“Deep-Seated Culture of Violence” and Abysmal Medical Care at Rikers Island
“Deep-Seated Culture of Violence” and Abysmal Medical Care at Rikers Island
by Gary Hunter
Pressure is mounting to speed the progress of reforms at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail complex, as city and federal officials focus on two primary areas that have drawn the focus of public attention: violence that escalated to a record level in 2014 – much of it related to guards using force against prisoners – and grossly inadequate healthcare.
According to data obtained by the Associated Press, New York City jail guards reported using force against prisoners 4,074 times during 2014, an average of 11 incidents per day, ranging from pepper spray to punches. During September 2014 alone they reported 406 incidents – just one month after a federal report blasted Rikers Island guards for being too quick to resort to violence against youthful prisoners.
The increase in use-of-force incidents came as the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) joined a class-action lawsuit to address what federal prosecutors have called a “deep-seated culture of violence” in New York City’s jail system.
“There has clearly not been a commitment to date to address officer violence on Rikers Island,” complained Dr. Bobby Cohen, who sits on the city’s jail oversight board and cited the record number of violent incidents during a January 13, 2015 public meeting. “Will that change now? I hope so. I’ve certainly not seen that before.”
The head of the powerful guards’ union, the 9,000-member Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA), blamed the violence on an increase in guards documenting such incidents more frequently in an effort to protect themselves from possible legal action and disciplinary measures.
“If I physically touch an inmate, it’s a use of force irrespective of an injury happening,” said union chief Norman Seabrook. “Absolutely we’re saying, ‘Document everything. Don’t physically get into an altercation but use chemical agents. Spray them. Spray everybody you’ve got to spray but don’t punch nobody out. Just spray whoever you’ve got to.’”
Prisoner advocacy groups, however, point to an August 2014 DOJ report that found guards routinely used physical force against 16-, 17- and 18-year-old prisoners for incidents as minor as perceived slights or signs of disrespect. The report added that such violence is most likely a regular practice in all 10 facilities that make up the sprawling jail complex on Rikers Island, located in New York’s East River.
The complex houses around 10,000 prisoners each day on charges that range from simple trespass to murder. Over 1,500 prisoners have been held at Rikers for over a year awaiting trial; 400 have been held over two years, and six have been at the jail six years or more.
Further, the DOJ report revealed that use-of-force by guards had increased steadily over the past eight years even as the overall population at Rikers has declined. In 2013, guards reported using force 3,285 times when the daily prisoner population averaged 11,687. In 2006, the first year represented in the data, there were 1,299 reports of guards using force when the average daily population reached nearly 14,000 prisoners.
The report was among the factors that prompted a March 12, 2015 visit to Rikers Island by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who unveiled a 14-point plan that he said would focus on reducing violence between prisoners and halting the smuggling of drugs and weapons into the complex. During his second visit to Rikers in three months, de Blasio, who was surrounded by uniformed jail guards during an hour-long press conference, shied away from discussing reports of brutality by guards that have gained widespread attention from the news media.
“We are fundamentally dissatisfied with a culture of violence and will not allow it to continue,” de Blasio said, vowing to make Rikers a “national model of what is right again.”
He cautioned that reforming the city’s jail system is a long-term process that will not be easy or show immediate results; however, a landmark settlement in the class-action suit over violence and excessive use of force by guards at Rikers, reached in June 2015, is at least a modest start.
Plans for Reform
The main focus of de Blasio’s reform plan is directed at restricting the ability of visitors to smuggle contraband into the jail, which is what city Department of Correction (DOC) officials blame for prisoner disputes that lead to violence. Under the mayor’s plan, physical contact between visitors and prisoners will be limited to an embrace at the beginning and end of visits. In addition, de Blasio said, the jail will install Plexiglas partitions to separate visitors and prisoners who sit across a table from each other, and the DOC will create a computerized screening system to make it harder for people with criminal records or gang affiliations to visit prisoners.
De Blasio stopped short of announcing steps to deal with smuggling by guards or civilian jail employees, including healthcare workers employed by Corizon Health, Inc., the jail system’s medical contractor, which has come under separate fire for providing substandard medical care. The mayor argued that smuggling by staff and employees paled in comparison to smuggling by visitors, though he produced no data to substantiate that claim.
In fact, tougher screening measures were implemented after two independent investigations revealed incompetence and misconduct by jail guards. In October 2014, an investigator with the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI), working undercover, smuggled drugs, alcohol and a razor blade through six employee checkpoints at Rikers. Then on January 15, 2015, the DOI issued a report that revealed scores of guards had been hired despite having criminal records, ties to gangs or other issues that made them susceptible to corruption.
At odds with Mayor de Blasio’s assessment that visitors bring in most contraband, DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters linked the violence, smuggling and bribery plaguing Rikers Island directly to jail employees.
“Unless you have consistently qualified correction officers, solving the other problems we care about is an almost insurmountable task,” Peters stated. “This is just a function of, for a decade, hirings and screenings and investigations being ignored.”
De Blasio’s multi-point reform plan also dealt with issues related to mentally ill prisoners, who now make up 40% of the population at Rikers. The mayor said additional emphasis will be placed on separating rival gang members, blamed by officials for most of the violence at the jail complex.
In fact, the mayor’s press conference took place at the new Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit (ESHU), one of several units at Rikers Island that is intended to hold up to 250 of the most violent prisoners “who require an enhanced level of supervision for security reasons.” DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who accompanied de Blasio on his visit to Rikers and joined him at the press conference, had previously said the new unit was critical for reducing overall violence at the jail complex by segregating and imposing greater restrictions on the most troublesome prisoners.
“Some 7% of the population perpetrate most of the violence in our jails,” Ponte stated. “By letting us manage our most dangerous inmates more effectively, Enhanced Supervision Housing will enable Department of Correction to create a safer environment for staff and inmates throughout our facilities.”
Also under the mayor’s reform plan, the DOC intends to deploy special teams trained to control and de-escalate confrontations with prisoners, especially those with mental health problems. Although some of the reforms are already underway, other aspects of the plan must be approved by the Board of Correction, the watchdog agency that oversees the city’s jails.
“Deep-Seated Culture of Violence”
The mayor’s first visit to Rikers Island, on December 17, 2014, focused on the treatment of juvenile offenders held at the jail complex. De Blasio had promised reforms for months, and insisted that changes were “being made quickly.” During his visit to the Robert N. Davoren Complex, Rikers’ juvenile facility, he announced reforms that included the elimination of solitary confinement for adolescent prisoners – a sanction that guards routinely imposed for infractions as minor as perceived insolence. [See the article on p.21].
One day later, the Department of Justice moved to join a class-action lawsuit against the City of New York for perpetuating what federal officials called a “pervasive and deep-seated culture of violence” against juveniles at Rikers Island. The DOJ’s intervention in the suit followed a scathing report issued in August 2014 by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, which chronicled the abuse of adolescent prisoners and described the “rampant use of unnecessary and excessive force” by guards, as well as an over-reliance on solitary confinement.
The report described conditions at the Robert N. Davoren Complex as a chamber of horrors, where juveniles “are beaten as a form of punishment, sometimes in apparent retribution for some perceived disrespectful conduct.... Correction officers improperly use injurious force in response to refusals to follow orders, verbal taunts, or insults, even when the inmate presents no threat to the safety or security of staff or other inmates.” The Rikers juvenile facility houses just under 500 prisoners (New York is one of only two states that automatically tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults in its criminal justice system).
On October 8, 2014, DOC Commissioner Ponte announced his agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s recommendation that all juveniles be removed from Rikers Island.
“We cannot continue on a path where violence is commonplace and inmates are treated in a manner that leaves them more broken than when they came in,” Ponte said. He warned, however, that even though he was searching for an alternative site to house juvenile offenders, there was “no quick, easy solution.”
Bharara had concluded that fights between prisoners were not the most pressing problem at Rikers, stating, “The DOC fails to adequately discipline staff for using inappropriate force against adolescents.” He issued an ultimatum to jail officials, giving them one month to make significant changes or face legal action. He then made good on his threat.
