The leader of a New York City correction officers’ union has called on government officials to close a new youth detention facility until the guards can protect themselves from the teenagers they supervise.
“It appears that almost everyone is prepared to sacrifice the life of Correction Officers for this social experiment,” said Elias Husamudeen, President of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), after a brawl between two rival gangs sent more than 20 officers to local hospitals with minor injuries last Wednesday.
The Horizon Juvenile Center, located in the South Bronx, was created to house 16- and 17-year-old inmates incarcerated at the city’s notorious Rikers Island jail complex. According to The New York Times, “the goal was to shield them from the violence of the adult jail and place them in an age-appropriate setting, as required under a new state law.”
“Kids will be treated like kids instead of adults,” said NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Last week more than 90 inmates were transferred from Rikers to Horizon, where they are now referred to as “residents,” as reported by NBC 4 New York.
“Moving them hasn’t done anything to stop or curb their violence or their behavior,” Husamudeen said after multiple episodes last week involving detained youth and guards.
“The 16 and 17-year-olds that we have in this building, they’re violent,” he added, “40% are here for murder and attempted murder, and they don’t belong here. This place needs to be shut down.”
In May, all three of NYC’s correction unions filed a lawsuit against the city over its decision to temporarily staff the juvenile facility with correction officers. Labor leaders accused the city of “forcing their members to work out of title.” They claim that the guards haven’t been adequately trained to work in a juvenile detention center, where they are prohibited by state law from using chemical agents like pepper spray for self-defense and maintaining control.
“We’re having a lot of trouble because we don’t have mace spray,” Joseph Russo, the vice president of the Assistant Warden/Deputy Wardens Association, told the New York Daily News. “We can’t use handcuffs, and we are very limited in the physical force we can use.”
Some former corrections officers said they quit the department to avoid a transfer to Horizon, where they fear guards could potentially be charged with child abuse. The detainees are reportedly “fully aware” of the limitations that have been placed on the officers, who the city plans to replace with youth development specialists eventually.
“If the state, city and federal government refuses to step in and do something immediately, we will be forced to take our safety in our own hands,” Husamudeen said in a statement without elaborating. He also accused Mayor de Blasio of “lying” about security measures at Horizon and minimizing the violent altercations that have occurred there.
“It is a brand new approach,” de Blasio said at a news conference last week. “It’s certainly going to take some work to perfect it, but we must keep those facilities secure.”
The mayor described the policy changes as “another step toward replacing Rikers Island with smaller, safer, more humane facilities that are closer to communities and loved ones.”
In August, Mr. de Blasio unveiled plans to replace the detention facilities on Rikers Island which sits isolated in the East River between the Bronx and Queens. His idea calls for building “modern, community-based jails throughout the City” which are “designed to be integrated into surrounding neighborhoods.”
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @Near_Chaos.