|Norman Seabrook after he was arraigned on corruption charges on Wednesday in
Norman Seabrook’s Ouster as Union Chief May Complicate Overhaul at Rikers
In his two decades as leader of the nation’s largest municipal correction officers’ union, Norman Seabrook managed to consolidate near-total control, his authority on the cellblocks of Rikers Island often eclipsing that of commissioners and mayors.
But with his arrest this week on corruption charges, it would appear that Mr. Seabrook’s reign is on the verge of collapse. On Thursday, he was ousted as union president and replaced for now by his second in command.
The biggest question is how this affects the efforts underway to reform the Rikers jail complex. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio has invested enormous political capital and hundreds of millions of dollars to remake New York City’s jails and to end the violence and corruption that has long plagued them.
Mr. Seabrook has been a fierce opponent of many of the changes being put in place at Rikers, particularly the scaling back of solitary confinement, which will soon be eliminated for all inmates under age 22.
But as the lone voice for the city’s 9,000 correction officers, his willingness to cooperate with at least some of the reform efforts was important. He was a strongman, but one who gave voice and coherence to a group of workers split among more than a dozen facilities and three shifts.
Among the rank-and-file, Mr. Seabrook commanded tremendous loyalty. Unlike the department officials and the commissioners who came and went, he was one of them, a correction officer born in the Bronx and raised poor as one of eight children. He was also a black man leading a heavily black union, sensitive to racial issues on the job and in the community.
At graduation ceremonies, new recruits would watch the droning speeches of officials with barely disguised boredom. When Mr. Seabrook took the stage — often to disparage those previous speakers to their faces — they were on their feet.
In those ways, his absence could pose headaches to reformers.
No matter how ambitious the reform agenda of Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, may be, it can go nowhere without the support of the men and women who work the cellblocks.
With Mr. Seabrook gone, the question is, Who will speak for them now?
During his tenure as president, Mr. Seabrook quashed any potential challengers and never groomed a strong successor. His 14-member executive board is considered weak, commanding none of the loyalty among members that he has long enjoyed.
“Norman is a tyrant,” said William Valentin, who spent five years on the executive board and was kicked out by Mr. Seabrook in August 2015. “The executive board is pretty much under his control. They really don’t argue with him too much. Whatever he says goes.”
Understanding Mr. Seabrook’s outsized importance on the cellblocks requires understanding the history of the city’s Correction Department. By the end of the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, a Republican turned political independent, there was a real power vacuum in the department. It was considered a low priority, and the commissioner at the time, Dora B. Schriro, was a weak leader.
Mr. Seabrook stepped into that void, his power perhaps reaching its apex in fall 2013, when he almost single-handedly shut down the city court system by directing his members in a work stoppage that halted almost all of the buses that ferry inmates to and from court.
A judge complained that the court system had been “held hostage,” and Mr. Bloomberg sued the union. But Mr. Seabrook emerged unscathed.
Even after Mr. de Blasio took office in 2014 and appointed the reform-minded Joseph Ponte as correction commissioner, Mr. Seabrook continued to behave as if he were in charge of Rikers. He called a news conference in which he derided Mr. Ponte as a “hug a thug” yokel from Maine who was out of his league.
Mr. de Blasio seemed to go out of his way early on in his administration to try to cultivate the union leader. During the height of the Ebola crisis in late 2014, for example, the mayor took a break from emergency preparations to attend a charity dinner hosted by Mr. Seabrook at a Bronx ballroom. In a speech, Mr. de Blasio described him as “a friend” and “a great leader in this town.”
But the landscape was changing. News organizations and city investigators were exposing a culture of pervasive brutality in the jails. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose office filed charges against Mr. Seabrook on Wednesday, eventually joined a class-action lawsuit that led to intervention by a federal monitor. And the new mayor took an aggressive stance, vowing to remake Rikers.
Faced with constant obstruction by Mr. Seabrook, who often told his members that Rikers was “our house,” the administration sought ways to circumvent him. Perhaps the most important sign that the balance of power had shifted was a decision by Mr. Ponte to exclude Mr. Seabrook from a behind-the-scenes deal to significantly cut back on the use of solitary confinement. Mr. Seabrook stood at a public meeting and harshly criticized the administration, but the deal to end isolation for all inmates under 22 was done.