On December 23, 2014, a Manhattan federal district court granted Bharara’s request to intervene in a pending class-action suit, Nunez v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-05845-LTS-JCF, filed in 2011 by The Legal Aid Society on behalf of all Rikers prisoners. The lawsuit, which is being handled by two firms, Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP and Ropes & Gray LLP, addresses use of force and brutality by Rikers guards. The DOC has settled five class-action suits over similar issues since 1990.
The U.S. Attorney’s intervention in the case focused solely on the mistreatment of juvenile offenders. Bharara cited the promotion of abusive jail officials, calling it an example of the city’s “failure to put in place qualified managers and supervisors who are committed to and capable of reducing the level of violence” at Rikers.
According to an internal study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, over the course of 11 months in 2013, 129 prisoners incurred “serious injuries” after altercations with guards. The department refused to release the study under the state’s public records law, but a copy was obtained by the New York Times. Most of the injured prisoners had been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.
Union officials have claimed that in order to successfully quell violence at Rikers Island, the jail needs even more guards – a position which, on the surface, appears to be supported by a number of recent disturbances at the complex.
For example, on February 27, 2015, more than a dozen prisoners in a classroom began fighting. DOC spokesman Jack Ryan said seven guards sustained minor injuries before the brawl could be brought under control using chemical agents.
And in August 2014, guards pepper-sprayed 68 prisoners who refused to comply with a curfew order that was instituted in an effort to reduce violence at the jail. The prisoners rioted for two hours before order was restored.
One week prior to that incident, more than 30 prisoners rioted for over an hour; video footage showed them fighting each other with mop handles, chairs and at least one knife, while guards stood by and watched. COBA union chief Seabrook noted there was little the outnumbered guards could do to stop such incidents.
“We don’t have the staff to break it up,” he said in an interview with ABC 7 News. “The officers certainly can’t go in there with just three officers against 60 inmates.”
An August 2013 riot that involved up to 50 prisoners, lasted 45 minutes and resulted in 11 injuries, some with stab wounds, was caused by a dispute over a hotplate to make a grilled cheese sandwich. [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.56].
The call for more guards was supported by City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who pointed out that some Rikers employees work as much as 80 hours of overtime per month. “I have always connected it [overtime] to the rise in violence and an overworked and stressed out staff,” she stated.
But reports indicate that over the past seven years, the guard-to-prisoner ratio at Rikers has actually increased by 19%, as the average daily prisoner population has fallen from 14,000 in 2007 to around 11,000 in 2014. Yet high levels of violence have persisted.
Brutality and Abuse by Guards
In the most recent DOC statistics obtained by the New York Times, there were 62 cases of jail guards seriously injuring prisoners in the six-month period from August 2014 to January 2015. The Times reported that in 70% of those incidents, prisoners suffered head injuries despite rules that prohibit guards from striking prisoners in the head unless absolutely necessary. Further, nearly half of the 30 injuries suffered by guards during the same time period consisted of broken hands caused by hitting prisoners.
There is no shortage of stories about brutality by Rikers guards, and on January 22, 2015, in a precedent-setting move, Commissioner Ponte fired five guards and a captain for the 2012 beating of a handcuffed prisoner in a unit for mentally ill offenders. The terminations had been recommended by an administrative law judge.
“The vast majority of correction officers perform their duties with the highest level of integrity and my decision makes clear that there is no room for this type of behavior on Rikers,” Ponte said in a statement.
Administrative law judge Tynia Richard had rebuked the six Rikers guards following an investigation into the April 2012 beating of Robert Hinton. Hinton was being held in a unit reserved for mentally ill prisoners when he resisted a transfer to a different cell by sitting down. Surveillance video showed five guards and Captain Budnarine Behari carrying Hinton, who was hog-tied with his hands cuffed behind his back and his ankles shackled, to a solitary confinement cell. He was brought out 10 minutes later with a fractured back and broken nose, and his face bloody and badly swollen.
Judge Richard took into account that Hinton stood six-foot-three, was a member of the Bloods gang, had a history of violence and had been convicted of attempted murder. She also noted that several of the guards were “large muscular men” and that one was a trained boxer and another trained in martial arts.
The judge also cited inconsistencies in the guards’ testimonies. Rikers guard Paul Bunton initially described the beating as a minor incident, but at trial called it “the fight of his life,” and claimed Hinton held him in a chokehold for more than a minute, nearly killing him. Judge Richard noted that Bunton “made no mention of a chokehold or neck injury or neck pain” in the hospital report. She also mentioned a discrepancy involving Behari; the captain claimed in the hospital report that he was kicked in the left knee and right hand, but testified at trial that Hinton had kicked him in the groin.
After touring the Rikers facility where Hinton was held, the judge ultimately determined that Behari and the five guards had lied. She concluded Hinton had been handcuffed the entire time he was beaten, criticized the guards’ actions as “brazen misconduct” and expressed hope that her recommendation to terminate them would “break the vise grip that silence and collusion played in this incident.”
The beating was not the first involving Captain Behari. In December 2012, he directed several guards to take two prisoners to an isolated cell on the same block where Hinton was assaulted. Both prisoners were strapped to a gurney and beaten so badly that blood splattered the cell walls.
Seabrook, the chief of the guards’ union, said the union would appeal in an effort to have Behari and the five guards reinstated. “The commissioner has made a decision, and we will vigorously defend them,” he said.
On December 9, 2014, Ambrorix Celeeomio, 18, was being held at Rikers Island on an assault charge when guards allegedly pepper sprayed, punched and kicked him, according to his attorney, Jenay Nurse, who heads The Bronx Defenders’ Adolescent Defense Project. Nurse said the attack occurred in a cafeteria where no video cameras were present and followed an argument between Celeeomio and a guard.
She said her client, who has an IQ of 65, was rushed to the jail clinic covered in blood. A city official, speaking anonymously to the Associated Press, confirmed that at least two guards were involved in a use-of-force incident with Celeeomio that day.
In October 2014, prisoner Bishme Ayers, 25, filed a claim alleging that he was beaten and sodomized by a Rikers guard. According to Ayers, while he was hospitalized following an epileptic seizure the guard handcuffed one of his wrists to the bed and tied his other hand with a sheet. The guard, who was not identified, threatened him with a handgun.
“Then he started beating me up with [a baton] on my lower body, my legs. Then all of a sudden he shoved something in my rectum,” Ayers said. “I’m screaming, I’m crying. I’m begging for somebody to help me. He leaves the room, and I’m still screaming.”
“There are medical records to document the event,” said defense attorney Michael Braverman. “A rape kit was done, which we believe shows physical findings consistent with something being inserted into the rectum.”
Ayers claimed that another Rikers guard stood watch outside the hospital room while he was beaten and sodomized. He filed suit in federal court on November 12, 2014, alleging the attack was in retaliation for a previous lawsuit he filed against the city after he was assaulted by guards for complaining about jail conditions. See: Ayers v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:14-cv-08979-JGK.
In another incident, on July 9, 2014, Rikers Captain Moises Simancas, 43, and two guards, April Jackson, 34, and Tyrone Wint, 28, were charged with attempted first-degree assault and falsifying records, among other charges. They are accused of handcuffing prisoner Gabino Genao, beating him until he was unconscious and then covering-up the brutal assault.
The three jail employees, who had been suspended following the beating incident at the George R. Vierno Center, were released on $50,000 bond after being arraigned.
“The victims here were not simply the injured inmate but the justice system itself, which cannot properly function when sworn law enforcement officers falsify documents to cover up crimes,” said DOI Commissioner Peters.
In March 2014, four guards were arraigned on charges of beating a prisoner and falsifying reports. Carl Williams was being held at the George Motchan Detention Center on Rikers Island when he was escorted to a holding pen by three guards – Michael Dorsainvil, Christopher Huggins and Mark Anglin. Surveillance video revealed they beat Williams until he was forced to the ground; they later said they were trying to prevent him from hanging himself. A fourth guard, Ronald Donnelley, corroborated their story.
