N.Y.C. Sues Jail Officers, Saying Illegal Strike Worsened Rikers Crisis
New York City on Monday sued a union representing its jail officers, saying that the staff absenteeism that has led to an ongoing crisis on …
New York City on Monday sued a union representing its jail officers, saying that the staff absenteeism that has led to an ongoing crisis on Rikers Island amounted to an illegal strike that had endangered staff and detainees there alike.
The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said that the union, the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, and its leadership had condoned a coordinated campaign of absenteeism over the course of this year, which led to a sharp degradation in the quality of life at the notorious jail complex.
The suit was filed just a day after a Bronx man’s death on the island brought the total number of people who have died in the custody of the city’s Department of Correction this year to 11.
The city took note of what it called a dramatic rise in absences without permission since the beginning of the year.
While it recorded an average of 645 such absences per month in 2019 and 773 in 2020, there have been 2,304 per month this year, on average, an increase that the lawsuit described as “staggering.”
“There is no plausible explanation for this dramatic increase across the board other than a concerted effort by correction officers to engage in an unlawful job slowdown through mass absenteeism,” the suit said, arguing that such action was illegal under laws governing the behavior of city employees.
The suit asked the court to restrain the union and its leadership from striking or contributing to a strike of any kind, and requested punitive monetary damages from the union and its leadership if they did not comply.
Eric Eichenholtz, the chief of the labor and employment division of the city’s law department, said in a statement that while the majority of Department of Correction staff members had been showing up to work, the union had been “actively encouraging orcondoning” others to abandon their fellow officers.”
In response, the union, which in July sued the city for fostering inhumane working conditions at Rikers, called the lawsuit frivolous and “fact-less,” taking direct aim at New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.
“This meritless suit falsely accuses C.O.B.A. of encouraging our members to commit a job action and to not come to work,” said the union’s president, Benny Boscio Jr. “We call on all labor unions in New York and anyone who supports essential workers to tell Mayor de Blasio to stop union-busting and to start making our jails safer today for everyone.”
The Sunday death at Rikers of Isaabdul Karim, 42, further emphasized the crisis of understaffing there, which has led to a slowdown in the overall workings of the jail, delayed the delivery of basic necessities including food, water and medical care and increased the number of violent episodes.
Mr. Karim, a father of two, died in the early evening on Sunday, according to the Department of Correction. He was being represented by the Legal Aid Society, which said that he had contracted Covid-19 while being held in one of the jail complex’s crowded intake cells for 10 days. His official cause of death has not yet been determined.
It is virtually impossible for incarcerated people to distance themselves within intake cells, in which they are often packed in and forced to sleep head-to-foot on the floor.
Mr. Boscio has called on the mayor to hire thousands more correction officers to help restore some level of normalcy at Rikers. But a federal monitor who oversees the troubled jail has said that the number of officers is sufficient, and the problem lies instead with the remarkable surge in absenteeism that began soon after the coronavirus arrived in New York and has multiplied since.
The coronavirus has hit the city’s jails staff hard, infecting close to 2,300 employees of the Department of Correction. But it is unclear how many of the absences this year — particularly those that came without any forewarning — were caused by the virus.
The union has taken an increasingly combative stance against Mr. de Blasio, who last week released an emergency plan after a group of state and city lawmakers toured the facility and, upon their return, described what was happening on Rikers as a humanitarian crisis.
Mr. de Blasio’s plan included the suspension of any correction officer who was absent without notice or leave. (Later in the week, 21 such suspensions were handed out.) In response, Mr. Boscio’s union called on him to retire.
Jan Ransom contributed reporting.