At a press conference on Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio announced his decision to authorize the use of taser guns for a special group of correctional officers at the Rikers Island jail.
The change will allow about 30 elite officers, part of the emergency and violence response unit at Rikers, to zap inmates they say are involved in fights or other violent encounters, sources told the New York Daily News. Currently, guards at Rikers Island carry batons and pepper spray to break up fights and enforce order.
The move comes about a month after the correctional officers’ union blamed de Blasio for an alleged spike in violence against officers. The union has been fending off efforts to end the use of solitary confinement, which they claim is essential for officer safety, and are claiming that the addition of tasers actually doesn’t go far enough.
“Given the amount of direct contact officers have with inmates in New York City jails, deploying tasers to be carried by a small number of Department of Correction supervisors does little to protect officers or stem the tide of daily violence,” said Elias Husamudeen, the union president, in a statement to The New York Times.
At the press conference, however, De Blasio claimed that violence at Rikers has declined over the past year, with assaults on officers down 20 percent and serious assaults on officers down 44 percent in the first seven months of 2016, compared to the same period last year.
The news is a blow to prisoners’ rights activists, who point to a culture of violence against inmates at Rikers Island.
Since 2012, more than 50 guards have faced charges for assault, smuggling contraband, and falsifying reports, according to a Reuters report. And last year, the city settled a class-action lawsuit launched by inmates accusing Rikers guards of systemic brutality.
In a public statement in response to the news, Mary Lynne Werlwas, the director of the Prisoners' Rights Project, said, “The militarization of the Emergency Services Unit—a command with a profoundly troubling reputation for use of force—will not make line correction staff any safer, but will only destabilize a system all agree needs to change."
Tasers are currently in use in jails in 23 cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Seattle. The use of tasers by law enforcement has come under intense criticism over the past year, since numerous incidents have shown that these weapons can, in fact, be lethal.
Their use in jails in particular has raised controversy. In Iowa in 2013, a guard drew criticism after he tased a mentally ill prisoner four times with 50,000 volts of electricity, even while she was in handcuffs and surrounded by other jail staff, according to Prison Legal News.
“This is a serious step backward for reform," said Werlwas in her statement.