Dorsainvil, Huggins and Anglin were charged with multiple counts of assault, gang assault and offering a false instrument for filing. Donnelley also faces numerous charges, including falsifying business records.
In July 2012, Jahmal Lightfoot was incarcerated at the George R. Vierno Center on Rikers. He was beaten by guards so badly that after he was first treated at the jail’s clinic he had to be transferred to Bellevue Hospital to undergo surgery for injuries that included two fractured eye sockets and a broken nose.
“He has boot marks on his face, his bone structure is messed up, his breathing, his back – they just disfigured him. You can’t even recognize him,” said Kareem Burton, Lightfoot’s brother.
According to investigators, Lightfoot got into an argument with guards because his pants were sagging, prompting Chief of Security Eliseo Perez, Jr. to order members of his Special Unit to take Lightfoot to a cell and “knock his teeth out.” [See: PLN, Feb. 2014, p.56].
Guards gave conflicting reports about what happened next, but video footage indicated they had lied about taking a razor from Lightfoot. The video showed that the razor was actually taken from another prisoner who was nowhere near the scene of the beating.
In June 2013, Perez and nine DOC guards and supervisors were charged with beating Lightfoot or attempting to cover up the incident. The other Rikers employees who were charged included guards Jose Parra, Alfred Rivera, Tobias Parker, David Rodriguez, Jeffrey Richard, Harmon Frierson and Dwayne Maynard, and Captains Gerald Vaughn and Michael Pollard. COBA union chief Seabrook called the charges “excessive” and a “witch hunt.”
These are just several examples of excessive use of force by Rikers guards; there have been many more documented incidents.
Between April 2012 and April 2013, over 8,550 prisoners were injured at Rikers. City health officials determined that, on average, three prisoners were treated per day for visible physical injuries, of which 1,257 (or 15%) were inflicted by guards.
Death by Neglect
In addition to beatings, the failure of guards to act – due to deliberate inaction or negligence – has led to fatal consequences for prisoners at Rikers Island.
On New Year’s Day 2015, a mentally ill prisoner who was supposed to have been placed on suicide watch was found hanging in his cell after staff failed to move him to a special observation unit.
A jail psychiatrist ordered Fabian Cruz, 35, to be transferred to a different Rikers facility where he would be under constant observation, but he was returned to his cell when he told a guard at the clinic that he didn’t want to go. The guard was later reprimanded for violating protocol, according to jail officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Union chief Seabrook complained that the guard was unfairly singled out for discipline because she had never worked with mentally ill prisoners during her three years on the job. “She’ll be the scapegoat for management on this, and that’s unfair,” he said.
On December 17, 2014, Rikers Captain Terrence Pendergrass, 50, was found guilty on federal charges in connection with the death of prisoner Jason Echevarria. Echevarria, 25, was being held in a Mental Health Assessment Unit where, in August 2012, he swallowed a “soap ball” that contained a powerful combination of caustic disinfectant and detergent, including ammonium chloride. As the chemicals took effect he began frantically calling for help.
Echevarria described what he had done to the first guard who arrived; the guard then contacted Pendergrass, the officer on duty, to arrange emergency medical treatment. According to trial testimony, instead of calling for help Pendergrass told the guard, “Don’t bother me unless someone is dead.”
A short time later, the guard returned to say that Echevarria had vomited in his cell. Pendergrass responded that Echevarria should be told to “hold it.” Pendergrass was then informed by another guard that Echevarria had been examined by a pharmacy technician who recommended he see a doctor. Pendergrass went to the cell and observed Echevarria’s condition. Not only did he refuse to call for medical assistance, he ordered a guard who was calling for help to hang up the phone.
Echevarria was found dead in his cell the following morning; an autopsy revealed that the corrosive chemicals he swallowed had burned through the tissue in his mouth, throat and stomach. Although his death was ruled a homicide, state prosecutors did not press charges against any of the Rikers staff members involved.
Following a federal jury trial, Pendergrass was found guilty of violating Echevarria’s civil rights under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
“[T]oday a jury convicted former Rikers Island captain Terrence Pendergrass of a federal civil rights crime,” announced U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. “The jury unanimously found that Pendergrass violated Jason Echevarria’s constitutional rights by deliberately ignoring his pleas for help and depriving him of urgent medical care, leaving Echevarria to die alone in his cell.”
On June 18, 2015, Pendergrass was sentenced to five years in federal prison; he claimed that he had not received “accurate” information about Echevarria’s condition, despite being informed by multiple other employees.
“I don’t believe him, he’s a liar” said Ramon Echevarria, Jason’s father. “Nobody wins and nobody loses. We got justice for my son, and we keep moving on, but we can’t bring him back. This man is going to jail and my son is buried. There’s nothing else we can do.” A lawsuit filed against the city over Echevarria’s death remains pending. See: Echevarria v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:13-cv-04921-RMB-RLE.
Echevarria’s death by neglect was not an isolated incident. On October 1, 2014, wracked by violent convulsions and shaking uncontrollably, Victor Woods, 53, died on the floor of a Rikers housing unit. His death was caught on camera. Also recorded was the guard who sat calmly sipping coffee while Woods’ fellow prisoners screamed for help.
“I’m not touching him,” said the guard.
The cause of Woods’ death was later determined to be a bleeding ulcer; on the day he died, he reportedly had almost a quart of blood in his stomach. His family has filed a lawsuit against the city for his “agonizingly painful and slow death” while guards “stood idly by.” See: Woods v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-01542-PAC.
In a particularly troubling case, on February 5, 2014, Rikers prisoner and homeless veteran Jerome Murdough, 56, was found dead in his cell from heat exhaustion. He had been arrested for trespassing after seeking shelter in a stairwell on the roof of a housing project on a cold night in Harlem, and was jailed because he couldn’t afford a $2,500 bond.
Murdough was taking medication for both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, which made him more susceptible to higher temperatures. He died after an equipment malfunction in his cell caused the temperature to climb to over 100 degrees. Jail employees did not check on him for at least four hours even though he was in a special observation unit for prisoners with mental health problems. “He basically baked to death,” said one official.
“He wasn’t just some old homeless person on the street. He was loved. He had a life. He had a family. He had feelings,” stated Wanda Mehala, sister of the U.S. Marine Corps veteran. Murdough’s family sued the city, which agreed to settle the case in November 2014 for $2.25 million.
“Mr. Murdough essentially got the death penalty simply for being arrested for trespassing,” said attorney Derek Sells, who represented the family.
Jail Healthcare Under Scrutiny
City Council Holds Hearings
As Mayor de Blasio and the DOC Commissioner were announcing reforms aimed at curbing violence at Rikers Island, the New York City Council was conducting hearings on whether to renew a contract with Corizon Health – the jail’s private healthcare provider – amid allegations of shoddy and negligent medical treatment. Of the 98 prisoner deaths in the city’s jail system from 2009-2014, fifteen raised concerns over the quality or timeliness of the care provided.
“The allegations that have mounted over the years suggest that Corizon is failing to provide comprehensive and safe services to people under their care,” said City Councilman and Health Committee Chairman Corey Johnson at a March 3, 2015 hearing. “These reports suggest that treatment provided to inmates may have been a factor in at least 15 deaths over the past five years and that these deaths may have been preventable.”
Jail medical facilities are not under the jurisdiction of the DOC; instead, they fall under the control of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Corizon holds a $126.6 million contract for management of medical services and a $8.98 million contract for dental care, while medical care for New York City’s jail system is provided through a $270 million contract with Correctional Medical Associates of New York, P.C. (CMA). CMA is an affiliate of Corizon Health, and according to state records the company shares the same principal executive office as Corizon in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Dr. Calvin Johnson, Corizon’s chief medical officer, and CMA president Dr. Jay Cowan were grilled by city council members at the hearing.
“The de Blasio administration stepped up, came up with tens of millions of dollars to try to change course at Rikers Island after years of violence and endemic, systematic problems,” said Councilman Johnson. “You’ve been there for a long time. You were there in the [former Mayor Michael] Bloomberg years and you were there in the de Blasio years. I am not hearing anything specific about what you all have recommended to make the place a better place.”
