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The Powerful Union Official Standing Between Rikers Island and Reform

Norman Seabrook has run New York City's jail guard union for decades, and isn't exactly pumped about shaking up the hellhole that is Rikers Island.

President of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association Norman Seabrook in Manhattan last year. Photo by Anthony DelMundo/NY Daily News via Getty Images

In early December, when New York City's Department of Correction inducted 600 new officers, Mayor Bill de Blasio was there to welcome the recruits before ducking out of the graduation ceremony early. That's when Norman Seabrook, the boisterous president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA), the union for these latest additions to the city workforce, took the stage.

"How dare you?" roared Seabrook, referencing the mayor's departure. In patented fashion, Seabrook then delivered a lengthy rebuke of de Blasio and his reform efforts, dismissing the mayor and his correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte, as out of touch with the rank-and-file keeping tabs on New York City's incarcerated. It was a hell of a welcome for a group of officers who had just been tasked with helping bring about change to a system whose main jail, Rikers Island, was deemed to have a "deep-seated culture of violence" by US attorney Preet Bharara in a scathing report last year.

"Mayor de Blasio made me feel under-appreciated," Seabrook, who presides over the largest municipal jail union in the nation, said in an interview with VICE. "Because he doesn't leave the police officers' graduation early, doesn't leave the firefighters' graduation early, [but] he doesn't have respect for us. Not even to say goodbye, to our graduates and our families, is a little bit insulting."

The acrimony between the jail guards' union and City Hall is playing out just a year after the feds sued the city over conditions at Rikers Island, the hellhole of the New York City jail system, where thousands of men and women—mostly people of color —rot while they wait for a trial. But change has slowly begun to make its way to the island. From new rules on solitary confinement to more services and support for the mentally ill, the reforms are an attempt to break the cycle of abuse and mistreatment. But in the rhetorical war over fixing this well-documented nightmare, one of the loudest and most effective voices belongs to the union leader standing in the way of change.

Many involved in the reform process see Seabrook as a proud and obstinate advocate for the status quo. (Seabrook, for his part, insists he does favor changes at Rikers Island—just not many of the ones being advanced by city officials.)* The ongoing overhauls include new rules regarding use-of-force aimed at limiting the most severe methods correctional officers use to restrain and control incarcerated people, including strikes to the head, groin, or kicking an individual.

"I certainly think the new use-of-force training will make Rikers a more dangerous place," Seabrook told VICE. "The inmates, most of them, are already very, very dangerous."

In November, a Rikers Island guard, Raymond Calderon, was attacked by multiple inmates, who slashed Calderon and left him "within an inch of his life," according to Seabrook. While City Hall believes that serious incidents of violence has been decreasing in Rikers as a result of reforms, which have cut back on punitive segregation—otherwise known as solitary confinement—and established separate housing for younger inmates, Seabrook argues that Rikers is more violent than ever.

"Absolutely, Rikers is becoming more dangerous, because we can't put an inmate in punitive segregation who threatens a correctional officer," Seabrook told me. "What do you do to an inmate that puts an officer in the hospital? What do you do to an inmate that assaults or murders another inmate in jail? What do you do to an inmate that sexually assaults a civilian employee of the Department of Correction? There needs to be some consequences for what that inmate does."

In a new advertising campaign, Seabrook's union has been blasting images of injured inmates and correctional officers at Rikers Island above the tagline, "Safer Jails Matter," a play on the Black Lives Matter movement. VICE asked Seabrook whether the campaign was implying that the BLM movement—which has sparked protests nationwide against police brutality—was somehow contributing to violence in the jails.

"I was at a Board of Correction meeting, and I had a white man, I believe his name was Cohen, and he shouted at me, in front of an auditorium full of people, 'Black lives matter.' I then said to him, 'Don't all lives matter?'" Seabrook, who is black, told VICE. "It matters from wherever you're from. Blue, green, gay, straight—it doesn't matter. I don't subscribe to the Black Lives Matter movement. This isn't about black lives matter-ing. This is about the safety and security of everyone in the New York City Department of Correction."

Seabrook has presided over COBA for 20 years, during which he has amassed a level of power perhaps greater than that of the correction commissioner, a New York Times investigation found last year. For decades, he has vehemently resisted efforts by the city to investigate wrongdoing by his union members, even going so far as to have his members shut down the bridge to Rikers when an inmate was set to testify about brutality at the jail. The inmate later was allowed to testify, but the correctional officers involved were exonerated.

Seabrook tends to place the blame for violence in Rikers on unsafe conditions for corrections officers—a contention flatly rejected by local criminal justice reform advocates.

"The notion that asking for better conditions for individuals in jail creates more dangerous situations for corrections officers is an attempt to blame the victims for an unfair and dangerous system," said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, who has been working on these issues in New York City for over 30 years. "Saying that the jail inmates on Rikers are the worst-of-the-worst is just way off the mark. Most people are there for very low-level infractions."

While Seabrook has long battled New York City mayors over treatment of guards, insisting that violence against COs hasn't been treated seriously enough, the COBA president now finds himself facing off against change while negotiating a new union contract with City Hall. Like his counterpart Pat Lynch, the boisterous head of the largest NYPD union, Seabrook has capitalized on dramatic occasions of inmate violence to declare that DOC commissioner Ponte must be removed—while also demanding a better contract for his members.

"I think that I have a great relationship with the mayor, and we need to work together to better the city of New York. But we're not even meeting in the middle," Seabrook told me.

Seabrook believes the de Blasio administration has left the union completely out of the reform process, sullying the prospects for change at one of America's largest jails.

"I believe that when you look into reforms, you need to be talking to the people on the ground," he said. "When you talk about reform, you need to talk about reform on both sides. You can't talk about one-sided reform because that's not reform."

The Department of Correction, on the other hand—whose advisory and compliance board passed a series of new rules aimed at reforming Rikers on Wednesday night—seems bullish in changing the culture at Rikers. And city officials are hyping the inclusive way in which it believes it's achieving those reforms.

"The commissioner did a full review of all the issues that had been building up at the facility for decades," said Jeff Thamkittikasem, the chief of staff to DOC Commissioner Ponte. "He did a ton of time doing focus groups and surveys of the staff, and even sent our staff out to jurisdictions across the country to learn best practices. What he found was that there had never been a ten-year plan for Rikers, or even a five-year plan. So Commissioner Ponte didn't want to do a reform that was focused on a single issue—he wanted to pull together a comprehensive reform of Rikers."

The plan, which includes everything from recruitment of new, better-qualified COs to increased use of surveillance cameras, is in the process of being rolled out now. But efforts to include the input of correctional officers in the consideration of the new order hasn't smoothed over relations with the union. Indeed, just last week, COBA filed a second petition with the city's Board of Collective Bargaining to stop the roll-out of the new use-of-force policies.

"We're looking to be treated fairly and like everyone else," Seabrook told VICE. "I want the City of New York to put safety first. Doesn't matter what side of the bars you're on. You need to be treated with dignity and respect, and you need to be safe."

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*This story has been updated.