Little Consensus on the Future of Rikers Island at Sharpton Town Hall

Sharpton is joined by COBA President Seabrook and Bronx D.A. Clark to discuss future of the jail.

Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at a town hall on Riker's Island
Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at a town hall on Riker’s Island

On Monday night, Rev. Al Sharpton held a town hall with Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Norman Seabrook and Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark  to discuss the future of the Rikers Island jail—and to express concern about recent proposals to close the jail complex.

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“Tonight, we’re going to talk about how to deal with solving the problem, and whether or not closing Rikers Island solves it […] There must be some level of dialogue involving the community,” Mr. Sharpton said at the event last night, held in the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network.

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has called for the jail to be closed, a proposal that was enthusiastically endorsed by Governor Andrew Cuomo but received tepidly by Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioner, Bill Bratton.

Despite the recent attention, the idea of closing Rikers—a complex of jails in the East River which houses most of the city’s inmates awaiting trial—was discussed very little throughout the almost two-hour forum.

“When I heard the proposal […] my fears were immediately ‘where are we going to put everyone?’” Mr. Sharpton asked.

Mr. Seabrook, the bombastic union leader, echoed similar comments he made after Ms. Mark-Viverito’s speech: “I don’t have a problem with them closing Rikers Island, because there’s always going to be correction officers because there’s always going to be crime. But where do you put that jail at? They’re not putting that jail on 65th Street and Park Avenue.”

Ms. Clark, sworn in just a few months ago as Bronx DA with promises of reform, asked that she be given a chance to “restore law and order” on Rikers.

But the people packed in the room were more anxious to discuss the persistent violence and gang activity in the city’s jails, and how it affects both correction officers and inmates.

A number of current and former correction officers came forward to offer their perspectives, describing feeling unjustly portrayed in the media and disrespected by politicians.

Bishop Nathaniel White, a retired correction officer, asked why COs still had not received the status of peace officers while EMTs had, and a woman who introduced herself as a correction officer for the past 25 years said “As with every job, there’s always going to be bad apples: in politics, in hospitals, in the police department,” and expressed outrage over a policy that paid inmates $25 a week for “good behavior.”

Mr. Seabrook vigorously defended his officers, insisting that “the system is flawed at the top, not at the correction-officer level,” and accusing elected officials avoiding the conversation and aiming to simply “pass the buck.”

He also criticized the the administration decision to ban punitive segregation in certain cases, such as for adolescents, referring to a Saturday incident in which an inmate was slashed across the face, a wound that needed over 250 stitches.

“I can’t put him in punitive segregation, and I can’t administrative segregation, what do they want me to do, take him home with me?” he demanded as he held up a picture of the injured inmate’s scarred face.

For her part, Ms. Clark spoke about her plans to set up an office at Rikers Island to address the problem of violence at its source.

“I can’t sit from my office on 161st Street and deal with the issues that are happening at Rikers Island. What I have done is I’m setting up a unit at Rikers Island,” she said to applause.

Ms. Clark emphasized that in her role as D.A. she would focus on both investigating both inmates and correction officers that committed violations. “If people think that they can get away with things, they’ll do it. So the message that I want to bring is that you’re not going to get away with it, and if you’re causing the violence then I’m going to make sure something is done about it,” she said.

There were tense moments, such as early in the discussion when a man stood yelled, apparently at Mr. Seabrook, “You’re the biggest crook and criminal in New York City! You’re responsible for Kalief Browder killing himself!” The man was escorted out but could be heard yelling outside afterwards.

Browder, 22, hanged himself in his parent’s Bronx home in June after being held for 3 years in Rikers Island, awaiting trial on a charge of stealing a backpack that was eventually dismissed. Much of his time at Rikers was in solitary confinement; a video from his time at Rikers showed him being beaten by an officer.

Mr. Sharpton expressed doubt that cases of inmates being assaulted by correction officers were isolated incidents, but in the having “forums that will hear all sides,” Mr. Sharpton promised to hold more town hall events, including one at Rikers Island with inmates.

Little Consensus on the Future of Rikers Island at Sharpton Town Hall