Councilwoman Inez Barron blasted the doctors for not mentioning recent prisoner deaths in their testimony at the hearing. “It sends the signal that those lives are perhaps not as important as other lives, and I’m very offended that you wouldn’t at least mention that that’s a big problem,” she told them.
Dr. Johnson said that was not the impression Corizon was trying to convey. “We recognize these individuals who have lost their lives or who have been injured, not as numbers, not as indiscriminate pieces of information, but as people,” he told the council. “We certainly understand and respect your indignation.”
As early as October 2014, Councilman Johnson had called for an examination of Corizon’s performance and raised the option of terminating the city’s contract with the firm.
“Given that Corizon’s contract is up for renewal next year, we have to take a serious look at whether they are an appropriate contracted provider,” he said at the time. “From everything I’ve learned so far, I don’t think they are.”
City officials had downgraded Corizon’s performance evaluation from “good” in 2012 to “fair” in 2013, citing the company’s performance in mental observation units. The evaluation noted that Corizon had failed to demonstrate consistent leadership and had provided deficient treatment for mental health patients in several units.
In 2013, a panel of psychiatrists from New York University and Yale University submitted a report to the Board of Correction that listed numerous deficiencies in Corizon’s provision of medical care in the city’s jail system; the company has also faced scrutiny in a number of other jurisdictions, including Arizona, Florida, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. [See: PLN, March 2015, p.30; March 2014, p.1].
Sparking some of the ire at the City Council’s Health Committee hearing in March 2015 was a review of cases where prisoners had died because they were denied medications, not diagnosed properly or not treated in a timely manner.
“We can go through, case-by-case, but what are you doing to stop this?” Johnson asked the Corizon and CMA executives. “Because I don’t want to come back, three years from now, after a contract’s renewed and we have more of these awful cases that we’re hearing about because people are being denied the treatment that they deserve.”
Deaths, Injuries Due to Inadequate Care
Some of the cases involving prisoner deaths at Rikers Island and other city jail facilities were particularly egregious.
On September 11, 2013, Bradley Ballard, 39, died in his cell after he was abandoned for six days without receiving his medication. The New York State Commission of Correction (SCOC), the agency that oversees jails and prisons, issued a report that blamed his death on gross incompetence by Rikers medical staff and guards.
The details of Ballard’s death “shock the conscience,” the report stated, noting that the mentally ill prisoner, who was jailed on a parole violation, had been placed in solitary for dancing provocatively in front of a guard. Once in segregation Ballard was ignored and denied medication for his diabetes and schizophrenia. At one point, the report said, he went 11 days without receiving insulin. Another time he was observed banging on his cell door and wrapping a ligature around his penis to cut off the circulation, which resulted in an infection.
Ballard was confined in his cell “for six days prior to his death,” the report found, “and was denied access to his life supporting prescribed medications, denied access to medical and psychiatric care, denied access to essential mandated services such as showers and exercise periods and denied running water for his cell.”
The December 16, 2014 SCOC report described how a warden, assistant warden, guards, nurses and other jail employees visited Ballard at least 57 times over the six-day period as his health deteriorated – but none took any action to help him.
The day before he died, Ballard was found lying naked in his cell, covered in his own feces and having difficulty breathing. It took medical personnel an hour-and-a-half to respond to a call for help, and still no one entered his cell. Instead, guards directed two other prisoners to place Ballard on a gurney. He was taken to a clinic at the jail where he went into cardiac arrest, then transferred to Elmhurst Medical Center and declared dead two hours later.
Ballard’s death sparked protests by the New York City Jails Coalition because no one was charged with a crime, even though his death was ruled a homicide.
“I think [Rikers guards] are liable for my son’s death, and they need to be punished before it happens to any other parents’ son,” said Ballard’s mother, Beverly Ann Griffin, who has since filed a wrongful death suit that remains pending. See: Griffin v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:14-cv-07329-NRB.
“Had Ballard received adequate and appropriate medical and mental health care and supervision and intervention when he became critically ill, his death would have been prevented,” the SCOC report concluded. “The events that caused Ballard’s death were directly caused by the compounded failures of NYC DOC and its contracted medical provider.”
In January 2006, John Loadholt was jailed awaiting trial for drug possession when he died from an asthma attack. At least that was the official story his family received. However, in October 2014, following an investigation by the SCOC, they learned the truth. A guard had discovered Loadholt at 2:30 a.m., desperately trying to operate his asthma pump. When asked what was wrong Loadholt could only reply, “having a little difficulty.” It took about 10 minutes until Loadholt and the guard started walking to the infirmary, but Loadholt didn’t make it far before he collapsed. The guard took his pulse and called for assistance, but by then it was too late; Loadholt was dead.
SCOC Commissioner Frederick C. Lamy blamed the jail’s healthcare provider. “Loadholt’s asthma was inadequately managed by [Corizon precursor] Prison Health Services (PHS), a business corporation holding itself out as a medical provider,” he said.
The SCOC detailed in a report how Loadholt was not taken to numerous medical appointments and that PHS never followed up on the missed appointments. State investigators found that because PHS consistently overbooked its appointment schedule, staff routinely cancelled many appointments.
John’s brother, Ken Loadholt, a 20-year veteran New Jersey prison guard, said he knew firsthand “the size of the neglect” that killed his brother. He blamed himself for not learning the truth sooner. “I went [to the morgue] because I wanted to know exactly what happened,” he stated. But when the coroner gave him a death certificate, which listed his brother’s death as being due to complications from asthma and methadone treatment, Ken felt something was wrong because methadone is a treatment for heroin addiction. His brother didn’t use heroin.
“I allowed my association with the law enforcement community to get in the way of learning the truth earlier,” he added. “It really saddens me because it’s not that hard to give someone adequate medical treatment.”
In another case involving medical neglect at Rikers, by April 7, 2013, prisoner Andy Henriquez, 19, had been begging for help for days. He had a torn aorta that was leaking blood into his groin, and suffered from chest pain and shortness of breath as he cried for help from his solitary confinement cell. That day, a doctor visited him and prescribed hand cream – and even wrote the wrong name on the prescription. Henriquez was found dead a few hours later. He had initially complained of chest pains seven months before he died, and although he was seen by medical staff, a cardiac exam was never performed. In December 2014, Corizon agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Henriquez’s family for an undisclosed “seven figure” amount.
Rikers prisoner Mark Johnson died of a bacterial infection in May 2013 even though he had been complaining for days about bloody stools. It wasn’t until his fellow prisoners united in protest that he received medical care, but it came too late; even after emergency surgery, Johnson passed away.
“It is heartbreaking. He should have gone to the hospital,” said his mother, June Broer. “With antibiotics he could be alive today.” She filed a lawsuit against the city and Corizon over her son’s death, and the suit remains pending. On June 3, 2015, the district court ordered the city to produce the full morbidity and mortality review conducted by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene into Johnson’s death. See: Broer v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:14-cv-03838-AKH.
In yet another example of inadequate medical care by Corizon staff, Rodney Cotton, 51, incarcerated at the city’s Manhattan Detention Complex, experienced a six-day erection in 2011 – a painful condition known as priapism that was a side effect of antidepressants he was taking. Two Corizon doctors, Craig Metroka and Landis Barnes, failed to send him to a hospital until his condition worsened and he required surgery. As a result, he became impotent. Cotton filed a lawsuit in state court that is scheduled to go to trial in July 2015.
Dr. Barnes was implicated in another incident involving questionable medical care when he told a prisoner to throw away part of his middle finger, which had been cut off when a guard closed a cell door in June 2014. Rudolph Richardson, held at the Manhattan Detention Complex, said he begged Barnes to save the finger by putting it on ice; the physician “reluctantly” agreed, and the finger was later reattached at an outside hospital. Richardson filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging medical malpractice and civil rights violations, which remains pending. See: Richardson v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-00543-LAK-AJP.
