Talking to Rikers’ most powerful: A Q&A with Elias Husamudeen and Joseph Ponte

Talking to Rikers’ most powerful: A Q&A with Elias Husamudeen and Joseph Ponte

Talking to Rikers’ most powerful: A Q&A with Elias Husamudeen and Joseph Ponte
December 5, 2016

They’re the two most powerful people on Rikers Island – and they often don’t see eye to eye. While reporting the cover story on the stagnant change on New York City’s island of jails, City & State conducted interviews with New York City Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte and the leader of the biggest labor union on Rikers, COBA President Elias Husamudeen. Separately, they discussed the pace of reform, their thoughts on shutting down Rikers and, of course, what they think about each other.

New York City Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte

C&S: The amount of programming you’ve introduced is remarkable for a jail, since so many detainees have only short stays on the island. What’s your philosophy there, why so much?

JP: We’re going from very little (programming) to where we’re at today. Our hope is to have five hours of programming available for every inmate. Obviously it’s not one size fits all so we have to have a variation of programs from educational to vocational education to certificate. We look at a combination of programs that best fit. And you’re right, jails typically are short stays, but some of our inmates are with us for a year or more so we have to have programs that have a pretty quick turnaround time and then programs that are a little longer term. Our role in corrections is to attempt to prepare people for release. So even though they may be with us for a short time, try and help them, when they get out, to interact with a responsible way in public and teach them some skills that they can use in order to achieve that. 

C&S: You have years of experience in correctional systems across the country and now more than 2 ½ years in New York City. What sets a Joe Ponte Department of Correction apart from any other commissioner’s?

JP: I think here in New York we had a lot of years of deficit to overcome. Both from the physical plant we were dealing with to staff investigations, our recruitment unit, to training academy to settling the Nuñez lawsuit – the DOJ unit lawsuit. So there’s a lot to achieve, both from kind of digging ourselves out of a hole, but then how do we move the organization forward to really become a national model in jail systems around the country. You know, New York City has done a great job in reducing the number of inmates in custody, the number of offenders in custody. So that’s good for the public and good for the city but it’s also the inmates that are in our custody are more challenging and more difficult to manage and deal with. So it’s a twofold issue that those that are in custody are a little more violent, a little more difficult and the New York jail system has done a great job of eliminating those that don’t need to be in custody are not in the jail system. I think we have an opportunity here to really design a system that not only reduces the need for incarceration – which again, we continue to work on reducing the overall numbers – but also prepare inmates for release once they’re incarcerated, and really try and have that bridge between the incarceration piece to the re-entry into society.

C&S: Was Elias Husamudeen becoming president of COBA an opportunity for a fresh start, or just more of the same tense relationship?

JP: I think we all want the same thing. So they may in some cases disagree with the approach, but we want safe, humane jails. I don’t think the union would argue against that. We want overtime levels that are appropriate. We want to increase our staffing numbers so we can achieve that. We want better training for our staff, we want staff to be safer at work and have better working conditions and better conditions for inmates – more humane. I think sometimes it’s the approach that’s different. 

C&S: Are you content with the overall pace of reform? Does DOC deserve some criticism?

JP: I’m probably my own toughest critic. I’ve worked in state and city government for most of my life and the pace of work in government always seems to be slow. For every achievement there’s a lot of work that has to take place in order to take that next step. I think we’ve done a lot of work in the two-plus years I’ve been here. I’d like to have done a lot more, a lot faster, but we’ve been working real hard at this and we’ll continue to work hard at it. I think we have achieved a lot, but I would say, yes, there are critics who say we should have moved our reforms quicker. I think in some cases we needed to take a little time to explain what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and to show staff – as we’ve done in our model facilities – that this is a good thing. These are reforms that are going to keep you safe and inmates safe. And so having some ramp-up to some of these changes was the right thing to do and, I think, appropriate for the situation. We’re a large organization, about 10,000 staff. So when you’re trying to change the culture of such a large organization, that takes a little bit of time. We like to have people willingly come along, not to force staff to believe what we’re trying to show, but to really show them that this is a good way and begin to develop, basically housing unit by housing unit, good examples for people to look at and see that this is a better way for us to achieve what we all want to achieve, which is safe, humane jails.

C&S: Many of the reforms you’ve introduced recently – like reducing punitive segregation, increasing programming, adjusting the standards for use of force – seem to be about treating prisoners more humanely. But COBA has criticized all of those moves, believing they compromise correction officers’ safety. Do you have to strike a balance between officer safety and humane treatment of detainees?

