Rikers Island, the New York island detention complex between Queens and the Bronx, has developed a bad rap in recent years. Under pressure from the federal regulators, the prison’s administration has moved to extensively reform the complex. But last week, a prison worker – not an inmate — filed a lawsuit against the group that runs Rikers for alleged mistreatment.
A little over a year ago, Janine Howard, a 40-year-old Rikers prison guard, was shot in the face by her husband, Brian Martin, also a corrections officer, during a fight in their Long Island home. Fortunately Howard was not killed, but she sustained permanent nerve damage and other critical injuries that requiring a full reconstruction of her jaw and eye socket, and plates inserted in and around her mouth. Martin, who has a history of violence, was arrested and pled not guilty to charges of attempted murder last January.
But the next level of scandal emerged in the aftermath. Last Tuesday Howard and her employment attorney filed a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections and Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte for unlawful termination after her return to the job last December, when she was let go without any explanation whatsoever.
Like all new Rikers employees, Howard has been placed on two-year probation when she was hired in 2011. The domestic shooting took place right at the tail end of that period; in the months that followed, of course, she was on medical leave to have her face reconstructed, and remained unable to return to work due to the pending criminal trial against her husband. While staying in the hospital, Howard said, she was visited by the previous corrections commissioner who told her not to worry about completing probation; she even received a letter from the Department 60 days after the incident stated that she had been tenured. But on December 2, 2014, she was visited by DOC officials anyway.
“A supervisor from my facility and an officer who accompanied him came to my home,” she recalled. “My father answered the door. He requested my shield ID and my rules and regulations handbook. I was confused; I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know why, and he wouldn’t say why.”
Howard immediately contacted a union delegate, who said they had met with the personnel department and the decision was final. She had been officially terminated one year after being shot in the face. Meanwhile, the husband who shot her is currently serving a 30-day suspension and is incarcerated—but is still technically employed at Rikers according to Howard and Seabrook.
Many claim that the working conditions were so horrific at Rikers that Howard’s husband was driven insane, causing him to try to kill her in the first place. Seabrook, a close ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio and reformed who has pledged to make prison reform the administration’s top priority, is demanding justice from the mayor and has even suggested that the motive for firing Howard was to avoid any external scrutiny of internal conditions and conflict at Rikers. “It’s not a matter of hiding what happened,” he explained. “But just a matter of maybe [the problems will] just go away.”
The wrongful termination affects more than just Howard alone; the corrections officer has a five-year-old daughter who she is now struggling to support as a single mom (Howard just filed for divorce from Martin; they had been married for a year when he shot her.) She reports that she now goes to counseling every week and has to take sleeping medication constantly for pain caused by her injuries. Howard also lives in constant fear that a Rikers coworker who might still be friends with Martin is going to finish the job.
“I feel victimized,” she said. “I feel like my safety and security can just be taken from me at anytime. Even though you do what you’re supposed to do.”