Prisoners Say They Paid a Bloody Price for a Guard’s Injury
Prisoners describe a rampage by correctional officers in a New York prison.
The prisoners were just starting their day on July 6, 2016 when dozens of corrections officers burst into their dormitory, shouting for everyone to get down on the floor. The raid at Mid-State Correctional Facility, outside Utica, N.Y., officials said, was a surprise search for weapons made urgent after a bloody injury to a guard three days earlier.
But over the next two hours, according to prisoners, officers beat and stomped on each of the more than 30 prisoners present that morning, screaming curses and racial epithets and destroying property. Several men said their ribs were broken by kicks and punches. A 58-year-old prisoner said he was rammed, headfirst, through the Sheetrock wall in his room. Down the hall, a 41-year-old prisoner said his nose was broken as a guard repeatedly slammed a metal door into his face.
In a whispered interview in the visiting room of the medium-security prison, a 50-year-old prisoner from Brooklyn recalled how an officer knelt beside him as he lay on the floor. The prisoner, Raymond Broccoli, who is serving a six-year sentence for robbery, said the officer hissed, “You want to know what it feels like to feel weak?” Broccoli said the guard then jammed “something metal” into his rectum. “It was bigger than a pen, about the size of those small flashlights they carry,” he said. At least two other prisoners have claimed they were similarly violated.
The prisoners said they were warned to keep quiet and not seek medical treatment, otherwise the guards would attack again. But on November 2, a week after a Marshall Project reporter asked about the episode, the state’s corrections commissioner suspended the prison’s two top officials, the superintendent and his deputy, pending an inquiry.
A spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision said that its Office of Special Investigations and State Police officers were investigating the dormitory raid and the July 3 injury to the prison guard that preceded it.
“DOCCS will not tolerate any wrongdoing that puts the safety of its facilities at risk, and will not hesitate to pursue disciplinary charges or refer cases for criminal prosecution if warranted,” the spokesman said.
Investigators face dueling narratives: The guards’ union insists the injured officer was the victim of a planned attack by two prisoners affiliated with the Bloods street gang. Prisoners cite a different culprit, a rickety reclining chair from which the officer fell, gashing his head as the two prisoners rushed to his aid.
As in most of the state’s prisons, there were no cameras to record the episodes, officials said. The injured guard, Nicholas Kahl, a Navy veteran in his mid-20s who had been a corrections officer for two years, has been out on medical leave since the injury, records show. He did not respond to emails or return phone calls.
Whatever happened to him, the ensuing assault was indefensible, a lawyer retained by prisoners’ relatives said. “The apparent breadth of involvement by correction officers and high-level supervisors at Mid-State in this barbaric and unjustified use of collective punishment is stunning,” said the lawyer, Edward Sivin, who has filed a notice of intent to sue in the State’s Court of Claims on behalf of 32 prisoners.
The union, the New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, declined to comment. “As with previous unsubstantiated allegations made by convicted felons, it is more prudent to allow the investigation to be completed so we know all of the facts,” James Miller, a union spokesman, said.
The allegations of brutality against prisoners at Mid-State are the latest involving New York prisons. “Excessive use of force in prisons, we believe, has reached crisis proportions in New York State,” Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney in Manhattan, said as he announced charges in September against five officers accused of beating a prisoner at Downstate Correctional Facility in 2013.
His office also investigated the death of a prisoner at Fishkill Correctional Facility in 2015 after a violent clash with officers, although no charges resulted. In March 2015, three officers at Attica Correctional Facility pleaded guilty to charges of official misconduct after their unprovoked beating of a prisoner who had many bones broken.
Jack Beck, a director of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit authorized by the state to monitor prisons, said the scale of the alleged attack at Mid-State was surprising. “Do guards retaliate when an officer is injured? Yes,” he said. “They come in and throw property around, smack people. But to significantly assault large numbers of people, that’s unusual.”
Following the angry rampage, prisoners said that supervisors warned them to keep quiet about what had occurred. But prisoners wrote letters describing their experiences and family members conveyed them to a lawyer.
‘He Just Fell Over’
The guards at the prison, in Marcy, a rural town along the Erie Canal, refused to accept that Kahl’s injury had been an accident, prisoners said.
Ricardo Moore, chairman of a prisoner liaison committee there, served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm and said he and Kahl talked about their military experiences. “He was easygoing. No one was mad at him,” said Moore, 45, who is serving a seven-year sentence for drug possession. He said the guard usually sat in a plexiglass office known as “the bubble” in the dormitory’s day room, with his legs propped up on the desk as he reclined in a chair.
“I used to joke with him about that chair,” Moore said. “I said, ‘Look out, you are going to fall over.’” That day, Moore recalled, Kahl made his rounds and then went into the office, which included a desk and a locker, and was often unsecured. He said he saw the guard “leaning back in his chair with a book open, but his eyes were closed.”
Moments later, when he was in his room, Moore heard a commotion. He ran back to the day room. “I see two prisoners inside the bubble and they are trying to help Kahl up off the floor.”
Stacey Wyne, 36, who was released in August after serving four years for selling drugs, said he also witnessed the guard reclining in the chair. “I even know the book he was reading, a Stuart Woods novel,” Wyne said. “He just fell over.”
He said two prisoners entered the office to help Kahl. “They were asking him was he O.K., and he says, ‘Yeah.’” One of the prisoners said he was going to pull an emergency alarm carried by officers to get help, Wyne recalled. In prison it is called “pulling the pin,” and considered a summons to a major emergency. Kahl said no, Wyne said, but “they pulled it anyways.”
