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Detainee Beaten to Death at Nassau County Jail

When Thomas Pizzuto entered the Nassau Co. jail in East Meadow, New York to serve 90 days for traffic violations, he didn't know the jail term would become a death sentence.

Pizzuto, 38, a recovering heroin user who was in daily methadone treatment repeatedly asked for his medication and argued with a guard on Jan. 8, 1999, the day after he arrived at the 2,200-bed Nassau Corr. Center. According to a prisoner in the same cell block, four guards entered Pizzuto's cell during a lockdown and proceeded to savagely punch and kick him. The prisoner, who was not identified, said one guard wrapped a metal chain around his fist and hit Pizzuto hard enough to leave chain link impressions in his face.

Following the beating, jail guards forced Pizzuto to sign a statement that he had fallen in the shower; they allegedly threatened to beat him again and said he wouldn't receive his methadone if he didn't sign. The guards refused to provide him with medical treatment.

Three days later, after suffering a seizure, Pizzuto was taken to the Nassau County Medical Center. His father came to visit and when a jail officer walked away for a moment Pizzuto told him he had been attacked. "Two guards did it" he whispered. "Two guards beat me up."

Pizzuto died forty-eight hours later on Jan. 13, 1999. According to an autopsy, his death resulted from internal bleeding, a lacerated spleen and broken fibs. His face and body were covered with bruises.

Mark Barber, president of the union that represents guards at the Nassau Co. jail, initially suggested that Pizzuto's injuries were caused by a seizure he had in his cell. Barber angrily denied allegations that Pizzuto had been assaulted by guards. "That is so insulting. We're not monsters," he said.

Dennis Kelly, the Pizzuto family's attorney, disagreed. "The evidence is just overwhelming that he was beaten. There's just no other explanation for the trauma he suffered," Kelly stated. He claimed he had evidence showing that some of Pizzuto's injuries "correspond to actual boots and shoes" worn by the guards who allegedly kicked and stomped him.

On Jan. 19 the Nassau Co. Medical Examiner ruled Pizzuto's death a homicide and the county District Attorney's office began an investigation.

Although Thomas Pizzuto's death was an unusual occurrence, his beating at the jail was not. Jail detainees filed 15 complaints last year claiming they had been assaulted by guards; there were no prosecutions. From 1991 to 1998, 106 abuse claims were filed by prisoners, excluding administrative grievances and federal lawsuits.

Following published reports of Pizzuto's death more than a dozen former Nassau Co. jail detainees came forward with their own tales of brutality and cover-ups, saying abuse was rampant at the facility. Former detainee Willie C. Williams said prisoners were reluctant to talk about guard misconduct due to fear of retaliation. "They're keeping their heads down because they don't want the same thing happening to them," he remarked, referring to Pizzuto's death.

Union president Mark Barber conceded there may have been abuses at the jail in the past, but blamed any current problems on inadequate investigations of brutality complaints. Jail officials are investigating another incident involving prisoner Samuel Rudd, 18, who was hospitalized in critical condition on Jan. 13 -- the same day that Pizzuto died after a struggle with six guards over whether he could make a phone call.

Nassau County has paid almost $1 million in jury awards and settlements in brutality cases, including a $500,000 settlement on March 2, 1999 after a jury found a jail guard liable for a 1993 beating. Former detainee Thomas Donovan Jr., who is mentally retarded, suffered broken ribs and spinal fractures after being assaulted by veteran guard Salvatore Gemelli. Gemelli who has been implicated in numerous brutality complaints, was fired the day after the verdict was announced.

Other alleged incidents of abuse at the Nassau Co. jail have involved a diabetic prisoner beaten by guards when he asked for something to eat, an Orthodox Jew assaulted after he insisted on wearing a head covering, and a detainee with Parkinson's disease beaten into a four-day coma. "The mentality is, this is corrections and they're going to correct you," stated Thomas R. Galvin, a former police officer who said he was attacked by guards while incarcerated at the jail.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn took over the investigation into Pizzuto's death on Jan. 25.

On May 27, 4 guards were arrested. According to the Federal Indictment unsealed that day, Pizzuto was beaten by prisoon guards Patrick regnier, 36, and Edward Velasques, 32, while the third guard Ivano Bavaro, 32, acted as lookout.

The fourth guard, Cpl. Joseph Bergin, 47, was charged as an accessory for drafting and signing the false incident report.

The New York Times

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