Corizon Loses DOC Contract
In addition to the injuries and deaths described above, other prisoners have suffered paralysis, amputations and loss of vision due to poor medical care by Corizon. On May 29, 2015, The Intercept, a publication of First Look Media, published a lengthy feature article on deficient medical treatment provided to women prisoners at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers.
“There has been a rash of really tragic and unacceptable incidences on Rikers as it relates to Rikers inmates not getting the health care that they require and deserve,” observed City Councilman Corey Johnson.
In August 2014, Corizon was fined $71,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for a “willful violation” of OSHA regulations, for failing to protect its employees from violence at Rikers Island. The agency cited an increase in assaults against the company’s nurses, doctors and mental health staff.
Ten months later, on June 10, 2015, Mayor de Blasio announced that the city would not renew its contract with Corizon to provide medical care in the jail system when the contract expires at the end of this year.
“We have an essential responsibility to provide every individual in our city’s care with high-quality health services – and our inmates are no different,” he said.
After the Corizon contract expires, medical care will be provided by New York City’s Health and Hospital Corporation, a public benefit company.
“We’re pleased to hear that the city is discontinuing the use of Corizon and making other arrangements for providing medical care in the jails,” declared John Boston, director of The Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project. “Medical care has been a major source of complaints from our clients in jail, and they complain about the care they get from Corizon.”
De Blasio’s decision to end the city’s contract with the company followed a June 2015 report by the DOI that found Corizon was responsible for “significant breakdowns” in medical care for prisoners. A more detailed account of Corizon’s loss of its New York City jail contract will appear in a future issue of PLN.
Mental Illness and Solitary Confinement
Beginning in October 2013, the New York City Board of Correction (BOC) conducted a five-month study of the DOC’s solitary confinement practices to determine how the agency compared with a variety of national standards. Interviews with prisoners and recreation logs from Central Punitive Segregation Units (CPSUs) over a three-month period formed the basis for the agency’s research. The BOC randomly selected 14 days to get an average of “how many prisoners and what proportion of the total population went outdoors [for recreation] that day.”
Rikers’ largest CPSU is located at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, where prisoners are housed in 7 by 12-foot cells for 23 hours a day for weeks, months and even years at a time.
Numerous studies that found extended periods of segregation negatively impact a prisoner’s physical and mental health led to a requirement that the DOC provide prisoners in solitary confinement a minimum of one hour of recreation per day. However, investigators noted that prisoners spend that one hour – when it is even provided – in an outdoor cage devoid of any exercise equipment. Further, the BOC estimated that fewer than 40 of the 400 CPSU prisoners ever get to have outside recreation; most go for days without any such opportunity.
The agency’s findings painted a stark picture of life in solitary confinement at Rikers. Fully 80% of the prisoners held in segregation were never even given a chance to sign up for outdoor exercise; their access to recreation was limited by staffing levels, guards’ shift hours, the availability of guard escorts and a cumbersome procedure involved in reaching the recreation area.
Much of the recent focus on conditions at Rikers Island has centered on the treatment and punishment of the growing number of mentally ill prisoners. A September 2013 report by New York University psychiatrist Dr. James Gilligan found that at least 1,500 Rikers prisoners had a serious mental illness.
“Since prolonged solitary confinement can cause symptoms of mental illness to appear even in previously healthy individuals, we strongly recommend against imposing it as a punishment for predetermined duration even on the inmates not deemed to be mentally ill,” Dr. Gilligan wrote.
The report sparked a rebuke from the mayor’s office and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, both complaining that “conclusions about the impact of discipline and punishment with human behavior are overbroad and not supported by citations to relevant evidence.”
Dr. Gilligan and his associate, Dr. Brandy Lee, countered that “the nation’s jails and prisons have become de facto mental hospitals over the past half-century, and they cannot continue to ignore the psychological influences of their practices.” They added that the DOC has a “misunderstanding of human psychology and behavior ... that has led to the problems that many facilities are facing.”
The 2013 BOC study noted a two-fold increase over the previous eight years in the number of prisoners held at Rikers with a diagnosed mental illness. Further, there have been at least 11 suicides in New York City jails since 2009, including nine at Rikers.
The spike in mentally ill prisoners so alarmed city officials that in June 2014, the Task Force on Behavioral Health and the Criminal Justice System was created to develop a plan to “transform the city’s criminal justice system, so that it addresses the needs of individuals with behavioral and mental health issues more appropriately and effectively.”
Despite the rhetoric that accompanied Mayor de Blasio’s March 2015 press conference at Rikers in which he announced his latest proposed reforms, the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit where the event was held was itself a point of contention in the debate over solitary confinement in the city’s jail system.
“The ineffectual hearing process and overbroad criteria for ESHU will allow corrections officers to sentence an incarcerated person to isolation at any time, for any reason and without oversight,” noted Skylar Albertson with The Bronx Defenders’ Adolescent Defense Project.
Former New York City mental health director Dr. Daniel Selling agreed, saying, “Unfortunately, many of the programs we devised and implemented became perverted by the Department of Corrections.”
When the ESHU was first announced in December 2014, DOC Commissioner Ponte insisted that the new unit would eliminate punitive segregation for adolescents, create a higher staff-to-prisoner ratio, include access to religious and law library services, and provide a minimum of seven hours out-of-cell time.
The New York City official charged with overseeing medical care in the jail system, Dr. Homer Venters, told the City Council’s Health Committee on March 3, 2015 that a recent allocation of funds to create small therapeutic housing units for seriously mentally ill prisoners had been a success. He added, however, that the units contain only enough beds to house about a third of the prisoners who qualify.
Barriers to Reform
Corruption from the Top Down
First appointed in March 2014, DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte has been under fire by city officials and the Board of Correction for the large number of prisoners subjected to excessive force at Rikers Island. Ponte promised reforms and said he had “zero tolerance” for misconduct by staff members. The question eventually became what criteria he uses to demonstrate that intolerance.
For example, Ponte fired Manhattan Detention Complex Warden Antonio Cuin in October 2014 when Cuin became the butt of jokes on the David Letterman Show after he allowed magician David Blaine to perform at the jail, known as The Tombs. Letterman’s famous Top Ten List, entitled “Things Overheard at David Blaine’s Prison Magic Show,” poked fun at the city’s jail system.
“Ponte was pissed about the magic show publicity and that it was on David Letterman,” said a source at the jail. The DOC’s official position was that Cuin had retired.
In contrast, Ponte promoted William Clemons, former warden of the Robert N. Davoren Complex, calling him “a model of stability in a tumultuous time.” The promotion to department chief came under fire from City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, who cited a 2011 internal audit that accused Clemons of misrepresenting the level of violence at Rikers and referred to him as “clearly incompetent.”
“I don’t know that sends a really positive, affirming message to us that serious changes will continue if we have people [promoted] that are abdicating their responsibility or have a history of that,” Mark-Viverito said.
Clemons had initially been praised when, upon taking over as warden at the Davoren Complex, the rampant violence plaguing the facility dropped by 66% after his first three months on the job. Clemons and deputy warden Turhan Gumusdere were hailed as heroes and praised by the city council for their “exceptional efforts.” Both were promoted, but the official who replaced Clemons as warden, Raino Hills, soon discovered the truth.
Violence had not declined at the jail; it simply wasn’t reported. An ensuing investigation revealed that both Clemons and Gumusdere had deliberately “abdicated all responsibility” for reporting violent incidents. When asked why, Clemons explained that “he found the spreadsheets difficult to read on his computer and could not figure out how to print them,” while Gumusdere said he had delegated the responsibility to subordinates, whom he declared were incompetent.
Then-DOC director Dora B. Schriro promised to get to the bottom of the affair, and on December 20, 2011, investigators seized all records, videos and logbooks from the jail. Schriro reported in September 2012 that 375 fights at the Davoren Complex had not been reported by either Clemons or Gumusdere, and while auditors found no hard evidence to prove the data had been deliberately manipulated, they concluded that “no legitimate explanation exists for the dramatic and inaccurate decreases” in violent incidents. The report faulted Clemons and Gumusdere, who had “abdicated responsibility for the facility’s reporting of inmate fights and failed to supervise, manage, or oversee the facility’s reporting of violence statistics.”
