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Absenteeism Skyrockets for New York City Jail Guards, Up 215% Over the Last Two Years

by Jo Ellen Nott

In New York City, 25 jail guards have run up an absentee rate over the last two years which is “breathtaking in its magnitude,” according to local news reports, and “embarrassing,” according to Sarena Townsend, a former high-ranking internal affairs investigator with the city’s Department of Corrections (DOC).

Townsend was fired in January 2022, allegedly after refusing a request from new DOC Commissioner Louis Molina that she “get rid” of some 2,000 outstanding charges against guards.

“I was fired because the unions did not like that I was holding their members accountable and the Commissioner wanted to be in good favor with the unions,” she said.

Molina is an appointee of new Mayor Eric Adams (D), whose predecessor, former Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), filed suit in September 2021 against the guards’ union, the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association (COBA), maintaining that “Absent Without Leave” rates among guards jumped 215% over the past two years, rising from 645 per month in 2019 to an average of 2,304 per month in 2021. In a show of determination, the suit was then dropped the same month it was filed. [See: PLN, Feb. 2022, p.1.]

In one of the worst examples of chronic absenteeism, Rikers Island guard Pariesh Steele stopped coming to work in the summer of 2021—he did not call out sick; he just stopped showing up—yet during those four months he continued to be paid by DOC. He also managed to spend $3,000 on Puerto Rican hotels and got arrested in Pennsylvania for attempting to mail three pounds of marijuana to Puerto Rico.

Steele’s escapade capped off several years of attendance problems for the guard. In a previous year he called out sick 103 days. After his four months of no-call and no-show, DOC’s Townsend brought disciplinary charges. A spokesperson for prosecutors in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said it was believed Steele intended to plead not guilty to the drug charge there.

Another jail guard skipped 170 shifts in a nine-month period during the
COVID-19 pandemic. When he did report for work, attendance records show that he routinely arrived two hours late. Another staffer working in a Rikers Island infirmary called out sick 325 days in 30 months. She was not at home when an investigator went to check on her.

Chronically absent guards in New York City continue to keep their jobs because they have the right to almost limitless sick days due to the unique physical dangers of guarding prisoners. But Townsend noted that hundreds of guards began abusing the policy during the pandemic, saying she “saw people who were out for months and months and who were continuing to get paid by the department and not coming to work.”

COBA President Benny Boscio defended the unlimited sick leave policy by pointing to a spike in assaults on jail guards, which rose more than 130% in the last five years. Stabbings and slashings in city jails are up 50%, also. According to him, the high absenteeism that prompted de Blasio’s short-lived suit is simply the result of not hiring hundreds of new guards to bolster the rank and file as injuries become more common. Boscio, who said he visits guards in the hospital for broken noses, eye socket injuries, and torn shoulders, blamed the staffing crisis on de Blasio for wanting to close Rikers Island and placing a freeze on hiring for three years.

Half of the chronically absent jail employees uncovered in the local news investigation have been fired or have resigned, DOC said. The other half are waiting for administrative hearings that will determine if they can keep their jobs. 


Sources: NBC New York, Forbes

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