These days there's rarely a shortage of news coming out of Rikers Island: savage fights, spikes in gang violence, an inmate jailed without trial for three years. New York's island detention complex wedged in between Queens and the Bronx has acquired a Guantanamo-like reputation that has led city officials, under pressure from the federal government, to reform this place from the bottom up (or at least try). But on Friday, a lawsuit was filed against the people who run Rikers over mistreatment alleged suffered by a guard, not an inmate.
On December 21, 2013, Janine Howard, a 40-year-old Rikers corrections officer, was reportedly shot in the face by her husband, Brian Martin, another corrections officer, after a domestic dispute in their home on Long Island. Howard suffered permanent nerve damage and critical injuries that necessitated the complete reconstruction of her jaw and her eye socket, the placement of plates in and around her mouth. Martin, who has a history of violence, was immediately arrested, and pled not guilty to charges of attempted murder last January.
But, at a Downtown Manhattan law firm on Friday, the story was what happened afterward.
Sitting with a few reporters, myself included, Corrections Officer Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook, Mercedes Maldonado, Howard's lawyer, and Howard passed around copies of a petition that was filed against the Department of Corrections and Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte on Tuesday, alleging that the agency in charge of Rikers unlawfully terminated Howard once she returned to her job this past December, without any reason given whatsoever.
According to the petition, Howard, like any new Rikers recruit, was placed on a two-year probation upon hire in 2011. The horrific incident with her husband occurred just at the tail end of that period. Then, of course, she was out for months because she had to have her face basically reconstructed and wasn't able to return to work after, due to a pending criminal trial against her husband. At the hospital, Howard said, she was visited by the former corrections commissioner who allegedly told her not to worry about finishing probation; she even received a letter from the Department just two months after the incident saying she was successfully tenured. But on December 2, 2014, she was visited by DOC officials anyway.
"A supervisor from my facility and an officer who accompanied him came to my home," she said. "My father answered the door. He requested my shield ID and my rules and regulations handbook. I was confused; I had no idea what was going on. I didn't know why, and he wouldn't say why."
She contacted a union delegate the next day, who told her they had spoken with the personnel department and the decision was final. She had been officially terminated just a year after being shot in the face by her husband. He's currently serving a 30-day suspension and is incarcerated—but is still technically employed at Rikers according to Howard and Seabrook.
(The NYC Department of Corrections has been reached for comment on how this happened, but we have yet to hear back. The DOC has also yet to respond to Howard's petition.)
Howard and her husband both worked at the Otis Barnum Correctional Center. The facility was the epicenter of Rikers abuse, and now, as a result, the new home of an enhanced supervision unit for the worst inmates. Seabrook, the COBA President, told me that the violent nature of Rikers was a major factor at play here—the implication being that life on Rikers was so insane, it may have driven Martin to nearly kill his wife; a situation that, if true, is truly something to behold.
"A lot of these men, they want to be, if you will, a part of the culture of hip-hop and 'Look at me, I'm this person,'" he told me. "A shield and a uniform doesn't make you a man. I want corrections officers to be treated with the same respect that they want to be treated with. And that's a part of reform."
Seabrook, a close ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has pledged to make that reform a top priority of his administration, said he would demand justice from the mayor and argued that the motive to terminate Howard was to avoid any external scrutiny of internal conflict on Rikers. "It's not a matter of hiding what happened," he explained. "But just a matter of maybe [the problems will] just go away."
Howard has a five-year-old daughter, and has just recently served Martin with divorce papers. (They had been married for a year when he shot her.) When I asked her how she's been doing since her termination, she said she regularly takes medication for insomnia due to the injuries, and goes counseling about once a week. She also said she has a constant fear that someone she worked with at Rikers, who might still be friends with Martin, is right behind her.
"I feel victimized," she said. "I feel like my safety and security can just be taken from me at anytime. Even though you do what you're supposed to do."
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