Open Letter to New York City Correctional Officers

by JustLeadershipUSA

January 9, 2019

We are a group of formerly incarcerated individuals, and loved ones of people formerly and currently incarcerated, and we are fighting to #CLOSErikers. You may not know it, but we’re fighting for you too. We know that this system dehumanizes you along with those who are detained, because a system that chooses punishment as its main goal and strategy then relies on you as the instruments to deliver that punishment. And we know that to carry out that role, day after day, degrades your humanity. Much like the human beings you guard, we understand that you are affected by the toxic environment you spend your days in. It is the failed leadership of the Department of Corrections and our elected officials that have allowed that environment to develop and persist.

When you were growing up, the future you imagined for yourself probably did not involve locking other people in cages. After you’ve witnessed, or maybe been involved in, brutality and abuse, it cannot be easy to go home to your family and try to detach from what you’ve experienced. We understand that every time you see a sick person left screaming for help in their cell, a teenager writhing from the burn of pepper spray, the body of someone who’s taken their own life in desperation, or any human being beaten and humiliated, it leaves some scar on your psyche and your soul. We know the stories and the statistics of the depression, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and trauma that are common among people who have worked as corrections officers.

The leadership of the Corrections Officers Benevolent Association (COBA) have suggested that the way to address violence on Rikers is to expand the use of solitary confinement. You know what solitary confinement does to people. You know that the deprivation breeds anger and often more violence. And you also know that most of the people at Rikers are coming home at some point, many of them very soon. Some of them were your neighbors, and will be again. Some of them are your family.

Many of you know that we need a drastically different approach to addressing harm, violence, and rehabilitation in our City, and in our country. You have seen directly the ways that our system of punishment has failed to make us safer.

And we understand that you may be concerned about what a different approach to justice, and, ultimately, an end to mass incarceration, would mean for your ability to provide for your family. We want investments in more living wage jobs that are not dependant on caging or controlling other people. To build strong and stable communities, we’ll need many more people working as mental health first responders, as restorative justice practitioners, as youth counselors, as employment specialists, in green jobs, for the Parks Department, for Transit, and in many other roles. We’d like to talk with you about a plan to help those of you who are interested to prepare for those jobs.

We know that COBA’s leadership has decided that they will fight to keep Rikers open. Instead they could be fighting for the new jobs our City needs, and to help you transition to those jobs. We also know that COBA does not speak for all of you. For those of you who believe we need a different future, let’s work together to see New York City’s justice system truly transformed. You can learn more about our campaign at www.closerikers.org, and you can get in touch with us at betterfuture@justleadershipusa.org or 347-927-0236

In solidarity,

The leaders of the #CLOSErikers campaign