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COs doing hard time


The NYC Correction Department cannot discipline its way out of this penal quagmire that is the result of a nine-year maelstrom of political failures and ineffective jail policies and the next DOC commissioner must understand this on Day One of their tenure in order to have even a glimmer of hope for success.

According to the most recent report by federal monitor Steve Martin, dated Oct. 5, “In July and August 2023, a total of 31 staff were suspended in response to use of force related misconduct.”

That’s one uniformed employee suspension every two days.

Discipline can have various forms. Many times DOC chooses to suspend, leaving the employee without pay adding collateral damage by extending the punishment to the employee’s family. I submit to you that most of DOC’s unrelenting suspensions are not necessary and further exasperate staffing issues creating more overtime and even more unmanned posts.

In 2015, Martin embarked on a quixotic journey armed with the full force and power of the federal court and the authority of the Nunez consent decrees. In theory, he sought utopia, but in reality he, along with DOC commissioners, created a dystopia where both uniformed and non-uniformed employees work in constant fear of punishment and reprisals, and the incarcerated population struggles to survive in a “Lord of the Flies” environment.

Since then, DOC staff discipline has been nothing short of draconian. At times, even minor offenses result in censure and chastisement. Correction officers are not the problem and draconian discipline is not the solution.

It is evident that Steve Martin seeks harsh punishment against uniformed staff. A recent Daily News article referring to the former Deputy Commissioner of Investigations Manuel Hernandez read, “Hernandez was forced to resign after the monitor disclosed his staff was being pressured to be lenient on correction officers.”

The DOC workforce, replete with unsupported and unappreciated unsung heroes, patrols the jails always on edge and threatened by imminent charges and suspensions present like ubiquitous land mines while termination unyieldingly looms over their head like a guillotine. There is no escaping this juggernaut of staff punishment in DOC.

Now eight years later, Steve Martin continues to fight the same “windmills” he fought in the infancy of his failed quest to ensure compliance with the Nunez consent decrees. He has described correction officers as ineffective, “hyper- confrontational” employees. In essence, they can’t do anything right and must be severely disciplined.

Martin consistently points the finger of blame at DOC’s uniformed force. He, DOC commissioners and NYC politicians are responsible for making Rikers Island jails less safe year after year, keeping real reform out of reach leaving it unrealized and nothing more than a figment of one’s imagination.

The powers that be are preoccupied with staff discipline and disregard detainee violence. For example, during 2021 and 2022 there were about 16,000 detainee fights. The fights accounted for about 10,000 of the 14,000 total uses of force. 

I speculate those uses of force resulted in hundreds of charges, suspensions and terminations of correction officers, many for simple procedural violations. In addition, in the same two-year period there were almost 900 detainee slashings and stabbings in which correction officers had to use force to control and stop about 500 of those violent assaults.

Yet, little to nothing is done to hold the detainees accountable for their violence.

Theoretically, if DOC had a proactive violence reduction strategy and prevented detainee fights, slashings and stabbings, there could be 5,250 fewer uses of force per year, thereby gaining tremendous compliance with the Nunez consent decrees and more importantly keeping the incarcerated population and correction officers safe. Instead, Martin and DOC’s commissioners disregard the root cause of the problem and continue to follow the path of least resistance, eagerly pursuing stiff discipline against uniformed staff.

As a result, this year’s projection is that there will be another 8,000 detainee fights, 400 slashings and stabbings and 5,250 uses of force in response to detainee violence. And 2024 will be the same if not worse. Correction officers do not make policy but they certainly are the sacrificial lambs when the policy fails.There comes a time when draconian discipline becomes destructive and counterproductive to success. DOC passed that point several years ago. 

In the sixth century BC, the ancient Greeks abolished draconian punishment and, 2,600 years later, DOC must do the same.

Marc Bullaro, a retired NYC DOC assistant deputy warden, is an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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2 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • adwdwa

    Well said, great article. The NYC jails have been and continue to be an embarrassment where the inmates rule.

    Joseph Russo, Assistant Deputy Warden.

    Tuesday, November 7 Report this

  • I can’t imagine the stress levels up trying to do your job and being punished for minor infractions and head hunting on correction officers but compassion to inmates. I don’t condone Power trips or abuse to inmates especially for minor infractions. Painting inmates as saints and attacks on officers as the norm and officers must bold enough to take abuse that no rational Prison system would tolerate. Something very wrong on upper managements tactics. Over haul don’t know don’t work there but adjustments and some fine tuning at both ends may reduce the problems in the system.

    Wednesday, November 8 Report this