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City Correction Officers Need Tolerance Training, Union Says

By Mathew Katz | June 24, 2014 6:52am
 A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island complex.
A view of the entrance to the Rikers Island complex.
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Spencer Platt/Getty Images

MIDTOWN EAST — After a series of reported abuses and high-profile arrests of jail guards at Rikers Island, the city's correction officer union wants to train its members to be more tolerant — which could cost the city millions of dollars.

The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association recently paid to train 70 of its senior officers at the Museum of Tolerance in Midtown East, DNAinfo New York has learned, and now the union is calling on the city to pay as much as several million dollars for all of its 10,000 correction officers to take the training. 

The senior officers who were trained earlier this month took a one-day session at the museum called "Protecting the Dignity of the Corrections Officer," which "focuses on the role that dignity plays in redefining the environment that correction officers work in," according to an online description.

"The working environment is very tough and it can make you very callous, so we work with correction officers to help maintain their dignity," said Rabbi Steven Burg, the eastern director of the Museum of Tolerance and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who described the training provided. 

"A lot of what we teach them is keeping their cool, not losing their temper, being able to talk through and de-escalate a situation."

Burg said the training session helps teach correction officers to determine which situations are major and which are minor, and how to respond to each appropriately.

The initial training was a joint partnership between the union and newly appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who toured the museum with union head Norman Seabrook earlier this month.

"We find it to be very interesting — something that's needed not only in a city agency but for everyone to get the opportunity to be able to talk civil to each other and understand each other's cultures," Seabrook said. "It gives my members the opportunity to interact and learn from someone other than a uniformed person."

Seabrook said he hopes to expand the program to all 10,000 uniformed members of the union — something that would need to be done at the city's expense.

Neither Seabrook nor the museum would give specifics on the costs of the program, but the museum's similar training programs for law enforcement officers run $500 per person for a two-day session. That brings the price tag into the millions.

The push for tolerance training comes after a series of jail scandals.

In March, authorities arrested Terrence Pendergrass, 49, a correction officer who reportedly ignored cries for help from a Rikers Island inmate who swallowed a ball of soap that contained ammonium chloride and later died.

The death of mentally ill inmate Bradley Ballard, 39, was ruled a homicide in early June after he was found naked, unresponsive and covered in feces in September. Another inmate, Jerome Murdough, was found dead in a 100-degree cell on Riker's Island on Feb. 15.

The Department of Correction received a grant in 2007 to provide the Museum of Tolerance training for new recruits, but funding eventually ran out, according to the museum.

"Will it help? Absolutely it will help. Any time you communicate, it helps," Seabrook said.

A spokesman for the DOC did not respond to requests for comment.