by Joe Watson
Widespread abuse by prison guards across New York State has led to at least 175 monetary awards to prisoners from 2010 to 2015 totaling around $10 million, a newspaper investigation found. Those numbers only include cases involving guard brutality; other payouts, such as for inadequate medical care or wrongful convictions, were not counted.
The payments – most through settlements, though some were awarded in judgments – ranged from $1,250 to $450,000, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal, which published the findings of its investigation in September 2015 based on documents obtained through public records produced by the state Attorney General’s office.
According to civil rights attorneys and prisoner advocates, staff-on-prisoner assaults in facilities operated by the New York Department of Corrections and Community Services (DOCCS) have become increasingly brutal, often occurring when prisoners are restrained and resulting in broken bones, head trauma and other serious injuries. The guards involved in such incidents, who are represented by a strong union, rarely face disciplinary action.
“What has evolved has been basically an atmosphere and a culture of violence that is unchecked,” said Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), a non-profit watchdog agency created by state lawmakers to monitor prisons. “We’re not talking about a couple of facilities and a couple of rotten apples.”
Some of the most violent staff-on-prisoner attacks happened in the Journal’s backyard in Dutchess County, just north of New York City, where 24 cases at the Green Haven, Fishkill and Downstate correctional facilities led to lawsuits and payouts.
In one incident at Fishkill in December 2012, prisoner Steven Ostane was “stomped on, kicked [and] punched” by six guards while he was handcuffed, according to a federal lawsuit. Ostane suffered a compound fracture of his femur, with the bone protruding through his skin, and was left in a cell for hours with blood dripping from his leg. A metal rod had to be inserted to repair the broken bone.
Ostane filed suit in 2013, alleging staff supervisors “knew or were willfully ignorant” of prior incidents involving the same guards who had injured him, and DOCCS signed off on a $450,000 settlement that was finalized in January 2015. But prison officials admitted no wrongdoing and none of the guards involved were disciplined, terminated or criminally charged. See: Ostane v. Fischer, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:13-cv-07927-JGK.
According to the Poughkeepsie Journal, at least 29 guards named as defendants in the 24 cases at Green Haven, Fishkill and Downstate were still on the state’s payroll as of 2015. That included two guards at Downstate (where state prisoners are processed and then moved to other facilities) who allegedly kicked and spit on prisoner Nathaniel Collins, 35, before throwing him down a flight of stairs while he was handcuffed.
Collins, who represented himself in a subsequent civil rights suit, said in his handwritten complaint that the guards “threaten if I say a word [I] would be HURT very badly.”
“They THREATEN my life,” he wrote.
After serving three years for an attempted weapons possession conviction, Collins was released in August 2014. He settled with DOCCS for $70,000. See: Collins v. Folduick, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 7:14-cv-04533-KMK.
Another lawsuit alleging abuse by guards at Downstate was filed by prisoner Archie Singletary, who said he suffered an unprovoked beating in September 2013 while in a recreation yard. He reported being punched and kicked while handcuffed, then guards slammed his head through a window, resulting in a broken cheekbone that required surgery. DOCCS settled his lawsuit for $52,500 in November 2015. See: Singletary v. Rodriquez, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:15-cv-01193-PGG.
Downstate prison guards were also accused of beating a prisoner, smashing his face into a wall and attempting to break his leg by twisting and stomping on it during an August 2013 incident. The prisoner, Keenan Parker, received a $7,500 settlement from the state in July 2015. See: Parker v. Santiago, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 7:14-cv-07285-KMK.
Another case that arose at the Fishkill Correctional Facility involved prisoner Mayer Sadian, who was sadistically assaulted by a guard and suffered hearing loss as a result. He filed suit and agreed to settle his claims in 2015 for $29,950. No disciplinary action was taken against the guard. [See: PLN, May 2016, p.53].
“Almost always the authority figure is not disciplined no matter how severe the injury,” stated Brooklyn attorney Paul Hale.
One DOCCS guard, Peter A. Mastrantonio, employed at the Southport Correctional Facility, has been sued 17 times for abusing prisoners, resulting in $673,000 in settlements.
Elizabeth Koob, a Yonkers civil rights lawyer who has litigated cases against DOCCS in the past, said the systemic violence by guards is a result of “not having good people at the top who say it’s not acceptable.
“They know this stuff takes place,” she added, “and they overlook it.”
CANY, meanwhile, has petitioned the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate staff-on-prisoner violence in New York’s prison system, and state lawmakers have taken steps toward reforms, too.
As reported by The New York Times in April 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration boosted the number of DOCCS internal affairs investigators from 116 to around 150 over the previous year. Breaking with tradition, and perhaps signaling a more aggressive tack on reform, rather than recruiting investigators from within the ranks of DOCCS, the administration imported several new hires with prior experience in the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.
A major impediment to reform has been the 20,000-member New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which represents state prison guards. Through contract negotiations, the union has managed to exert significant influence within the DOCCS. It is the union, not prison officials, that has authority over the transfer of problem guards, and an arbitration process favors the union when deciding whether such guards are fired. Further, rules negotiated by the union specify that internal affairs investigators must give 24-hour notice to guards before questioning them, and guards’ disciplinary records are barred from public disclosure.
Speaking to members of the DOCCS internal affairs unit in April 2016, Deputy Commissioner Daniel Martuscello III said he had a strong desire to implement reforms.
“We will do anything necessary,” he stated. “I’m not here to make the union happy.”
Ultimately, though, it’s not a matter of making anyone happy; it’s about stopping state prison guards from brutalizing prisoners, and holding them accountable when they do so – which certainly sounds like a reasonable goal.
Meanwhile, the state will continue to face lawsuits when prisoners are assaulted or even killed by prison staff. The April 2015 murder of prisoner Samuel Harrell at Fishkill, for example, resulted in extensive media coverage, public condemnation and a federal investigation. [See related article on page 62 of this issue]. Harrell was beaten while restrained, kicked and thrown down a flight of stairs. His family has filed a lawsuit that will likely add to the growing amount that DOCCS has had to pay in settlements, judgments and jury awards for employing and failing to control abusive guards.
Sources: www.poughkeepsiejournal.com, www.nytimes.com, www.timesunion.com
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