NEW YORK — The nation’s largest municipal jail guard union sued New York City on Friday, saying recent sweeping changes in city’s jails have empowered violent inmates and endangered correction officers.
The lawsuit in Manhattan federal court alleged violence in city jails has increased 18 percent since the city instituted changes to how guards perform their work following a rash of alarming reports about the abuse of prisoners, particularly at the city’s main Rikers Island jail complex, where as many as 10,000 inmates are housed.
The city and its officials have “created a substantial and imminent risk that Correction Officers will continue to be seriously injured — or even killed,” the lawsuit said.
In the lawsuit, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association seeks changes to the work environment for guards and unspecified damages.
Nick Paolucci, a spokesman for the city’s law office, said the lawsuit will be reviewed.
“The lawyers have yet to receive and fully review it,” he said. “We don’t know if these claims have any merit.”
The office of Mayor Bill de Blasio did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit said policies put in place since 2015 have put an emphasis on inmates’ well-being and have “shockingly neglected” the safety of the guards.
As a result, the lawsuit says, guards have been punched, kicked, slashed, splashed with urine, feces or saliva, stabbed, held hostage, beaten severely or sexually assaulted by inmates.
The lawsuit said inmates, now housed by gang status, frequently organize collectively against guards. It predicted it was only a matter of time before an inmate uprising occurs.
It also said correction officers are expected to act like mental health professionals in dealing with up to 40 percent of inmates with mental disabilities even though they’ve not been properly trained.
The city has been forced to comply with a 2015 settlement of federal civil litigation over pervasive brutality. It imposed stricter policies on use of force, increased punishment for guards who abuse prisoners and it added 8,000 surveillance cameras to the 10-jail Rikers complex.
In the last three years, 35 corrections employees at Rikers have been arrested, including 13 for assault or attempted assault. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have charged more than a dozen Rikers guards with violating inmates’ civil rights through excessive force, smuggling drugs and other charges since 2014.
The lawsuit was filed by the 9,000-member guards’ union even as it faces a scandal of its own. Its former president, Norman Seabrook, is awaiting trial in October on charges he funneled $20 million in union funds to a hedge fund through a middleman in exchange for a $60,000 kickback. He has pleaded not guilty.