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Rikers Island Brutality Suit Settled

By Jonathan Chasan

New York City officials have acknowledged the need for far-reaching court-ordered reforms to curb systemic brutality and its cover up in the Rikers Island Central Punitive Segregation Unit ("CPSU" or "the bing"), known in the City jails as "the house of pain." The City agreed to a fifty-page consent judgment which settles the class action, Sheppard vs. Phoenix, USDC, case no. 91-civ-4148 (RPP) which was brought by attorneys from the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project in 1993. The settlement was approved by Judge Robert P. Patterson, Jr. of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York on July 10, 1998.

The CPSU houses 450 prisoners serving disciplinary sentences in a jail system which now holds over 19,000 prisoners and detainees.

The settlement of the injunctive claims in Sheppard comes two years after the fifteen named plaintiffs each of whom had been badly beaten by CPSU guards in separate incidents between 1990 and 1992 which were then covered-up by their supervisors settled their individual damage claims for a total of $1.6 million. Five former CPSU guards were convicted in state and federal criminal proceedings arising out of beatings in the Unit. These prosecutions relied heavily on admissions by a number of former guards, one of whom cooperated in the criminal investigation and wore a recording device while working in the CPSU.

Legal Aid attorneys reviewed over one thousand use of force incidents between 1988 and 1996, and took scores of depositions of guards and supervisors. City records and testimony from Correction staff documented an extraordinary pattern of brutality perpetrated in the CPSU and allowed to continue by higher level officials. The former Warden of the jail in which the CPSU was located testified that guard brutality "is ingrained in the culture" of the New York City Department of Correction, and was "part of the overall operation of the jail." The Commissioner of Correction admitted that there had been an "organized" and "patterned" cover-up of brutality.

Department of Correction records documented that hundreds of prisoners in the CPSU suffered serious injuries when struck by CPSU guards, including one prisoner who died as a result of being beaten in 1990. One of plaintiffs' experts, Steve J. Martin, reported that:

"The pattern of multiple head injuries in a routine application of force in the CPSU exceeds that observed in any other confinement setting with which I am familiar. This pattern includes serious injuries such as perforated eardrums, fractured noses, teeth and jaws; skull and eye injuries; and rib and back injuries. The sheer number of serious incidents ... that are disproportionate to the threat of harm to staff... is unprecedented in my experience ... Multiple head injuries sustained by inmates in routine applications of force in the CPSU is so commonplace as to constitute a clear pattern and practice of employing techniques intended to harm rather than restrain and control inmates ... The evidence of a pattern and practice of excessive and unnecessary force in the CPSU from 1988 to 1996 represents the most uniform and prodigious body of evidence, from the highest levels of the Department to line level staff in the CPSU, I've ever encountered in my career."

City records showed that high-ranking officials were aware of the pattern of misuse of force shortly after the Unit was opened in 1988, but did nothing to curb it. In fact, in 1989 the Commissioner removed the CPSU commander, who for eight months had made some efforts to reduce prisoner beatings, after the guards demanded his transfer because he was perceived by them as "soft." In 1990 and 1992, before the Sheppard case was filed, a federal court compliance monitor reported credible evidence of systemic brutality and abuse in the CPSU.

Deposition testimony by CPSU staff members included admissions of routine "greeting beatings" of prisoners newly admitted to the Unit; beating of prisoners, many of whom were handcuffed, in isolated areas of the CPSU; and falsification of Department records by line staff and supervisors endorsed up the chain of command. Guards even admitted striking each other in the face to create injuries which would be used to concoct cover stories for beatings of prisoners.

Even after the CPSU was moved to a new building in March, 1996, in which over 300 video surveillance cameras had been installed, an entirely new CPSU staff continued to beat prisoners, most often inside cells and in other areas left uncovered by the video cameras. Many of the prisoners were beaten while cuffed.

The Department of Correction's investigative and disciplinary process was completely ineffective in identifying the misconduct, let alone addressing it.

[Mr. Chasan is one of the Legal Aid Society lawyers who represented the plaintiffs in this case.]

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Related legal case

Sheppard v. Phoenix