Investigators recommended that both men be demoted, but instead, when the U.S. Attorney’s office convened an investigation into abuses involving juvenile offenders held at Rikers Island, Schriro deleted several portions of the report – including parts that criticized Clemons and Gumusdere.
“I appreciated all the information, but for the purpose that I had in mind it needed to be removed,” she told the New York Times, adding, “In all instances, the report repeatedly indicated that there wasn’t an indication of wrongdoing, but a lack of attentiveness.”
By October 2014, problems within the city’s jail system became so overwhelming that Clemons was forced to resign, along with his sister-in-law, Bureau Chief of Administration Joandrea Davis, and Bureau Chief of Facility Operations Gregory McLaughlin. All three tendered their resignations amid ongoing revelations that exposed inhumane conditions of solitary confinement, excessive use of force against prisoners, and guards smuggling drugs and other contraband into jail facilities.
Corruption from the Bottom Up
Smuggling pot to prisoners seemed like a good way to make money for Rikers guards Khalif Phillips and Austin Romain. That is, until they got caught. On November 14, 2014, Phillips found himself in federal court, charged with smuggling drugs into the facility. Authorities said he had charged prisoners up to $1,000 per package of marijuana.
A six-year veteran DOC employee, Phillips brought an estimated five pounds of pot into the jail. Federal judge Richard Sullivan was so outraged that he sentenced the former guard to three years in prison plus two years of supervised release, because Phillips had “violated every value a correction officer is supposed to stand for.”
On December 12, 2014, a federal jury found Romain guilty of smuggling marijuana, tobacco and scalpels into Rikers. He has not yet been sentenced.
Previously, Rikers guards Infinite Divine Rahming, 30, and Steven Dominguez, 26, were indicted in July 2014 on state charges of bribery, drug trafficking and contraband smuggling. As part of a sting operation involving undercover investigators, they smuggled what they thought was oxycodone and cocaine into the jail complex in exchange for cash payments. Former guard Deleon Gifth was indicted on similar charges for arranging to have oxycodone smuggled into Rikers, and a prisoner and his girlfriend were also charged in connection with the scheme.
Rikers medical worker Jeffrey Taylor, 48, a Corizon Health employee, confessed in September 2014 to bringing liquor, drugs and tobacco into the jail. Taylor said he began his illegal activities “out of curiosity, and need.” Officials said he would sneak in the contraband and collect payments via Western Union money orders. He was also accused of smuggling 20 strips of the narcotic painkiller Suboxone.
In May 2015 another Corizon employee, Richard B. Quon, 42, was caught trying to bring cigarettes and synthetic marijuana into Rikers, while jail guard Patricia Howard, 42, was charged with attempting to smuggle cocaine, marijuana, tobacco, rolling papers, pliers and cell phones into the Manhattan Detention Complex. Howard had been employed with the DOC for almost 20 years.
“Contraband smuggling is a dangerous influence on Rikers Island, one that breeds a culture of violence and corruption in the jails and threatens the integrity of the city’s correction system,” said DOI Commissioner Mark Peters.
BOC and U.S. Department of Justice officials had expressed concerns about rampant corruption at Rikers for years, but it was a report released on November 6, 2014 that brought questions about security at the jail complex to a head. The previous month, an undercover investigator succeeded in smuggling contraband into six Rikers facilities. The investigator’s cargo pants were stuffed with 250 packets of heroin, 24 strips of Suboxone, a half-pound of marijuana, a 16-ounce bottle of vodka and a razor blade.
Upon entering one of the facilities, the undercover investigator twice set off a metal detector; when asked to empty his pockets, he replied “that he already had emptied them.” The guard making the request “accepted his answer without further inspection of his pockets.” The report concluded that “Weapons and narcotics remain easily available to any inmate with funds to pay for them.”
DOI Commissioner Peters recommended the use of drug-sniffing dogs at employee entrances. “Any kind of serious search by trained professionals should have caught this [smuggling] every time,” he said. “Given the extent of smuggling that we know goes on and given what we know about what’s coming in from visitors, a lot of stuff has to be coming in from guards and employees because this stuff doesn’t magically appear.”
Promising tighter security measures, Peters vowed that the DOI would continue to monitor Rikers’ security procedures. Drug trafficking, he said, is “the root cause of a wider set of problems that also need to be dealt with.”
Indeed, smuggling contraband isn’t the only type of misconduct involving jail guards. The Legal Aid Society filed a class-action complaint on May 19, 2015 that cited a “pervasive culture of rape” at the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island. The suit, brought on behalf of two Jane Doe defendants, claims they were raped by guard Benny Santiago, who threatened them and refused to use a condom. One of the prisoners allegedly contracted an STD from Santiago, and the lawsuit referenced sexual abuse by seven other jail guards.
“This abuse is only possible because, in the face of repeated warnings, the City of New York has enabled a culture of complacency to perpetuate at Rikers Island and thereby consented to the abuse of women in its custody,” the complaint stated. The suit remains pending, while Santiago was reportedly placed on “modified duty.” See: Doe v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-03849-AKH.
The Rose M. Singer Center was among the top 12 facilities nationwide for the highest rates of reported staff sexual misconduct, according to a May 2013 survey by the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. Almost 6% of women prisoners at the Center reported they had been sexually victimized by staff members.
Corruption from Within
On January 15, 2015, the Department of Investigation released a report that described “a deeply flawed system in which more than a third of [correction] officers were hired despite numerous corruption and safety hazards, including multiple prior arrests and convictions, prior associations with gang members, or relationships with inmates.”
Following a nearly year-long review of the files of over 150 jail staff, the investigation found 35% – a total of 54 guards – “had significant red flags that should have either precluded their hiring or required significant follow up and monitoring by employees – neither of which was done.”
Specifically, investigators identified 10 cases in which guards had been arrested more than once, and 79 in which the employee had friends or family members who were incarcerated. According to the report, a number of guards had “relationships [which] included current inmates and situations in which significant contact over DOC recorded telephone calls could not be explained.”
In addition, investigators expressed concern about the ability of 65 guards to perform their duties based on the results of their psychological examinations, and 54 staff members had “clearly failed to exhibit the ‘good character and satisfactory background’” required for employment. Regardless, all had been hired.
“DOI’s latest investigation on Rikers Island exposes a shockingly inadequate screening system, which has led to the hiring of many officers that are under qualified and unfit for duty,” Commissioner Peters said in a statement accompanying the release of the report. “Applicants with a history of violence or gang affiliations should not be patrolling our jails. Positions as law enforcement officers demand better.”
The report made three key recommendations, advising the DOC to establish “an aggressive recruitment strategy and clear disqualification standards to improve the applicant pool.” DOC officials must also make the job candidate screening process “uniform, thorough, and tailored to the unique corruption vulnerabilities” in the jail system. Finally, the DOC should establish a system to monitor applicants who are hired but considered susceptible to corruption.
“Improving staff recruitment, training and retention is a key part of my agenda of meaningful reform,” stated DOC Commissioner Ponte. “At the end of the day,” he said, “our performance is only as strong as the men and women who fill the posts that keep our facilities operating 24/7.”
Problems with hiring qualified jail staff apparently extended to Corizon employees, too. When a Corizon records clerk was caught in May 2015 trying to smuggle a straight-edge razor into Rikers, officials found he had previously served 13 years in prison for kidnapping. The DOC had failed to conduct hundreds of required background checks on Corizon employees, instead allowing fingerprint cards to pile up in an office for four years.
On September 1, 2014, in an effort to curb contraband smuggling by staff, the DOC increased its security measures to include checking the lunch containers of employees arriving for work. Ponte had sought more stringent protocols, but settled on the lunch box searches after meeting with COBA union chief Norman Seabrook. Subsequent surveillance video revealed that some guards refused to have their food containers X-rayed and were allowed to place the containers on top of the X-ray machine without having them checked. Others were allowed to enter jail facilities even after triggering the metal detector.
