June 8th, 2016
Yesterday five Rikers Island guards were convicted in the 2012 brutal beating of prisoner Jahmal Lightfoot, which left him with fractured eye sockets and a broken nose.
Today, in a technically unrelated, though in truth closely related, incident, Norman Seabrook, the powerful leader of the NYC corrections officers’ union was arrested on federal fraud charges. In the past, Seabrook has defended putting juveniles in solitary confinement (in order to protect corrections officers), and worked to block mayor Bill de Blasio’s attempts to reform Rikers.
The Rikers guards’ trial was the latest in a series of prosecutions that have occurred over the past four years against Rikers employees, targeting the violence and chaos that has operated there for decades, mostly unacknowledged by officials, the media and the larger public.
But with this conviction, says Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, “A Bronx jury has sent a clear message that a uniform and a badge does not absolve anyone from committing a crime.” What’s more, he says, it shows that “even a criminal behind bars deserves to be treated like a human being.”
That was not the case in the events that led to Lightfoot’s beating.
Reportedly, Eliseo Perez, a former assistant chief for security, announced to prisoners before the beating that “Somebody’s leaving in an ambulance tonight.”
Then Perez and a captain, Gerald Vaughn, ordered several officers to carry out the attack on Lightfoot, in order to send a message of intimidation to the rest of the prisoners.
Perez, 49, was convicted of attempted gang assault and other charges along with officers Alfred Rivera, 47; Tobias Parker, 46; Jose Parra, 47; and David Rodriguez, 41. They face a maximum of 15 years in prison (never a place likely to foster the constructive resolution of crimes).
In another disturbing case, Norman Seabrook, the leader of NYC corrections officers’ union, was arrested on federal charges of fraud, which were discovered in connection with investigations into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign fund-raising. De Blasio was not named in the specific allegations against Seabrook, but the FBI seems to have gotten some of its information from Jona Rechnitz, a real estate executive, who is a key witness in the ongoing federal investigation against de Blasio as well. He is apparently working with the government “in the hopes of obtaining leniency when he is sentenced,” according to the complaint.
Seabrook is accused of investing $20 million from the union’s pension fund into a hedge fund run by a banker friend, Murray Huberfeld, who then paid him kickbacks. Huberfeld was also arrested at around the same time this morning as Seabrook.
Over the years, Mr. Seabrook has been sued by members of the union for a variety of crimes, including corruption and sexual harassment, though he has retained his position.
After learning of Seabrook’s arrest, de Blasio responded: “These are allegations, but I’ll say if proven true it’s disgusting and it’s very, very sad. It means he stole money from his own workers.” He told reporters that “It has been a very fraught relationship over the years. Sometimes we’ve been able to work together, sometimes there was real disagreement. I haven’t spoken to him in several months.
“But the reform on Rikers Island will continue aggressively,” the mayor stated. “We are adamant about changing the culture on Rikers Island.”
For some though, it’s taken too long to change “the culture” on Rikers. Just two days ago, June 6, was the one-year anniversary of the day Kalief Browder, a prisoner in Rikers, committed suicide. He was sent to Rikers when he was 16, accused of stealing a backpack. He remained there for three years, nearly two of which he spend in solitary, without any trial or conviction. Finally, the charges were dropped, but not before he had been beaten and otherwise abused, and had attempted suicide multiple times. After getting out, he eventually carried out his suicide.
On Monday, members of the campaign to #ShutDownRikers remembered him, and re-dedicated themselves in their efforts to shut down what they say is nothing more than a “torture chamber.”