The guards of Rikers Island—New York’s corrupt and deadly hellhole of a jail complex—are getting new weapons and training from US Corrections Special Operations Group (US C-SOG), a private company based in Virginia that signed a $1.2 million contract with the NYC’s Department of Corrections earlier this year.
According to the Daily News, Rikers is “contemplating” giving 32 “elite officers” Tasers to use on inmates “who are actively physically resisting or exhibiting physical aggression.” Prison activists are opposed to the idea of arming the deeply troubled Rikers staff with potentially deadly weapons instead of using DOC funds to expand deescalation training. Even members of Rikers’ own Emergency Service Unit have argued that the use of Tasers—which tethers the supervisors to the inmate—are “tactically not sound” as they “render the supervisors useless.”
Tasers are just one part of the package. Last week, the New York Post reported that the US C-SOG’s “new training program” for Rikers guards includes teaching them to use Kel-Tec rubber pellet-firing shotguns capable of firing “real” bullets. (Currently, Rikers guards use pepper spray, batons and “shields with a Taser-like electric current.”) Even the scandal-mired Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association has expressed “serious concerns” about the Kel-Tec. A member of the Rikers Emergency Services Unit told the Post, “Officers are being written up all the time and charged with using too much pepper spray, yet here we are on Rikers practicing with rubber pellets shooting shotguns.”
In this epically soundtracked video, US C-SOG demonstrates Kel-Tec shotguns—their “Original, Unique, High-Performance Firearms”—by storming around a prison set and pretending to be at war.
Accounts of the private company’s effects on prisons are relatively rare, but over the last few years, US C-SOG seems to have been slowly creeping into prisons around the country with SWAT-like patrols and increasingly militarized tactics. There’s an NRA Life of Duty profile on them that seems to fit well with their warrior posturing. (“With more than 2.3 million inmates in America’s penitentiary system today, our correctional officers are severely outnumbered and under the constant threat of attack inside and outside prison walls.”)
More interestingly, there is a pay-walled article in the Courier Gazette that describes their recent presence in Warren, Maine. It’s deeply troubling. Since 2015, US C-SOG officers “dressed in tactical gear, accompanied by trained dogs, and carrying Keltek KSG shotguns loaded with less-than-lethal rounds” have been providing “enhanced security to all the correctional facilities in Maine,” including the overcrowded Maine State Prison, where SOG officers have been occupying an 80-bed unit for training purposes. The Courier Gazette article addresses a myriad of serious concerns, like the traumatic effects of “a military-style presence” on inmates with mental illness issues. This is particularly chilling:
James Manley wrote that SOG officers intimidate prisoners by clicking the safety of their weapons on and off while talking to them, making them lie on the ground with their hands behind their heads while the officers walk past and searching their cells.
“They stand around holding their shotguns and watch us eat, play basketball, watch TV and all manner of other mundane duties which have traditionally been conducted by regular guards armed only with pepper spray,” Manley wrote.
LaGasse said, “It’s weird when you’re walking around your pod and there are SOG officers squatting down and pointing their guns at you and everyone else.”
This is exactly what Rikers doesn’t need.
Update: This post originally stated that US C-SOG “was established a few years ago.” In an email to Gawker, US C-SOG claims to have been in business for over 20 years.