JP: Staff safety has to be the no. 1 concern all the time. I don’t think anything we could do, from reducing punitive seg, reducing reliance on punitive seg, to any of the program pieces would work if we compromised staff safety in the process. So it’s a change in the system where we relied totally on punitive seg to manage inmates, now we’ve put in place many other pieces to the program, both from programs in general to PACE (Program to Accelerate Clinical Effectiveness) units, CAPS (Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation) units for the mentally ill, TRU (Transitional Restorative Unit) and Second Chance units for those that are 16 and 17 years old and secure units for those that are 21 to 18. And then our ESH Level 1s, which is our adult model for those that had violence in their history here. All those things are meant to manage inmates in a safe, humane way, but staff safety has to be the no. 1 piece for all of that because nothing would work if the staff were not safe.

C&S: Has the DOC been discussing long-term logistics recently regarding the building of new jails on or off Rikers Island? Or is that all on hold until the commission’s report comes out next spring?

JP: We talk, at times. Our 1,500-bed jail is kind of on pause right now. That was planned before I got here, so I’ve been off and on discussions on that facility. We’ve done some basic groundwork here where they just kind of tore some buildings down and gotten the site somewhat ready. I think the city needs to look at the condition of these buildings and jails and take a long-term approach to what corrections is going to look like in New York city 10, 15 years down the road and formulate a plan in consideration with Lippman and the Speaker (Mark-Viverito). It’s the city’s issue on how we manage this criminal justice system, and I think we all should get to the table and discuss with the long-term plan and build that into a 10- or 15-year plan on how or what corrections will look like in New York City 10 or 15 years out.

C&S: Reform is slow. Closing Rikers could take a decade. How do you ensure what you’ve done continues as the next commissioner inevitably takes over?

JP: There’s no way for me to guarantee that. We don’t operate in a vacuum, so I think a lot of the stuff we’ve done here in reducing punitive seg, how we manage 16- and 17-year-olds, those are national trends. So I don’t see that changing. That’s not a New York City thing. It’s not something that was like a Joe Ponte idea. It’s stuff that – when I was in Maine, we were talking about reducing reliance on punitive seg in adult prisons. The juvenile system in Maine that manages 14-to-21-year-olds had already eliminated punitive seg 10 years earlier for that age group. So it’s stuff that’s happening across the country. I don’t think that because I’m here or not here that the trend will change. Once we put in place good, safe alternatives then I think that will stay there for the future. It just gives us a better way to manage that’s more humane for inmates and safer for staff. I don’t see that changing in the near future.

C&S: You obviously care about corrections, but there’s an idea that Mayor Bill de Blasio doesn’t have to focus on it so much because it’s not a thing that voters care about. What’s your pitch to New Yorkers that this should be a concern, something on which that tax dollars should be spent?

JP: The majority of the inmates coming into the system are going to go back to the community. So it should be a concern for the city of New York – how do we treat people in general, our citizens, our neighbors? How do we treat them humanely, and how do we make them better prepared to go back into society and become productive citizens? That’s the concern. Because if we just keep housing people and turning them back to the community to continue a life of crime, then that makes all of our lives more difficult. I think the jail system is part of the criminal justice system here in New York and the better we do in a sense of preparing inmates who’ve come into custody to assume responsible roles back in society, society is safer. It’s not just the mere custody of people, it’s actually preparing them to be better citizens in the future that really keeps us safe.

Elias Husamudeen, Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president

C&S: It’s been a year since the conversation around Closing Rikers really revved up again—

EH: I don’t even know why it ever started. 

C&S: Do you have a sense that conversation is over within the de Blasio administration?

EH: I think it was over before it started. With de Blasio or whoever was there before him. It was never real. Closing Rikers is not a realistic proposal. It’s not realistic. 

C&S: You’ve spoken before the (Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform). They seem to be taking the concept pretty seriously, what’s your sense there?

EH: I think it’s a show. It’s a show for whoever that particular constituency is. I think it’s just for whoever they’re showboating for. I have a jail, I have a facility on Rikers Island. The Anne M. Kross Center, AMKC. That facility holds 3300 inmates. If they close that facility, they literally have to open three jails in the city for that one facility on Rikers Island. 

C&S: There are no other places in the city that could fit a jail of that size?

EH: Hell no! Unless we use the Empire State Building. There are a lot of other issues when it comes to shutting down Rikers. Rikers Island has a transportation unit. There are like 300 busses, vehicles that transport inmates throughout this city, all day long. Taking them downstate, upstate, to the hospital, court. Where are you going to put that?

C&S: And that’s all staffed by COBA members?

EH: That’s staffed by correction officers and civilians! You have mechanics, they’re not correction officers. You have people responsible for the fire safety, the safety of the vehicles. It’s staff, uniformed and non-uniformed staff. We have a bakery on Rikers Island. There are a lot of things that go on in the ten-plus facilities on Rikers Island. To say that we’re going to close Rikers – look, the Speaker said, “we want to close Rikers.” That’s what she said. Then what did she say? “But, just don’t put it in my neighborhood.” Nobody is going to be knocking down the door saying put it in my neighborhood. I don’t want it in my neighborhood. 

