Politics & Policy

Our Jails Are a Scandal

(Getty Images)
Partly because there are too few politicians locked up in them

In April I wrote about the case of Jerome Murdough, 56, a homeless ex-Marine who was remanded to Rikers Island for attempting to shelter in the stairwell of a Harlem housing project. Murdough was mentally ill, with multiple psychiatric diagnoses and what his mother referred to as “beer problems.” His bail was set bizarrely high for a homeless vagrant — $2,500 — and his mental condition necessitated oversight, with jail authorities ordering that he be checked every 15 minutes. He wasn’t. And neither was his jail cell’s heating system, which malfunctioned, and the abandoned homeless man was baked to death in captivity.

Naturally, nobody did anything wrong. Or so they said.

Thirty-five-year-old Carol Lackner is not a homeless ex-Marine, is not locked up at Rikers Island, and, unlike Murdough, has not had demanded of her bail amounting to more money than she ever is likely to see — or even the $2,500 that kept Murdough behind bars. She was released with no bail at all last week after being charged with falsifying records, filing false reports, and official misconduct. She was supposed to be watching over Murdough, but she neglected her duties, abandoned her post, and, according to prosecutors, lied about it. These are serious crimes. She was offered an indefensible plea deal — a mere misdemeanor — on the condition that she also resign from the New York Department of Corrections. She refused. She should thank whatever god she believes in that we no longer live in an age of eye-for-an-eye justice.

God and Norman Seabrook, that is.

The New York Times, having recollected for an instant that it is a newspaper, has been publishing a remarkable series of investigations into Rikers Island, which is a pit of infamy: beatings, rapes, torture, a dozen correctional officers at a time taken in a drug sweep. And the villain of the Times account is Seabrook, the president of the jailers’ union. Like all union bosses, he has fought for more money and less work for his members. Unlike most other union bosses, he has fought measures to impose more meaningful penalties on corrupt and abusive guards, as well as more robust screening methods designed to keep his members from bringing drugs and other contraband into the jails. Politicians and wardens alike fear him — he is the jailer in the prison of official cowardice.

Seabrook says that Murdough died because old and defective equipment makes it difficult to regulate cell temperatures. The Times reports that under Seabrook’s leadership, jailers have enjoyed “large gains in salary and pension benefits.” There’s plenty of money for the union goons — Seabrook pulls in some $300,000 a year — but not enough money to keep New York from roasting to death a vulnerable man remanded into its custody.

The New York jailers and their leaders are horrifyingly ordinary. A 2004 federal investigation into systematic abuse of prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay prison found that the correctional officers’ union punished whistleblowers, enforced a mafia-style code of silence, protected and rewarded abusive officers, and was a powerful political brake on reform efforts. Meanwhile, conditions written into the union’s collective-bargaining agreement made internal investigations “almost impossible.” The union is a political powerhouse that in some elections outspends the mighty California teachers’ union — which has ten times the membership. The jailers’ union made major donations to Governor Jerry Brown, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and Attorney General Kamala Harris. The National Institute on Money in State Politics reports that Democrat Gray Davis’s successful 1998 gubernatorial campaign enjoyed $1 million in support from the penal union.

The corrupt and self-serving nature of our public-sector unions is easily discernible by anyone with eyes to see. Rikers Island and Pelican’s Bay are unusual environments, to be sure, but the penitentiary is simply an extreme version of the relationship that exists between the individual and the state at all times: One side has a license to use force, and the other side can either knuckle under or take its chances. It is not mere coincidence that the politicians most hopelessly in thrall to the jailers are so-called progressives, whose schemes and ambition make them blind to the arrogations of the state and the existential need to limit them: with elections and criticism when we can, with Jefferson’s blood of tyrants and patriots when we must.

If Carol Lackner did in fact falsify reports and lie about leaving Jerome Murdough to be baked alive, she should never have been offered a misdemeanor deal, nor should she get away with whatever relatively light punishment she will endure if convicted on her current charges. We can tolerate many things from those invested with the power to do violence on our behalf, but we cannot tolerate lies from them. Carol Lackner, Lois Lerner and a good selection of the leadership at the IRS, corrupt Travis County prosecutor Rosemary Lehmberg (as low a specimen of human grotesquery as public life has to offer) — nobody deserves what goes on at Rikers Island, but if anybody does, that’s who it is. There’s no hole deep enough.

That’s our other national prison scandal: Who isn’t in them.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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