Mayor Bill de Blasio administered the oath of office to 144 new correction officers today, at a graduation ceremony where the shadow of controversy swirling around the Department of Correction and efforts to reform it loomed large.
“You’re joining this department at a powerful moment, a moment when the eyes of the city are on this agency. A lot of investment is happening in this agency. A lot of energy is going into lifting it up, and making it stronger, and righting some of the wrongs of the past. It’s exciting to have the new blood, the new energy, the new ideas you’ll bring,” Mr. de Blasio told the graduates.
The mayor’s speech repeatedly returned to the theme of the reforms underway at Rikers Island, the city’s sprawling jail complex that has been the target of intense media scrutiny in the wake of several high-profile inmate deaths, and a scathing report from the U.S. Department of Justice alleging a culture of violence against adolescent inmates. U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara recently joined a lawsuit against the department.
“For too long, the environment here just wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair to anyone. There wasn’t the kind of respect in the work for each and every individual involved, because the approach wasn’t right, the resources weren’t right. And we set out to change that in a very visible manner. People often had to deal with an environment … that was dehumanizing,” Mr. de Blasio said.
He touted investments proposed for the department in his preliminary budget, including $3.6 million for the recruitment office, and major changes that have already been made—including the end of punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, for inmates aged 16 or 17. The Board of Correction has also voted to end punitive segregation for inmates aged 18 to 21 by the end of the year, an endeavor that has not yet been funded in the city budget.
While he emphasized the need for change, Mr. de Blasio also heaped praise on the work of the officers, dubbed “New York’s Boldest,” saying they don’t often get much recognition for a job that is not easy and not for the timid. He also praised Commissioner Joseph Ponte and his leadership team, who he said had the “trust of all of us at City Hall.”
Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook and Assistant Deputy Warden and Deputy Warden Association President Sidney Schwartzbaum, too, praised the officers in the face of what Mr. Schwartzbaum said had been a public relations battle the department had lost. They told the officers that newspapers would never write about the good things they would do in their jobs. Both implored the new graduates not to let the negative attention get them down.
“No one in this room should be demoralized by the negativity directed at us. That does not blind us to what true virtue there is in this agency,” Mr. Schwartzbaum said.
In his remarks, Mr. Ponte noted that moving inmates under 18 out of punitive segregation took years elsewhere—but just seven months in New York. He, too, hit on the need to reform, and implored the new officers to do what’s right, not easy.
“There are going to be many changes and challenges We’re going to ask you to do things we’ve not asked others to do. We’re going to ask you to change the way we do corrections in New York City,” he said.
Mr. Ponte said he is often asked about conflict between competing interests—the unions representing officers, with the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, with the Board of Correction. But at the end of the day, he said, they all have something in common.
“My feeling is that we all have one mission, one goal, one thing we all have to do: We have to make our jails safe and humane for our star and our inmates. There is no wavering from that,” Mr. Ponte said.
But despite Mr. Ponte’s promises that all those groups saw eye-to-eye, Mr. Seabrook, who some have called a roadblock to reform, spoke with some skepticism about the push to end punitive segregation for the youngest inmates—something he’s repeatedly criticized.
“I do believe that an inmate that’s 16 or 17 years old should not be in punitive segregation for a year for horse-play, or fighting. But if they do something to hurt another person, if they slash another person, give them hundreds of stitches, if they kill another inmate, if they destroy the life or break the jaw of a correction officer, we have to do something with them,” Mr. Seabrook said. “And I’m never going to back down from anybody that tells me we should not be protected and we should not be fighting for our rights. I will never do that, never do that, never.”