C&S: Are you just worried about the loss of COBA jobs?

EH: Let me explain something to you. This is a capitalist society, right? We’re going to always have crime. And we’re going to always have correction officers. We’re going to always have judges and police officers and parole officers and the whole nine yards that go with the criminal justice system. No, I’m not concerned about whether or not we’re going to be out of the jobs, because we’re not. And, if that was the case, then we’ll just do something else. Me and my guys have degrees. I have teachers who are correction officers. I have a correction officer who’s a lawyer. They have 60 college credits, they have bachelor's degrees. At the end of the day, that’s not what this is about. 

C&S: If the city were to spread inmates across different facilities, would there be a net loss of correction officer jobs? Would there be a gain?

EH: Honestly, I have no idea. And truthfully, I don’t really give a crap about them shutting down Rikers. It’s not going to happen. And if it does, by the time it happens, I’ll probably be in one of the assisted living facilities. At the end of the day, if they want to do something, then, like somebody said, this criminal justice train, it’s a long train. There’s a lot of stops. Corrections is the last stop on the train. Why are we beginning with the last stop on the train as opposed to the first stop? Why are we not putting all of this heavy emphasis on judges who give bails, who give sentences? Why are we not putting this emphasis on district attorneys, assistant district attorneys? The reason why the jails are filled is because of the first stop, not the last stop. The last stop is where they put them after. If you really want to fix the criminal justice system, wouldn’t you start at the beginning as opposed to the end.

C&S: You took over as COBA president five months ago now and jumped right on the attack. You sued the city, you’re calling for Commissioner Ponte’s ouster – did you just not like the guy from the beginning?

EH: It’s not a like. It has nothing to do with like. I’ve been a correction officer for 30 years. I’ve been a member of the union for 20 years. I really didn’t call for his ouster. I basically said to him, “lead, or leave.”  Now if you want to call that calling for somebody’s ouster, it’s fine. “Lead or leave,” you know, “take a dump or get off the stool.” As far as everything else is concerned, this is not a new issue for me. This is an issue I’ve been dealing with in my capacity on this board, on the union for a while. I’m not new to it.

This union, its members, we’re not against programs. We’re not against Ponte! We’re not against anybody as long as you remember that safety is the number 1 priority. The problem with Ponte, with the Mayor, with anybody, is that they seem to forget that my safety, the inmates’ safety, everybody’s safety is number 1. You can’t have all these programs if you don’t have the sufficient amount of staff to staff the programs. You can’t have the programs if – you’re giving them pizza, you’re giving them ice cream and they’re still cutting and they’re still fighting and they’re still breaking the rules, then maybe – there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re inmates. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do. But maybe there’s something wrong with management who’s not really paying attention. Like I said up there, it’s a small population of inmates that responsible for the majority of the violence in the city jails. And Ponte, the Mayor, everybody seems to put their head in the sand and say, ‘what do we do? What do we do with them?’

Well we know what we do with them if someone walked up to you right now and punched you in the face, we know what we’re going to do with them! We’re going to arrest them! So if I’m in my uniform, I’m a correction officer and an inmate punches me in my face, why is anybody confused about what’s supposed to be done. It’s what we’re talking about, ‘the tale of two cities.’ In the street, you punch a cop, you get arrested. In the jail, you punch a correction officer, you get a program! You get $25 a week put in your commissary, you get to shop commissary. You get to have a touchy touchy feely visit with your family member. And then you go right back into the jail and hit an inmate and slash him in his face. That’s just foolishness.

C&S: At the November 15 Fire and Criminal Justice Committee meeting, City Council Members Elizabeth Crowley and Paul Vallone seemed to be a lot less hard on you than the Department of Correction officials. Do you feel like they’re on your side?

EH: Finally they’re asking real questions. Finally they’re asking real questions. If you go back and look at a couple of my appearances with Crowley, you’ll see they’re not always friendly. When she does her job, I’m fine. Her, the commissioner, or anyone else. When they do their job, they have no issues from me. When I feel like they’re not doing their job, why in the world am I going to act like they are? That committee up there today, they did their job. They really did. They asked the questions that are on the mind of my members. 

C&S: You’re on the island all the time. Ponte said work on the new jail facility is halted. Does that seem right?

EH: Like the Commissioner said, it’s on pause. They dug it up. I didn’t see where they went in and put a foundation down. I have to commend the committee. He’s saying (the pause) is based on politics. You’re the goddamned commissioner of the Correction Department. You’re responsible for the care, custody and control of inmates, not politics. So the construction of a 1500-bed facility is on pause because the commissioner said something about politics.

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.