Interviews & Profiles

Correction officers at ‘the epicenter of the epicenter’ of COVID-19 outbreak

A Q&A about New York City jails with Elias Husamudeen, president of the correction officers’ union.

Elias Husamudeen

Elias Husamudeen COBA

With New York City’s jail population at its lowest level since 1949, you might expect guarding the inmates on Rikers Island to be easier than ever. But Elias Husamudeen, president of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which represents guards in the city’s jails, paints a brutal picture of conditions there due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rikers Island is “the epicenter of the epicenter,” Husamudeen told City & State, with 239 cases as of April 3 and an incredibly high infection rate in a relatively small area. He believes the answer is more gloves and masks, though – not releasing more inmates. “When you start talking about trying to solve a health crisis by creating a public safety crisis,” he said, “that’s just a problem.”

What’s the biggest issue that correction officers are facing right now?

Well, the biggest issue that we’re facing right now is our fight to get a testing site put on Rikers Island to test correction officers for the virus. And then the second biggest thing for us right now is forcing (New York City Department of Correction Commissioner Cynthia Brann) to create a task force to deal specifically with all things COVID-19, which she should have done, because we have been demanding and requesting and saying to her to do this for almost almost a month now.

The other problem is that, you know, my members are not being provided enough PPEs (personal protective equipment) – the gloves, the masks, the hand sanitizers. The union had to go out and secure gloves and masks and hand sanitizers to give to my members which shouldn’t be done when you have the epicenter of the epicenter on Rikers Island.

The union for corrections officers at state prisons won the right to wear masks while on the job. Can your members wear masks while working?

It was an issue and we fought and they allowed correction officers to wear and to bring in their gloves and bring in their masks. We got that right along the same time that we forced them to suspend visits and to stop volunteers from coming in and out of the jails. So these are the things that COBA, that I’ve been fighting for that we’ve been able to win. 

One of the things that we’re trying to get this agency to do is we have a lot of real estate. And right now we have under 5,000 inmates, but we have more than 15,000 beds. We believe that the department can do a lot more when it comes to social distancing, even in the jails, if they had the will to do it. And the will doesn’t seem to be there.

Are you facing staffing shortages? Would it be possible to spread out the correction officers to more sites?

If it’s done right, if it’s planned correctly, they have the ability to spread out the inmates, and they have enough staff to actually do this. So it’s just a matter of whether or not they have the expertise or the will to do it. Like the other agencies, we’re experiencing a high sick-call rate, but we still have the ability to do it.

Are your members having to work longer hours now?

Well, it depends. I’ve got more than 10 facilities. There’s certain facilities where, yes, they’re being forced to work overtime. And there are other facilities where it’s not happening. But it all has to do with management.

City Hall is reducing New York City’s jail population, letting some 900 medically vulnerable inmates walk free. Is that a good idea?

I’ve never supported that plan. I’m never going to support that plan. When you start talking about trying to solve a health crisis by creating a public safety crisis, that’s just a problem. When you’ve decided that you’re going to let murderers, rapists, assault people, robbery people, when you decide that you’re going to let them out of jail, and that’s your solution to solving a health crisis, I think there’s something wrong with that thought pattern.

The top doctor at Rikers Island said these people have a high chance of dying if they’re kept in jail. Isn’t that something that we want to avoid?

That’s something that anyone will want to avoid. But the reality is we have these people in jail and they’re there for a reason. So if the person that I’m talking about busted your teeth out your mouth, and they have underlying health problems, do you want them out of jail? 

They’ve been trying to empty out these jails way before the coronavirus. Their intentions of wanting to get down to (a population of) 3,300 by all means necessary has nothing to do with the coronavirus. And for those people who are saying, ‘They’re letting people go that are on parole, that have done their time?’ The truth is they haven’t done the freaking time. If they did get time, they wouldn’t be on parole.

The state budget changed the law to make more offenses eligible for bail, which will probably result in a higher jail population. How do you feel about the law that passed last year?

Look, here’s the reality: We’re correction officers. We don’t arrest people. We don’t decide who’s going to go to jail. That’s something that’s decided by the police, by the district attorney, by the courts. So whoever they send us is who we will provide care, custody and control for. Whoever they decide to put on the street, that’s an issue of public safety. Now, as a resident and a citizen, I’m concerned about that. Like I said, no one gives a shit about the victims of these crimes. And we keep saying that they’re victimless crimes or that they’re nonviolent crimes. Well if I walk up to you and I take your iPhone – and I could take your iPhone without putting my hands on you, or without physically assaulting you – is that a victimless crime?

I’m just a little tired of the games that the inmate advocates, the Legal Aid (Society) and certain people who just don’t want jails at all want to play. So now, we want to use COVID-19 to bring cabs on Rikers Island – something that I’ve never seen in the 32 years that I’ve been a correction officer – bring yellow cabs, Uber cabs on the island, give (infected inmates) MetroCards, give them a cell phone and put them up in a hotel. But we don’t have enough money to provide correction officers, nurses and doctors with PPE? This is the type of lunacy foolishness that the citizens of New York should not stand for.

Are inmates wearing masks and gloves?

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be providing inmates with gloves, with masks. The reality is they don’t have it. The reality is they’re more interested in letting people out and putting them up at hotels than they are providing them with the type of PPE that would protect them while they’re in custody.