After Rikers Slashing, de Blasio Says City Not Backing Away From Reforms

Mayor Bill de Blasio at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island earlier this year. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen/New York Observer)
Mayor Bill de Blasio at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center on Rikers Island earlier this year. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen/New York Observer)

After the brutal slashing of a correction officer on Rikers Island yesterday, Mayor Bill de Blasio today rejected union criticisms of a new use-of-force policy and plans to end punitive segregation for the city’s youngest inmates.

“I think the individual who did it is going to spend a lot of time in prison,” Mr. de Blasio told the Observer today during a City Hall press conference, adding he planned to meet with the injured officer. “But that’s a different question then whether the reforms we’re making make sense. The reforms are necessary.”

According to reports, the correction officer, Raymond Calderon, was held down by one inmate while another slashed him in the face repeatedly—something correction union. The incident happened a day before the department is handing out a new use of force policy, as mandated by the settlement of a federal lawsuit, that restricts the kinds of force officers can use against inmates, and a few months before the department will stop using punitive segregation, or solitary confinement, for inmates under 21. Correction union officials wasted no time in connecting the attack to those changes, with Sidney Schwartzbaum, who leads the union for jail bosses, telling the Observer the inmate involved in the slashing was under 21.

Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, framed the attack as an “attempted murder.”

“Last night, two inmates brazenly attempted to murder a Correction Officer and slashed him within an inch of his life. Meanwhile, the Department of Correction is moving forward with the unveiling of a ‘use of force’ policy on which we were not consulted and that will undoubtedly raise the level of danger faced by the hardworking men and women who patrol city jails,” Mr. Seabrook said. “Correction Officers have the right to return home to their families safely every night. This violence is unacceptable. We demand action and a seat at the table from the leadership of the Department.”

But today the mayor argued that violence in the city’s jails has been a long-simmering problem that began long before he appointed Commissioner Joseph Ponte, even though violence is continuing to rise despite Mr. Ponte’s reforms.

“We’re gonna continue making those reforms. The violence problem is very real. I was shocked by the extent of it,” Mr. de Blasio said, echoing previous comments. “I had no idea how this was allowed to grow over so many years, but that’s what happened. It’s not acceptable.”

Mr. Seabrook wrote a letter to the judge in the federal suit, Nunez v. City of New York, asking her to weigh in and require that officers be trained in the new use of force policy before it goes into effect, and a source told the Observer yesterday Mr. Seabrook was considering other legal options.

Mr. de Blasio argued there were two problems in the city’s jails—violence by inmates, and punishments that were “counter-productive.” The lawsuit alleged brutal behavior on behalf of guards against inmates and its settlement required the department to make very specific changes to the way it can use force, as well as installing a federal monitor. Meanwhile, Mr. Ponte, had already begun to vastly reduced the use of punitive segregation, which many advocates consider torture ans which Mr. de Blasio argued was “counter-productive” and had made inmates more violent, not less. The department will also make it more difficult for visitors to pass contraband—like the weapon used in the slashing—to inmates.

Mr. de Blasio said Mr. Ponte’s reforms were working, citing pilot programs run in certain jails, despite recent upticks in violence. 

“But guys, think about it for a minute, everything I just outlined and we still have a lot of work to do,” Mr. de Blaiso said. “That’s how rotten the situation had become. But we’re going to just every day chip away at it, chip away it. And I just disagree with he unions here.”

In full disclosure, Jillian Jorgensen’s father is a retired deputy warden with the New York City Department of Correction, who served at Rikers Island. He is among department leadership named in the Nunez complaint.

After Rikers Slashing, de Blasio Says City Not Backing Away From Reforms