WRITTEN BY BENJAMIN SEEBAUGH
Benjamin Seebaugh is a project manager within the Commissioner’s Office of the New York City Department of Correction. He serves to drive jail reform in the areas of programming and education, investigations, emergency response, leadership and culture, staff recruitment, external communication strategies and the correction academy. He is also the founder of the NYCDOC chapter of the Gay Officers Action League. Prior to his current role, Seebaugh worked in West Virginia University’s Office of the Provost as the LGBTQ program coordinator and as a suicide prevention assistant.
Seebaugh represents WVU as its most recent Harry S. Truman Scholar for dedication to public service. He was selected by Morgantown Magazine as a “Thirty Under 30” honoree and by the Daily Athenaeum as one of 2014’s “Most Influential People at WVU.” Other designations include the Eagle Scout honor, service as a WVU student body vice president and inductions into the Order of Augusta and Mountain Honorary. A proud West Virginian, Seebaugh is a 2014 Honors Scholar and summa cum laude graduate of WVU, where he studied international relations, political science and women’s and gender studies.
It’s 92 degrees on Rikers Island today. That means it’ll be over 100 degrees in most of the housing areas, and the inmates are going to be more irritable than usual. The thick smell of hot, sour garbage permeates through the corridors. Someone shouts, “On the gate!” to an officer operating the motorized bars. A team of uniformed staff wearing helmets and padded riot gear jog in a single file line, squeezing through the passage before it has even opened. Whether you are an inmate or an officer who is locked in with them, it is going to be a long day.
Most would say it’s been a long few years, in fact — the New York City Department of Correction has been undergoing significant transformation after decades of neglect. It turns out that improving the living and working conditions in the isolated penal island hadn’t been a sexy talking point for political candidates seeking votes in the 1980s and ’90s. But New York isn’t the city it once was, and Mayor de Blasio’s reform agenda has slowly but surely been steering Rikers Island toward becoming a safer place. The most recent plans involve shuttering it altogether.
Eight years ago, as a bright-eyed Parkersburg, West Virginia, native stepping into the Mountainlair Student Union during my first semester at West Virginia University, I would have never believed that I’d be working in criminal justice reform. Sure, I had examined the ethics of the death penalty in my high school debate team, and the 2008 election still had me fired up about political engagement, but I thought that my major in political science would be followed by law school and a career in litigation. I thought I knew exactly what my prescribed path to success would be, but I didn’t foresee the many opportunities, courses and curveballs that WVU would throw at me.
My years in Morgantown altered my life in ways I still can’t fully grasp. My intended degree in political science evolved to include a second degree in international studies and a third in women’s and gender studies. What started as a part-time internship with a state delegate in Morgantown prepared me for a summer working in Vienna, Austria, with the U.S. Department of State’s delegation to the United Nations. Like a snowball rolling downhill, these opportunities cascaded into a Truman Scholarship, studies abroad in England and Spain, a year as student body vice president and over 200 credit hours exploring an amalgamation of coursework that I still lovingly refer to as “oppression studies.” I’m not certain that I consciously chose the theme, but these experiences intertwined and opened my eyes to the plight of the voiceless and powerless among us, and I knew that I needed to be a part of the solution.
Graduation arrived like a bullet train. We all heard its horns blaring from a mile away, but it suddenly arrived in an earth-shaking, sleepless blur of finals, capstones, apartment packing, ceremonies, parties, and — in one final roar of applause — culminated in crossing the commencement stage. Its aftershock reverberated throughout the Coliseum to the tune of “Country Roads” as thousands of gold-and-blue clad grads swayed arm-in-arm, degrees in hand. The silence that followed was deafening in contrast. One small thought creeped out into the echo chamber and amplified exponentially the longer it remained unanswered, “What now?”
For me, that became a year of employment with the state of West Virginia as I struggled to find my footing. My friends became fragmented throughout the globe in law school, medical school, graduate school, first jobs, the family business, you name it. For the first time, I was completely alone, caught in purgatory — paralyzed between the omnipotence to choose my destiny and the overwhelming array of options. So, I applied. I applied to opportunities far and wide: Charleston, West Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Boston, Seattle, London, Dublin — anywhere I could see myself living.
After a particularly exhilarating episode of “Law & Order: SVU,” I jumped online to apply for a job with the NYPD. No joke. The more I thought about it, the more I could picture myself alongside Detective Olivia Benson fighting for victims of the especially heinous offenses in New York City. I worked my network, pulling every string, every friend-of-a-friend connected to the NYPD until I finally made contact. The answer was a resounding, crushing “No.” Well, more accurately, the answer was, “No, but.” The NYPD wasn’t offering any police exams at the time, but if I was interested in the field, there was an opportunity for a recent graduate like myself in a “young, energetic team of criminal justice reformers at the Department of Correction.” My golden ticket.
Since joining the Department of Correction almost two years ago, I’ve gotten to use my education from WVU to make impacts that affect the lives of thousands. Keeping in mind that the people in our custody are in jail, not prison, I work under the assumption that they are innocent until proven guilty. As I learned early on in my freshman philosophy and government courses, it is our moral obligation to protect their rights. Conversely, one of the courses I least expected to impact my career path — Computer Science 101 — has become one of the most useful and frequently referenced. My work in women’s and gender studies helped equip me to establish a chapter of the Gay Officers Action League, an LGBTQ law enforcement professionals group, as a recognized organization for the first time in my agency’s history. I was supposed to enroll in graduate school last fall, but I declined admission — for now — to continue pursuing the difference that I am making here.
Throughout all of this, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you never know. Which college, which major, which path, city, career, graduate school — who knows what’s next? I dream of becoming a human rights officer for the United Nations one day, but I have no idea where the path will wind before taking me there, if at all. All I do know is that if we climb on, letting the trail rise beneath our feet, taking advantage of the opportunities that arise along the way, we can all reach our peak obscured in the clouds.