The New York Times published a, well, amazing piece yesterday: At Rikers Island, Union Chief’s Clout Is a Roadblock to Reform. It’s ostensibly about the head of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, a political bully right out of Tammany Hall – except he’s black and it’s 2014.
The article fits snugly into everything published over the past months about our judicial system, ‘prison industrial complex’, and militarization of police, from Ferguson to Staten Island to the Economist’s recent cover story, What Has Gone Wrong with Policing in America.
Actually, it may be the most important thing written because as it concerns a black man with unseemly power in New York City, representing an overwhelmingly black union (with all black officials) it takes race out of the equation and focuses on a root – the root for anyone ever incarcerated – issue in all this: power.
Power. Specifically, the power to make people do what you want them to, when you want them to because you can. No one has this kind of power, unfettered, on a daily basis, than a Correctional Officer, aka prison guard, for the fairly simple reason that what they do is hidden away from polite society and almost anyone not related to an inmate could care less what happens to them.
From the moment they come on duty COs have hundreds of inmates entirely at their mercy. Inmates have no rights, regardless of what the little orientation books say. COs can brace; pat down; toss cells; confiscate property; verbally abuse; strip search; keep from showers/commissary/rec/church/library/class; berate; humiliate inmates on a whim without the slightest fear of rebuke or punishment.
They do this at a whim for the simple, yet overpowering reason, they can.
Such day to day power without oversight breeds contempt. Contempt for individuals, contempt for rules, contempt for oversight of any degree including the courts. It is no wonder to me – nor, I imagine, anyone I met on my 4 1/2 year sojourn – that the union chief of the Riker’s Island COs has taken this to the next logical conclusion – ‘it’s our fiefdom, fuck off.’
He stymies reforms, stops efforts to stop his officers from engaging in the very lucrative contraband trade, shuts down the entire criminal court system of New York for a day to stop an inmate from testifying against a pair of COs, yells at mayors, gets investigators appointed by city government officials fired, replaces them with his friends, it goes on and on.
Because he can. Like all bullies, he can and he will until a major consequence is meted out on his thick, bully skull. Of course, as he probably could have been cited for contempt at least 750 times the day he shut down the courts and nothing happened, I’m sure he’s sure he can do anything. At this point I am not inclined to disagree with him.
If CO’s have the most freedom to abuse their power, other groups in the criminal justice system are not far behind, and seem to be gaining everyday. What the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association is doing to the inmates of Riker’s Island (the vast majority of whom, by the way, have not been convicted of anything) and New York is an example of what is coming our way without proper restraints on those we have chosen to give power to.
As we now engage in heated, nasty, rhetoric over indictments or lack thereof of police officers while losing sight that indictments of non-police officers (i.e., the rest of us) by grand juries runs at over 99% we are probably well on the way of further eroding restraint and empowering the already empowered.
Of such stuff are bullies enabled.