National News

Prior Arrests and Lost Jobs, Yet Still Hired as Correction Officers

Posted May 3, 2018 9:10 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — One candidate for a job with the New York City Department of Correction had resigned from a previous position as a state jail guard after he was found to have had an inappropriate relationship with a parolee. Another applicant had been arrested on assault and harassment charges related to a dispute with his wife. A third failed to list on her application that she had visited gang members in jail.

Despite these red flags, each candidate became a correction officer. These three officers are emblematic of a much larger problem, according to a report released Thursday by the city Department of Investigation, which found that the Correction Department failed to properly screen recruits, including dozens with sketchy backgrounds, connections to gang members, arrest records and employment terminations.

A review of 291 candidates hired as correction officers in 2016 found that 88 of them — or nearly a third — should not have been hired or should have been closely monitored, the investigation found. Eighty-three of the applicants who were hired had prior arrests, 78 were terminated from a previous job, and 117 had friends or relatives who had been incarcerated.

The review follows one conducted in 2015 that uncovered many similar hiring lapses. The recent investigation found not much had improved: The department’s Applicant Investigation Unit failed to conduct thorough background checks and instead relied on self-reported information from candidates, rarely conducted field visits with applicants and often did not wait to verify information from previous employers.

Employment investigators also failed to verify personal information through public record databases or through police contacts and did not review phone calls between inmates and candidates. Despite a previous recommendation to computerize records, employment investigators’ files were still paper-based, the investigation found.

The investigation’s findings highlighted a systemic problem that contributes to a deep-seated culture of violence and corruption inside the city’s jails: the gaps in a screening process that fails to prevent the hiring of candidates of questionable integrity.

“There’s not a good, thorough and rigorous system for vetting candidates before they’re hired,” said Mark G. Peters, the Department of Investigation commissioner. “The failure to do that is at the root of every other problem we have with the city’s jails. You want to be able to effectively deal with contraband smuggling and improper searches of visitors and every other problem in the city’s jails, then you want to make sure you have a good and fully trustworthy staff.”

In the last three years, Peters said his office has arrested more than 50 correction officers and staffers.

“If we do not fix the screening process that number will likely rise,” he said.

It was the arrest of James Brown, a correction officer hired in December 2016, that led to a second look at the department’s hiring practices. Brown was accused of smuggling alcohol into a jail in an iced tea bottle and concealing eight Ziploc bags containing tobacco and marijuana in his underwear.

Brown had a checkered employment history, having been fired from a job with the City Parks and Recreation Department and having failed a probationary evaluation with the United States Park Police. After his arrest, he told investigators he had begun smuggling in contraband to pay off his debts, including $8,000 in child support, the investigation found.

The report said employment investigators for the Correction Department blamed the hiring lapses on pressure to hire increasingly large classes. Investigators said they cut corners to move applications along.

There are a number of things that can disqualify candidates for jobs as correction officers, including a felony conviction, incarceration, having had a license suspended or revoked multiple times, an existing order of protection, a domestic violence misdemeanor conviction and failure to pass a drug test.

The report highlighted 10 correction officers whose backgrounds included serious red flags.

Peter Thorne, a spokesman for the Correction Department, said the report focused on a period before the department tightened up its hiring practices last year. He said five of the 10 officers detailed in the report are no longer city correction officers.

“With the cooperation of DOI, we are investigating the circumstances surrounding the remaining five individuals,” he said.