilian observers from the DOC and the New York State Commission of Correction.
While only a handful of middling DOC staff were disciplined for the 1986 riot, federal Judge Morris Lasker pressed the DOC to impose stricter “use-of-force” guidelines that would eliminate loopholes in how violence was reported and investigated, and hold guards responsible for violence against prisoners. This proved wildly unpopular among guards. The result of this tension was a spectacular 1990 staff riot that decisively settled, for decades to come, the question of whether civilians would have any say over the island.
In August 1990, rank-and-file guards completely blocked the bridge to Rikers Island, cutting off nearly all access to the island. They brawled with emergency medical technicians who tried to cross in an ambulance, and engaged in a tense armed standoff with city cops. COBA leadership had a tenuous, at best, grip on these events, as the militancy of the rank-and-file continually outpaced even the firebrand Seelig. But the guards’ bold direct action paid off. At the negotiating table, the city quickly conceded to all of COBA’s demands, including non-enforcement of the Taylor Law — except for the union’s persistent demand to eliminate the use-of-force protocol ordered by Judge Lasker. By this point, the bridge had been blocked effectively for roughly 36 hours.
Eager to reassert his control of the rebellious guards, Seelig rushed to the foot of the bridge, where he announced — incorrectly — that the city had agreed to outright repeal the use-of-force policy. The crowd went wild. Around this time, news reached the bridge that prisoners inside the Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) on Rikers, who had been suffering from the blockade and lack of staff for two days, were rebelling in their housing areas. The mob of guards, many intoxicated, rushed across the bridge and fought to enter the facility to repress the prisoners. Some made it inside. OBCC guards handily put down the rebellion with chemical weapons. But when prisoners surrendered, the guards undertook hours of systematic beatings, streaking the walls and corridors of OBCC with blood. There were 120 reported prisoner injuries, including 81 head injuries. As news of the brutality broke, a defiant Seelig doubled down, race-baiting the Black Mayor David Dinkins, who he called “a minority mayor” inherently sympathetic to the prisoners.
The only real consequences for COBA following the 1990 staff riot fell on Seelig. DOC guards were now majority-Black and did not appreciate the implication that this made them sympathetic to prisoners. The increasingly unpopular president retired, and was replaced by his most vocal critic, a young guard named Norman Seabrook. If anything, Seabrook was more tenacious than Seelig in blocking all attempts to regulate DOC staff and discipline violent guards. Simultaneously, COBA maintained a tradition of militancy on the job, even blocking transit to court for an entire day in 2013 to prevent a prisoner from testifying against two guards who had assaulted him.
While the city’s guards have used workplace militancy to win and deepen their demands for exemption from oversight and greater numbers for the last five decades, they clearly feel threatened by attempts to shrink their workforce and otherwise check their power. The DOC workforce today is massive, with guards far outnumbering prisoners, and it is an obvious place for the city to cut costs. The plan to replace Rikers with skyscraper jails calls for an attendant downsizing of the DOC’s uniformed staff. Moreover, the city’s guards have worked for decades to carve out Rikers Island as a center of concentrated and unquestioned power.
By contrast, the new jails represent a deliberate effort to break up this bloc, as part of “culture change” in the Department, which translates to more civilian oversight over how they do their job and more consequences for violence and neglect.
All the while, COBA claims that the widespread prisoner abuse at Rikers stem from “understaffing” — a highly dubious assertion, given the comparatively massive size of the DOC’s uniformed workforce in proportion to its captive population. Moreover, it is incorrect to assume the capacities of Rikers are simply overwhelmed. The present number of prisoners on the island, an estimated 6,000, is still very low historically — the island reached its peak population of almost 22,00 in 1991, and until 2015, the average population had not dipped below 10,000 for decades. What we are seeing now did not happen when the population was much higher.
Instead, today’s crisis on Rikers is fueled by ad hoc work stoppages by guards, part of a long history of organized actions by DOC guards to insist on impunity and the ability to commit abuses without oversight. As the staff riots of 1986 and 1990, and the conditions in Rikers today all demonstrate, guards under the leadership of COBA are willing to not only defy City Hall, but commit open and systematic violence in the furtherance of these aims.
As Nunez consent decree monitors emphasize, all measures currently discussed to mitigate the crisis do not address the broader violence that characterizes the “normal” functioning of the city’s jails. The long-overdue scrutiny that police and guards unions are today receiving has revealed that they stand inherently opposed to the dignity and safety of those under their power.
There is no compromising with COBA and its membership; as long as they have any political power at all, they will be an organized force opposed to the dignity and safety of every incarcerated person in New York City. COBA, and the movement of police and guards unions of which it is part, represents a political force that must be defeated. What’s more, the despicable state of Rikers Island today is just the latest evidence that the New York City Department of Corrections cannot be trusted with the custody of anyone.
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