Mr. Seabrook continued to bluster publicly about the changes, once showing up outside City Hall with a coffin, meant to represent the dangers facing jail officers. But he also worked with the administration to improve training and to raise hiring standards.
Speaking about Mr. Seabrook’s arrest, Mr. de Blasio described his relationship with the union leader as “fraught.”
“Sometimes he was willing to work with us,” the mayor said. “Sometimes he wasn’t.”
Now there is great uncertainty about what comes next for the union.
Mr. Seabrook is set to run unopposed in unionwide elections this summer. Ballots have already been distributed to the membership, and for now, the plan is to let the election continue as scheduled, according to a union official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to discuss internal union business publicly.
If there are no challenges, the official said, the role of president will be fulfilled for the foreseeable future by Elias Husamudeen, Mr. Seabrook’s trusted second in command.
|Norman Seabrook at his office
|Riker's Island Jail Complex
In August, he finally got his wish: Ms. Finkle was forced out, replaced by a former senior Police Department official — a childhood friend of Mr. Seabrook’s.
Over his two decades as president of the union, Mr. Seabrook has come to exert extraordinary control over the Correction Department, consulting with commissioners on key appointments, forging alliances with high-ranking uniformed correction leaders and, more recently, speaking regularly with Mayor Bill de Blasio about department policy. His influence has paid enormous dividends for his members, but it has also fed a culture of violence and corruption at Rikers, an investigation by The New York Times found.
The investigation involved scores of interviews, with former correction commissioners, former senior City Hall aides, and current and former department officials, and reviews of internal emails and other documents, as well as several lengthy interviews with Mr. Seabrook himself. What emerged was a portrait of a labor leader who wields remarkable power through a combination of political savvy and intimidation.
“I came to think that my wardens believed Norman was more important to their career than I was,” said Martin F. Horn, who served as commissioner from 2003 to 2009.
Mr. Seabrook’s power has cut two ways.
Under his leadership, correction officers, long overlooked among the city’s uniformed services, have seen large gains in salary and pension benefits, reaching parity with firefighters and police officers. Like Mr. Seabrook, the overwhelming majority of his members are black. They have risen to dominate the top ranks of the department, making it far more diverse than the Police and Fire Departments, where most of the leadership is white.
But current and former city officials repeatedly described Mr. Seabrook as the biggest obstacle to efforts to curb brutality and malfeasance at Rikers. He has vigorously resisted stiffer penalties for the use of excessive force by guards and has fought stronger screening measures designed to stop correction officers from smuggling weapons and drugs into the jails. Time and again, Mr. Seabrook has shielded his members from serious punishment when investigators like Ms. Finkle have tried to go after them.
Last year, when prosecutors charged 10 officers in a beating that fractured an inmate’s nose and eye sockets, Mr. Seabrook vigorously defended them.
“Here we have correction officers paraded into court for merely defending themselves,” he said. “The officers did everything that they were supposed to do.”
Much of Mr. Seabrook’s influence within the department comes from a fear of what he might do to those who cross him. The Times spoke with about a dozen current and former senior city officials, both inside and outside the department, who have dealt with him regularly over the years and were privately critical of him. But almost no one would be quoted discussing Mr. Seabrook, citing concerns that he could sabotage their careers. Some also expressed fears about their safety while visiting Rikers, worrying that a correction officer might look the other way if an inmate suddenly got violent.
“He’s a bully,” said Daniel Dromm, a city councilman who has openly clashed with Mr. Seabrook on several occasions. “They’re afraid of him.”
In a major shake-up at the New York City Correction Department, three high-ranking officials, including the top uniformed officer, are stepping down amid mounting criticism over the handling of violence and corruption at Rikers Island.
The chief of department, William Clemons, and two deputies — Joandrea Davis, the bureau chief of administration, and Gregory McLaughlin, the bureau chief of facility operations — are departing, correction officials said. The surprise departures came just five months after all three were appointed to their current posts by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s correction commissioner, Joseph Ponte.
A department spokesman said the changes were the result of “a restructuring” by Mr. Ponte in an effort to halt brutality on the most violent cellblocks.
The department has been under intense pressure from lawmakers and federal and city investigators to address systemic brutality and corruption at Rikers, the country’s second-largest jail complex. The United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which in August released a damning report detailing abuse of adolescent inmates at Rikers, has threatened to sue the city if changes are not made.
