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DOJ Investigation into New York Jail Finds Unconstitutional Conditions

The findings of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) into conditions at a New York jail describe violations of prisoners’ constitutional rights – violations which, in the words of federal investigators, have resulted in “serious harm.”

The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and the U.S. Attorneys Office conducted an investigation into the Westchester County Jail (WCJ) in Valhalla, New York pursuant to the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 1997. CRIPA provides the DOJ with the authority to seek remedies when conditions at correctional facilities violate prisoners’ rights.

The 42-page DOJ report, released in November 2009, contained findings related to on-site inspections at WCJ as well as a review of internal documents and videos. The report, issued by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, concluded that “certain conditions at WCJ violate the constitutional rights of inmates.” It detailed four areas of concern: inadequate protection from harm, medical care deficiencies, mental health care issues and the treatment of juvenile offenders.

The DOJ investigation cited a “pattern” of failures which indicated “that WCJ is not adequately providing for the safety and well being” of prisoners held at the facility. Numerous examples were cited regarding the use of excessive force by WCJ staff. Many of those incidents involved the Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was made up of jail officers and supervisors in full riot gear who responded to incidents involving violence and non-compliance by prisoners.

The investigation found that ERT members often employed chemical agents such as OC pepper spray at point-blank range on restrained prisoners. They also used crowd control-sized OC canisters on individual prisoners when personal-sized canisters would have been sufficient, frequently used physical force to attack or subdue prisoners who were not presenting any immediate threat, and employed painful restraint techniques when unnecessary.

Another commonly-mentioned problem was inaccurate reporting at WCJ, which the federal investigation called “routinely ... incomplete, vague, or conclusory,” and often “exaggerated.”

In one example, a jail report indicated that the ERT “attempted to take control” of a prisoner, escorted her to a search area and administered OC spray when she “became very combative.”

The DOJ review found that an ERT officer drove the prisoner’s “head to a wall while other officers took her to the ground ... escorted her with a bent wrist tactic, which appeared to cause her substantial and unnecessary pain,” and “sprayed [her] at point-blank range in the face with OC spray from a [crowd control size] canister while she was lying prone and cuffed on the floor.”

Discrepancies between written reports by jail staff and video footage reviewed during the DOJ investigation raised serious concerns about documentation related to incidents in which no video was available.

The review of one video showed a prisoner who was described in a use of force report as attempting to resist; the prisoner was fully complying with an ERT officer’s order to kneel when the officer threw him into a wall, injuring his head.

The federal investigators said they were “troubled to see this use of excessive force used against a compliant inmate who did not appear to pose a threat to officers or himself,” finding that the ERT’s actions were neither “justifiable nor necessary.”

Also noted was the lack of review and investigation of use of force incidents. When reviews were conducted, they were often done by supervising members of the ERT itself, who would sign off on their own actions. Allowing the ERT foxes to guard the WCJ hen house afforded jail staff “unfettered use of force” against prisoners.

A review of another video revealed a restrained prisoner in a prone, face-down position being sprayed in the face by a chemical agent. Referring to that incident, the DOJ report stated, “Even a casual review ... should have prompted some level of investigative inquiry because the video showed that unsafe and highly injurious tactics were used.” However, no indication of an internal review was found.

Additional examples cited in the DOJ investigation included cases where prisoners were escorted naked, dragged across floors by their handcuffs, slammed against elevator walls and subjected to other tactics deemed “unsafe and unprofessional.” Further, several areas were noted in which the medical care at WCJ did not meet constitutionally required standards. In particular, inadequate dental care and control of infectious diseases such as staph infections were high-lighted.

Prisoners awaiting dental care were routinely left without treatment for over a month and not provided pain medication. In one case, a prisoner who had submitted a request indicating “serious pain” had not been treated in four months.

Although the facility had reported no outbreaks of MRSA, a drug-resistant and potentially life-threatening form of staph infection, during the months leading up to the DOJ investigation numerous examples were referenced in which likely cases of MRSA were not identified because cultures had not been performed. Just four months after the investigation, a confirmed outbreak of MRSA occurred at the jail.

Mental health care issues at WCJ noted in the DOJ report included the use of force, intimidation and mechanical restraints to involuntarily administer medication to mentally ill prisoners. The report found that ERTs were employed 33 times in 2007 for such purposes, often using chemical agents or “hog-ties” to subdue prisoners.

As for juveniles, the DOJ stated that “WCJ’s treatment ... raises serious constitutional concerns….” Specifically mentioned were lengthy disciplinary sentences in Special Housing Units, inadequate mental health care, failure to adequately separate juveniles from adult prisoners, and failure to obtain parental consent for medical services and mental health treatment.

The DOJ report detailed a number of remedial measures that WCJ should take to remedy the constitutional violations uncovered by the investigation. Among those recommendations were developing more comprehensive policies regarding use of force, including prohibitions on uses of force where there is no immediate threat to safety and the use of crowd control-sized chemical agents. Also mentioned was establishing better oversight of use of force through improved reporting and reviewing by independent staff. Better training, increased use of video recording and revisions of the disciplinary process and grievance procedure were stressed, plus the inclusion of a definition of excessive or unnecessary force in the jail’s Standard Operating Procedures.

The DOJ’s recommendations for medical and mental health care included improved screening and treatment, timely evaluations for mental illness, and the prevention of ERTs from being employed in the forced medication of prisoners unless there is an immediate risk.

While Assistant Attorney General Perez wrote that he believed the county had been cooperative and was capable and willing to resolve the issues presented in the report, he acknowledged that if no resolution could be reached the Attorney General may file suit pursuant to CRIPA to enforce the DOJ’s recommendations and correct the constitutional violations of prisoners’ rights.
“The conditions at the Westchester County Jail are woefully inadequate. Every member of our society deserves to have his or her civil rights respected, and Westchester County has failed to adhere to this ideal,” Perez stated.

That finding came too late for mentally ill prisoner Zoran Teodorovic, who was beaten and kicked by guards at WCJ in October 2000, lapsed into a coma and later died due to his injuries. Jail guard Paul M. Cote pleaded guilty to state charges related to that incident and received a three-month sentence. [See: PLN, Oct. 2002, p.20]. He was later prosecuted on federal charges and convicted; his conviction was dismissed by the district court but reinstated by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Cote was sentenced to six years in prison on June 1, 2009. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.44].

Sources: DOJ CRIPA Investigation of the Westchester County Jail, New York Times

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