Jail Guard Blues

An officer's whistleblowing should have been heeded, says a union president in the wake of a Voice report

Reacting to a recent Voice cover story about violence in Rikers Island jails ("What the Jail Guard Saw," July 11), correction officers' union president Norman Seabrook says the city should have taken a deeper look at former correction officer Roger Cullen's allegations before firing him in 2004.

"Had I been aware of the letter-writing, I would have said he should have been protected under the whistleblower act," Seabrook says, referring to a city law that protects city employees from retribution when they report misconduct. "They should have taken a look at [the allegations] to determine whether he was telling the truth or not."

Cullen, 49, a probationary officer, was fired in June 2004 after writing a series of detailed letters to the Correction Department and the Department of Investigation alleging corruption and misconduct at the Anna M. Kross Center, the jail where he worked.

His firing, officially for "excessive lateness," took place before a limited DOC internal investigation of his claims was complete. The case investigator did only three interviews and closed the file in early 2005. Most of what Cullen reported—accusations of fellow jail guards encouraging gang violence and the covering-up of violent incidents—was never investigated, records show.

The Voice report asserted that while stabbings are down, other types of violence remain a serious problem in the city's jails—one that continues to cost city taxpayers millions of dollars a year in legal settlements. Among other things, the article reported instances in which gang members control housing areas with the knowledge of correction officers.

Despite this, Seabrook, the president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, said the vast majority of correction officers are honest and conscientious in their jobs. "Under difficult circumstances, the vast majority of correction officers come to work and do their job on a day-to-day basis," he said. "And then there is the one percent who continuously make the other 99 percent work twice as hard."

Correction Department spokesman Stephen Morello declined to comment on the Cullen case. Last week, Correction Commissioner Martin Horn said that Cullen's firing was totally unrelated to his allegations. He said he was unaware of Cullen's claims when he approved the termination.

Cullen, who has had financial difficulties since he lost the DOC job, says that he is examining his legal options.

"He's a very sympathetic figure, and he deserves better than the treatment he received," says an attorney familiar with the city's employment rules. "As a probationary officer, he can be fired for any reason, which makes it hard for probationary officers to disclose misconduct."

Meanwhile, investigations continue into the May deaths of two inmates, Oswald Livermore and Jermele Kelly, following the use of force by correction officers. The city medical examiner has not issued a cause of death in either case.

Livermore, sources tell the Voice, spent time in a jail medical clinic at the Tombs on the day of his death. He was returned to his cell, even though a medical aide suggested he should remain in the clinic.

Morello declined to comment on that sequence of events, citing medical confidentiality rules for inmate care.

Horn said in an interview last week that Livermore had been banging his head in his cell. An officer opened the door to check on him. Livermore began running around the housing area and may have fallen down a flight of stairs, Horn said. He declined to discuss the case further.

"I don't think the officers had anything other than good intentions," he said. "I don't believe it was intentional."

As for Kelly, much remains uncertain. Horn said there was a violent struggle between the inmate and correction officers in the psychiatric holding area at Bellevue Medical Center. Horn said an officer was injured in the struggle.

Correction sources tell the Voice that a videotape shows the struggle but not the final sequence, which took place just before Kelly became unresponsive.

"Every inmate death is investigated exhaustively," Horn said.

 
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