The highest-ranking official in the group, Mr. Clemons, is a 29-year veteran of the department. But he has been under scrutiny since an investigation by The New York Times in September uncovered details from an internal Correction Department audit that found he had “abdicated all responsibility” in his duties as warden of a juvenile facility at Rikers in 2011, where hundreds of inmate fights had been omitted from official statistics. The audit recommended that he be demoted.
Instead, he was promoted several times. And The Times found that large sections of the audit, including the recommendation for demotion and the sharpest criticism, were removed from the report by the previous commissioner, Dora B. Schriro.
Mr. Ponte has said he did not see the unedited version of the report before appointing Mr. Clemons chief of department in May. The commissioner promoted him over the objections of the city’s Department of Investigation, The Times found.
In a statement released on Tuesday morning, Mr. Ponte wrote that Mr. Clemons had “proved himself an able leader” and “was a model of stability in a tumultuous time.” Mr. Ponte said he would appoint a new chief by Dec. 1.
Ms. Davis, who joined the department in 1988, is Mr. Clemons’s sister-in-law. She served as warden of three of the 10 jails at Rikers, including the women’s detention center, before moving to administrative positions. Reached by telephone, she declined to comment.
Mr. McLaughlin has been with the department for 27 years and has held several posts. He was warden of the Robert N. Davoren Center, an adolescent jail at Rikers, during a period of extreme violence, and was removed from that command in 2008 shortly after Christopher Robinson, an 18-year-old inmate, was beaten to death by fellow inmates. Mr. McLaughlin could not be reached for comment.
Ms. Davis, Mr. McLaughlin and Mr. Clemons were promoted to their positions shortly after Mr. Ponte’s arrival in April. Ms. Davis will leave her position on Nov. 1, while Mr. Clemons and Mr. McLaughlin are to step down on Dec. 1.
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Ponte said that he was now reorganizing the department to improve oversight of the most violent jails at Rikers. This includes getting high-ranking officers out from behind their desks and onto the cellblocks for the majority of their workweek.
He has also designated a civilian, James E. Dzurenda, the former commissioner of Connecticut’s state prisons, to oversee the top ranking chiefs. The change represents a shifting of authority from the traditionally dominant uniformed staff.
The de Blasio administration has also been looking for ways to bring in new leaders, announcing in September that it was seeking to change civil service laws to allow the hiring of high-ranking correction officers from outside the department.
Under the reorganization, Mr. Ponte said he eliminated several top uniformed positions, including those of Ms. Davis and Mr. McLaughlin, prompting them to leave.
“We want to kind of take a look from the ground up with new eyes in these positions,” he said.
Asked whether Mr. Clemons was pressured to step down, Mr. Ponte said it was the chief’s “personal decision.”
Earlier this month, at a City Council hearing about violence at Rikers, Mr. Ponte praised Mr. Clemons for a “long history of doing good work in the agency.”
Lawmakers were not so kind.
Citing The Times’s investigation, the Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, criticized Mr. Ponte for failing to fire Mr. Clemons, calling the department chief “clearly incompetent.”
In a joint statement released on Tuesday, Ms. Mark-Viverito and Elizabeth Crowley, a council member and the chairwoman of the committee overseeing Rikers, urged Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Ponte to seek out new leadership.
“For too long, the Department of Correction has been rife with the mismanagement and mistreatment of inmates, and the Council’s oversight has only served to further shed light on the deep-seated issues plaguing the D.O.C.,” the statement said.
In the face of the harsh criticism directed at Mr. Clemons, some of his strongest support came from the powerful correction officers’ union and its president, Norman Seabrook. After the Council hearing, Mr. Seabrook’s deputy, Elias Husamudeen, wrote on the union’s website: “I feel like this Council is calling for the head of Chief Clemons.” But on Tuesday, union officials declined to comment on Mr. Clemons’s departure.
Mr. Clemons has largely kept a low profile since the Times report. He did not attend the recent Council hearing, prompting Councilwoman Crowley to say that he “did not have the backbone to appear.”
On Monday, Mr. Clemons arrived at the commissioner’s office at 7 a.m., before the regular staff meeting, Mr. Ponte said.
Mr. Ponte recalled, “He came in and said: ‘I decided to put in my papers; I’m going to retire. I think it’s time.’ ”