“It turns out these steps were not sufficient,” Commissioner Peters said. “Having observed screening procedures for six weeks, it is clear to the DOI that such compliance will not be achieved absent additional drastic interventions.”
Humiliated by the lapse in security, Ponte agreed to comply with the DOI’s employment screening recommendations in spite of opposition from the powerful guards’ union. Plans were also made to replace regular shift guards with special operations officers at jail entrances and to raise screening measures to federal airport security standards.
“I have zero tolerance for anyone, including staff, bringing contraband into DOC facilities,” Ponte stated. “As part of DOC’s ongoing system-wide reforms, we are working on significant new steps to improve our methods of searching for contraband.”
Seabrook said that while he supported the checks of employees’ food containers, he was certain there would be resistance to the more drastic security measures. However, some critics said Seabrook himself has spearheaded resistance among jail staff and undermined previous DOC reforms.
Stymieing Reform Efforts
As early as 2012, Florence L. Finkle, the DOC’s former chief investigator, addressed the rampant brutality perpetrated by guards against prisoners, informing senior officers and COBA union leaders during a meeting of her intent to have abusive guards prosecuted. One of the union officials present at the meeting was Norman Seabrook.
For the next two years, Seabrook reportedly made sabotaging Finkle’s efforts a priority. He managed to undermine her investigations and get her top investigator transferred, and used his weekly radio show to launch attacks on her character and call for her resignation. The tactics worked; Finkle resigned in August 2014, shortly after the U.S. Attorney issued its report on juvenile offenders housed at Rikers, which described her division as “ineffectual.” She was replaced by a long-time friend of Seabrook’s, a former police official.
Seabrook has served as chairman of the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association for more than two decades. He hobnobs with top-ranking union and corrections officials, and consults regularly on appointments and policy decisions with city leaders, including Mayor de Blasio. The New York Times called the pervasive culture of violence at Rikers a direct result of Seabrook’s heavy-handed influence.
Despite obtaining positive gains for unionized jail workers, Seabrook has been described by former and current city officials as the biggest roadblock to curbing corruption and brutality at Rikers. He has consistently opposed stronger screening measures designed to curb the flow of contraband into the jail system, and has vigorously defended abusive guards and shielded them from discipline.
On November 18, 2013, Rikers prisoner Dapree Peterson, 21, was scheduled to testify before a New York state court in a brutality case involving two guards, Kevin Gilkes and Louis Pinto, Jr., who were charged with beating Peterson and then attempting to cover it up. However, at Seabrook’s urging jail workers stopped all transport busses from running that day, citing spurious safety issues. Dozens of prisoners missed court hearings and medical appointments as a result, and Peterson didn’t make it to court to testify.
City officials, who were aware of Seabrook’s tactics, became so concerned for Peterson’s safety that they had the DOC place him under enhanced security with constant video monitoring. The next day the judge held the courtroom open until Peterson physically appeared before him, and authorities arranged an alternative method of transportation for his next court appearance.
Gilkes and Pinto were acquitted of the charges in March 2014, following a bench trial; meanwhile, the city filed a lawsuit against the guards’ union over the bus shutdown.
Many began to question whether it was the DOC Commissioner or Seabrook who was in charge of the city’s jail system.
“I came to think that my wardens believed Norman was more important to their career than I was,” said former DOC Commissioner Martin F. Horn, who headed the department between 2003 and 2009. He now serves as a faculty member at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Under Seabrook, salaries and benefits for New York City jail guards reached parity with those of policemen and firefighters. Seabrook reportedly earns about $300,000 a year – $100,000 more than the leader of the policemen’s union, despite the fact that the police union is six times larger than COBA. Along with having bargained successfully for unlimited sick leave, during Seabrook’s tenure the guards’ union negotiated a 20-year retirement at half-pay for its members. That benefit is blamed for the high turnover of jail guards after 20 years on the job, leading to younger, inexperienced staff being placed in high-ranking positions.
When the New York Times interviewed nearly a dozen current and former city officials, none had anything good to say about Seabrook, but none would go on record for fear that he would retaliate and sabotage their careers. Some expressed concern that their lives might be in danger if they were ever required to tour the city’s jail system; they worried that a guard might look the other way if a prisoner got violent.
“He’s a bully. They’re afraid of him,” said City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who has openly clashed with Seabrook.
Seabrook has always been proactive as well as provocative. In 1993, he and nearly 200 other guards protested the union’s handling of contract negotiations by blocking the bridge that connects Rikers to the mainland in Queens. Two years later he was elected union president and has won re-election four times since then.
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association made almost $500,000 in political contributions in the last elections. Recently, long believing that Bronx prosecutor Robert Johnson was too vigorous in seeking convictions against abusive jail guards, Seabrook convinced state lawmakers to pass a bill requiring such cases to be heard by a different prosecutor, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.
Governor Mario Cuomo vetoed the legislation. “There is no reason for this proposed change,” he said. Calling the move “unprecedented and unconstitutional,” Cuomo added, “Rikers Island is located in Bronx County and the citizens of Bronx County have elected a district attorney to prosecute crimes that occur there.”
Seabrook has vigorously defended – and honored – guards accused of using excessive force against prisoners. In 2010 he presented an award to Charlton Lemon, who was named assistant deputy warden of the year, even though Lemon had been accused in a lawsuit of leading a group of guards in the beating of jail prisoner Huston Belvett.
Costly Lawsuits and Claims
New York City and its taxpayers bear the brunt of the monetary costs of prisoner-on-prisoner violence, staff brutality and medical neglect at Rikers Island. For example, the suit against Charlton Lemon settled in 2010 with the city agreeing to pay $350,000. See: Belvett v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:09-cv-08090-VM-AJP. Also, as described above, city officials paid $2.25 million in the Jerome Murdough wrongful death case.
On December 3, 2012, a New York state court approved an $850,000 settlement in a lawsuit stemming from the death of 21-year-old Rikers prisoner Tyreece Abney. The suit revealed that guards stood by and watched while Abney was fatally beaten by a group of other prisoners who were part of “The Program,” in which guards allowed gang-affiliated prisoners to maintain discipline in the jail. PLN has reported extensively on deaths and injuries resulting from The Program. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.38; Feb. 2010, p.28; Jan. 2009, p.20].
Originally, Abney was being held in a specialized mental health unit where he received treatment for mental illness, speech impediments and other disabilities. However, following an argument with a guard he was sent to a high-security unit for violent prisoners. At that point, his medical treatment essentially stopped. Almost immediately Abney began to express fear for his safety. He claimed he was being threatened by both guards and prisoners, but his requests for protection were ignored.
In June 2012, city officials paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the mother of Rikers prisoner Christopher Robinson, 18, who was killed by other prisoners recruited by guards to participate in “The Program” as enforcers.
Robinson was kicked and beaten to death in 2008 when he crossed paths with guards who used a gang of youthful offenders to maintain rigid control over a unit at the Robert N. Davoren Complex.
“It just hurts every day, and it doesn’t get any better, and this will not help,” Christopher’s mother, Charnel Robinson, said of the settlement.
Three guards, Michael McKie, Khalid Nelson and Denise Albright, pleaded guilty to assault or attempted assault in connection with Robinson’s death; McKie received two years in prison while Nelson and Albright each received one year. Twelve prisoners who participated in the fatal attack on Robinson were charged, too.
The city paid $850,000 in August 2012 to settle a suit resulting from the 2010 non-fatal beating of Kadeem John, who was also a victim of violence inflicted by other prisoners who participated in The Program. He suffered a brain injury and kidney damage; DOC officials had failed to preserve surveillance video footage of the incident. See: John v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-05610-RPP.
Another case involving The Program settled for $500,000 in October 2013. Prisoner Dwaine Taylor was severely assaulted by gang members in a holding cell, resulting in facial injuries that included jaw fractures. He filed a failure to protect suit against the DOC that alleged the beating was sanctioned by guards. A DOC employee had erased all but 8 minutes of three hours of video footage related to the incident. [See: PLN, July 2014, p.42].
