Saying that life was so brutal in one of the jail's housing units that it was known as a "terror dome," the Justice Department report described an ingrained attitude of brutality, indifference and coverup at the jail, where guards would reward prisoners for hurling feces and urine mixed with milk at particularly reviled prisoners, such as those accused of sex crimes.
According to the report, the jail has an "institutional culture [that] supports the use of excessive force: some correctional staff support and encourage the use of excessive force by joking about it, bragging about engaging in such conduct, failing to report it and/or ridiculing the legitimate rights of inmates.... We have concluded that NCCC subjects inmates to unconstitutional conditions that have caused them grievous harm; staff engage in a pattern or practice of physical abuse of inmates, and NCCC is deliberately indifferent to inmates' serious medical needs."
The report was released at the same time as two NCCC guards were standing trial on thirddegree assault charges for allegedly beating a jail detainee in October 1998.
In January 1999 NCCC prisoner Thomas Pizzuto was beaten to death by five NCCC guards who were irritated because Pizzuto wouldn't stop hollering for his methadone treatment [See: "Detainee Beaten to Death at Nassau County Jail," PLN. July '99; and "Nassau Jail Guards Convicted, Sentenced for Fatal Beating," PLN. Oct. '00]. The highly publicized Pizzuto case is apparently what prompted Justice Department investigators to probe the Nassau jail.
The report singled out some practices, such as "elevator rides." in which six or seven guards take a prisoner into an elevator and beat him for several minutes.
It also states that some guards made a practice of using excessive force against detainees because of the type of crime the man was charged with, rather than to control the prisoner, or for selfdefense, or for any other legitimate reason. Cases cited in the report include the following:
" A guard told a detainee charged with a sex offense. "Hope you enjoy your stay, rapist." and then sprayed the man with a fire extinguisher;
" A man who had been arrested for beating his girlfriend's 23monthold daughter to death was beaten by jail guards while being transported to his housing unit;
" A man charged with rape and other sex crimes was drenched with water while in the 72 hour admission area and repeatedly beaten in other locations by jail guards, including the elevator, while guards asked him, "So, you like raping women?"
The report also cited "seriously deficient medical care," based on review by federal medical experts who looked at prisoners' medical records. In one instance, a cell gate hit a detainee, but the guard who evaluated him reported that there was no injury. The prisoner, who complained of pain and blurred vision and pleaded for medical treatment, was ignored until four days later when he was finally sent to the emergency room where an orbital fracture was diagnosed. He had to wait an additional two weeks, though, before receiving the appropriate treatment.
The report, signed by Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of NY, and Bill Lann Lee, the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights in Washington, D.C., offers a series of recommendations to improve conditions. They include better training and a complete overhaul of medical care, investigations, oversight, and tracking of the use of force.
Under federal law, the Justice Department can sue the jail and the county to force compliance. However, attempts will first be made to negotiate a solution, possibly court supervision or a settlement approved by a judge.
"We hope to achieve a mutual understanding as to the steps that need to be taken to address the problems that our investigation disclosed," said U.S. attorney Sanford Cohen who successfully prosecuted the five Nassau guards for fatally beating Pizzuto.
Sheriff Ed Reilly, who assumed command of the Nassau jail after the previous sheriff retired in the wake of the media storm surrounding Pizzuto's death, said he plans to use the Dept. of Justice report as a blueprint to turn the jail around.
"This is an extraordinary document," Reilly said. "It's something I have been waiting for since February." He added that he had already taken some of the steps recommended, such as making the jail's internal affairs office report directly to him.
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