A major perk of the job for New York State corrections officers may soon be off the table: The ability to be as brutal as they’d like with prisoners without having to worry about facing any serious consequences.
The New York Times reports on the remaking of the internal affairs unit of the state corrections department, which, in its current form, has proved impotent against the powerful union representing guards. Thanks to the union, a guard can be accused multiple times of raping prisoners, admit to repeatedly punching someone, or even kill an inmate without losing his or her job or being transferred to a different facility. These are not hypotheticals. The first two are the cases of James For and Lavar Thomas, respectively, while the guards involved in the third case were neither identified nor, according to the Times, disciplined in the Fishkill Correctional death of Samuel Harrell.
The corrections officers’ union, known as NYSCOPBA, is a politically powerful force, especially upstate, where many of New York’s prisons are located. The contract it has negotiated for officers affords them enormous leverage when they are investigated for wrongdoing. Superintendents “have practically no power to transfer problem officers” to other prisons, according to the Times, and internal affairs investigators are required to give officers a full day’s notice before questioning them about anything. In one case, the Times notes, a C.O. broke an investigator’s jaw in an effort to keep the investigator from entering the Clinton correctional facility.
Recently, the internal affairs unit has undergone changes designed to make it tougher on wrongdoing, by throwing out inexperienced investigators and former guards being thrown out and replacing veterans from outside law enforcement agencies. Hopefully, that means more internal affairs guys who are more interested in getting rid of bad actors than they are in protecting their buddies. But real change will probably require altering the officers’ union contract, which expired last month, and it’s still unclear how that’s going to happen. Negotiating a new one could take multiple years, according to the Times—and until then, the current protections remain in place.