December 2012

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Advocating for Inmates, from the Inside

Elma Reeves handles inmate complaints at Rikers Island.


When we think of the City’s jails images of burly prison guards and the sounds of rattling keys and slamming cell doors come to mind. But the Department of Correction is also filled with civilian workers who advocate for inmates to ensure that their rights are addressed.

SSEU Local 371 member Elma Reeves is one of them.

As a Correctional Standard Review Specialist she receives grievances from inmates at Rikers Island and acts as a liaison to the department’s administration.

“We are here to make sure the department provides the inmates with what they are supposed to get,” she said of the grievance program, which is available in each City jail. “I make a difference in people’s lives because they cannot speak to the administration. I am their voice to the administration.”

In many cases, Reeves is able to improve the situation for the inmates, a job she finds rewarding. In addition, she follows up on each case to make sure that there are “no reprisals on the inmate because they complain.”

Every case is different and unique, she said, noting that this keeps her job interesting and provided new challenges to overcome each day. “It’s very detailed,” she said of the process. “It’s not cut and dry.”

Reeves has been in the program since 1995, but came to the Correction Department in 1983, where after working in an administrative capacity in several offices she moved to the house arrest program.

“We advocated for inmates who did not have severe cases,” she explained. “Instead of having them incarcerated, I advocated on behalf of the department to put them back on the street so they could improve their lives, whether they go back to school or work.”

She said it is gratifying when she sees former inmates on the street that she knows she has helped in the past.

“They know that I’m speaking for them,” she said.

Reeves is also an active SSEU Local 371 member, serving on the Executive Committee, as a delegate and as the co-chair of the Union’s committee for Civilians in Law Enforcement.

“I know the Union is there supporting us, and we have to support the Union,” she said. “If we don’t support the Union the Union is not viable.”

Social Service Employees Union Local 371
817 Broadway, New York, NY 10003