Further, the city paid $125,400 in August 2012 to settle a federal lawsuit arising from a Rikers guard repeatedly slapping a prisoner, damaging his eardrum. The incident involved guard Timothy Monroe, who, without any provocation, smacked prisoner Edward Gotay’s ear with an open palm, causing his eardrum to rupture. The suit raised claims of “routine, dangerous, and unconstitutional use of excessive force” by jail guards. See: Gotay v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:10-cv-08868-AJN.
In July 2012, New York City paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged guards fatally beat Patrick Miller, a mentally ill prisoner, in the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital. Although an autopsy found Miller had experienced “multiple blunt trauma,” no guards were charged in connection with his death.
“We feel the settlement was in all parties’ best interests,” said city attorney Curt P. Beck. “We hope it brings a measure of closure to the family.”
City officials agreed in July 2014 to a $2.75 million settlement in a federal lawsuit over the 2012 death of Rikers prisoner Ronald Spear, 52, who was brutally assaulted by guards. The medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. An attorney with The Legal Aid Society, which represented Spear’s family, said Ronald’s death was “yet another example of the persistent problem of excessive force in the New York City jails, a problem that has not been adequately addressed or remediated.”
Other prisoners said Spear, who required dialysis treatment for kidney disease, had been struck and kicked in the chest and face by a guard while being restrained by other officers. See: Daniels v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:13-cv-06286-PKC.
In February 2012, Rikers Assistant Deputy Warden Edwin Diaz was charged with assaulting a prisoner who had punched a female guard. The 2008 incident involved prisoner Jesus Alejandro, who was on crutches at the time; Diaz said he had used appropriate force and was acquitted on June 16, 2014 following a 21-day trial. Previously, he had been accused of ordering or being involved in beatings of prisoners at the George R. Vierno Center at Rikers. Diaz has since retired from the DOC. Alejandro filed a lawsuit over the beating, and the case settled in January 2015 with the city agreeing to pay $18,900 and Diaz paying $2,100. See: Alejandro v. City of New York, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:11-cv-06370-KPF.
A report published by the Office of the New York City Comptroller, titled the ClaimStat Alert, showed a 174% increase in the number of personal injury claims filed against the DOC between 2009 and 2014. “Increases in settlement/judgment costs to taxpayers generally follow increases in claims ... whether from claims settlements, litigation costs, or judgments,” the report noted.
Other settlements have been paid in cases involving inadequate medical care at Rikers. For instance, in June 2013 a state court jury awarded $8.15 million to the estate of a prisoner who died at the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center after being denied access to medical care. Jose Santiago, 25, told jail staff he had symptoms that included a rapid heartbeat, profuse perspiration and difficulty breathing. A guard twice ignored his requests for help, and he collapsed and died a short time later. [See: PLN, Oct. 2014, p.32].
And in April 2015, city officials agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of former Rikers prisoner Jose Ferrer. While incarcerated at the jail, Ferrer, 47, was denied antibiotics for a preexisting infection that eventually spread to his spine and left him paralyzed. He died in 2010 at a nursing home; most of the settlement will go to his 10-year-old son.
Under its contract with Corizon, New York City indemnifies the company for legal claims and is responsible for paying the costs of litigation in cases involving inadequate jail medical care.
“These indemnification provisions create a perverse incentive for Corizon to provide substandard health care,” noted Carl Takei, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
“They made mistakes and the city had to pay for their mistakes,” added City Councilman Corey Johnson.
The payouts in lawsuits and claims involving the DOC are over and above the operational expenses for the city’s jail system, which were around $1.05 billion in 2014. According to a 2013 report by New York City’s Independent Budget Office, the average annual cost for each DOC prisoner was about $167,731, with much of that amount attributed to higher expenses at Rikers Island. [See: PLN, Nov. 2013, p.15]. Nearly 85% of the city’s jail budget goes to employee costs, including salaries and benefits.
“These numbers show very clearly that what the Correction Department is doing isn’t working,” declared Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “We’re spending more money on inmates and we’re getting worse results.” He described the DOC as “an agency that is out of control as it relates to its management and budget priorities. It’s a drain on the city and a travesty to taxpayers.”
“No Day is Normal”
Following her conviction for assaulting a police officer, nine of the twelve jurors who returned the guilty verdict against Cecily McMillan recommended to the court that she not serve time behind bars. Their pleas did not sway the judge, and on May 19, 2014, he sentenced McMillan to three months at Rikers Island.
McMillan was not your stereotypical criminal. College educated and politically active, she had been part of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration when a New York City cop allegedly grabbed her breast from behind. Believing herself to be the victim of sexual assault, McMillan struck out in what she said was a startled reaction.
Her arrest sparked protests outside the jail, and her celebrity status resulted in retaliation from guards inside. She shared her story following her release in August 2014.
“No day is normal,” McMillan said about her time at Rikers.
During 90 days of what she called “controlled chaos,” she saw prisoners pepper sprayed in the face, thrown in solitary and strip-searched several times a week. She spoke of how hard it was to get medical treatment, or even a set of prescription glasses. She described how she even experienced some of the brutality herself, for “standing with my hands on my hips, as a sign of disrespect.... I got rushed and slammed against the wall by a CO [correction officer] for being polite.” She related how one guard referred to her as a “smug ass white bitch.”
“Rikers is a third world,” McMillan said in summing up her experience. “It is a state within a state. The people inside are stateless people.... I think we need to address our medieval prison industrial complex.”
Despite years of reform efforts, the fact remains that brutality by guards, apathy by city officials, inadequate healthcare, contraband smuggling, cover-ups and corruption continue to comprise the seemingly endless list of problems at Rikers Island, where countless investigations have revealed misconduct at every level and in every part of the sprawling jail complex.
But there are some encouraging signs of change.
In May 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s office served subpoenas on the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, apparently looking into the finances of COBA chief Norman Seabrook and other union officials. The subpoena sought records related to the union’s political donations, travel vouchers, finances, and cash deposits into the personal accounts of Seabrook, his wife and the union’s treasurer. The investigation is ongoing.
Three Rikers guards were arrested in June 2015 on federal charges in connection with the fatal beating of prisoner Ronald Spear. Byron Taylor, 31, who had been suspended, and former guard Brian Coll, 45, face charges that include civil rights violations, while jailer Anthony Torres, 49, was charged with obstruction of justice for trying to cover up the incident. Torres is reportedly cooperating with law enforcement officials.
Also, on June 22, 2015, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced a settlement in the Nunez class-action lawsuit filed by The Legal Aid Society over violence and excessive use of force by guards at Rikers. The terms of the consent judgment include oversight by a federal monitor; development of a new use of force policy; timely investigations into use of force incidents; the installation of additional video cameras at the jail complex; an “early warning system” to identify abusive staff members; a pilot program for body cameras to be worn by certain guards; improved staff recruitment and hiring practices; additional employee training; and other provisions related to adolescent prisoners. The federal district court will retain jurisdiction over the case to ensure compliance by the DOC.
“Any day that goes by where we don’t have enforceable and enduring reform at Rikers Island is one day too many,” Bharara said prior to announcing the settlement.
Yet for the thousands of prisoners in New York City’s jail system, too many “no day is normal” days have already gone by – leaving behind a lasting legacy of injuries, deaths, and damaged and destroyed lives.
Sources: The Daily Record; “ClaimStat Alert,” Office of the New York City Comptroller (August 2014); “Barriers to Recreation, Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit,” New York City Board of Correction (July 2014); The New York Times; www.nypost.com; Associated Press; www.newsday.com; New York City Department of Investigation Report on the Recruiting and Hiring Process for New York City Correction Officers (January 2015); www.huffingtonpost.com; www.timesunion.com; www.thecrimereport.org; http://truth-out.org; http://observer.com; www.abcnews.go.com; www.dnainfo.com; www.csgiordano.com; www.reuters.com; Village Voice; www.thechiefleader.com; www.latino.foxnews.com; http://council.nyc.gov; www.firstlook.org; www.gothamist.com; www.nydailynews.com
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