A news release issued by the union said that guards responding to the alarm found Kahl unconscious and bleeding. He later received eight stitches over his eyebrow. Two prisoners who guards believed were responsible for the wound were taken to solitary confinement.
Four months later, no criminal charges have been filed or disciplinary actions taken against those prisoners, a corrections department spokesman said. The prisoner accused of leading the attack, Darnell Getfield, 27, of Brooklyn, has since been moved to another medium-security prison. Typically, prisoners accused of assaulting officers are given lengthy sentences in isolation at maximum-security prisons. Getfield, who is serving a five-year sentence for assault and weapons possession, did not respond to a letter asking him to contact a reporter.
Two prisoners said Getfield may have had gang ties, but they noted he was also a member of the prisoner liaison committee and appeared to have had a good relationship with Kahl.
Immediately after the guard was injured, Moore said, corrections officers and prison administrative employees began grilling prisoners. As Moore was questioned, an officer loomed over him, threatening to beat him with a ream of copying paper, the prisoner said. Later, Moore said he was handcuffed and underwent further interrogation. Officers held him over a stairwell by the waist of his pants. “They said, ‘Have you ever taken an elevator ride?’” Moore recalled. “I was terrified. They said I had better tell the right story.”
Another prisoner, Broccoli, said he was taken in handcuffs to a room where a guard stood beside him as he was questioned by an administrative employee. “He was saying: ‘We know who ordered it and we know who did it. You better tell us.’”
Each time he insisted he did not know, Broccoli said, the officer “smacks me and bangs my head against the wall.” At one point, Broccoli said, the guard whispered in his ear, “What’s a white guy like you doing protecting” those animals? and added a racial slur. Most of the dormitory residents were black or Latino, Broccoli said, while all of the officers involved were white.
‘Yelling in Pain’
Broccoli was one of seven men interviewed in prison or after they were released who have provided accounts on the record of what happened three days later. Seven other prisoners described the episode in letters to Sivin, the lawyer. (Their names were redacted in copies provided to a reporter because they did not want to be publicly identified.)
“I will never forget that day,” Wyne said. “I made some mistakes. But I shouldn’t have been treated like that.” He said as many as 40 officers raced into the dorm, known as House 4H, located in one of a cluster of buildings at Mid-State, which is adjacent to two other large state prisons.
“They came running inside yelling and beating on everyone,” Wyne said. He and three roommates were punched and kicked as officers emptied prisoners’ lockers and tipped them over, he said. One guard, he recalled, said, “‘You look like you need your hair washed,’ and he dumped my VO5 on top of me. Then another cop kicks me in the head.”
When the raid was over, “the place looked like Hurricane Katrina,” Wyne said. “People were under mattresses they had thrown on top of them, they had lockers on top of them.”
Pablo Dones, 58, who is serving a two-year term for violating his drug conviction parole, said that when the guards came into the dorm, he flung himself on the floor, arms outstretched. “You could hear the slaps and the kicks, and everything getting smashed,” Dones said. “Guys were yelling in pain.”
He said the first guard who entered his room kicked one of his roommates, a 63-year-old man named Tony King, in the head. “Hurt him bad,” Dones said.
When a guard ordered him to stand, Dones, who had recently undergone hernia surgery, said he struggled to his feet. “I made it to one knee and he kicked me right where I had the operation.”
He screamed in pain, he said, but another guard grabbed him and began banging his head against the wall. “He was hitting me against the wall so many times, my head went right through it,” Dones said. For weeks, he said, he had a large black-and-purple knob on his forehead.
“They just ran amok,” he said.
Matthew Petrillo, 41, recalled that as he lay on the floor beside his locker, a guard smashed its metal door into his face many times. He was released on parole in October 2016 after serving five years for selling drugs. His mother said she was shocked by his appearance when he came home.
“His face was so messed up, I was crying; I couldn’t believe it,” said his mother, Linda, who did not want her surname used because she fears official retaliation. “He did something wrong and he paid his dues. But send him back to me in one piece. You have no right to abuse him.”
Slurs and Curses
Matthew Aliaga, 28, who is serving a three-year sentence for grand larceny and forgery, said guards kicked him in the chest and the leg as another officer stood on his ankle. Aliaga, who is gay and taking hormones to transition to female, said officers called him “disgusting names,” including a gay slur. One officer ground his hormone medications to dust with his boot, he said. Another tore some of his books apart. “I had this book by Anderson Cooper about him and his mother that I was really looking forward to reading,” he said, “and they just destroyed it.”
Moore said most of the officers had removed their name tags. They hurled slurs and curses at the prisoners, he and other prisoners remembered. “‘Oh, you like to pick on the weak? See how you like it,’” he recalled them saying. “They were telling the white guys, ‘You are a disgrace to the white race.’”
He said he was kicked in the head, the ribs and the legs, then beaten with fists. He and other prisoners reported that officers sliced electric cords on appliances the prisoners had in their rooms, including lamps, clocks and radios.
As the raid wound down, Moore said he heard guards calling out, “The brass is coming.” A few minutes later, he said, he saw the superintendent, Joseph Ward, and his top deputies walking down the hall. Ward and Joseph Corey, the deputy for security, were suspended last November. Moore said the two executives had to step over piles of destroyed prisoner property that littered the hall.
He and another prisoner were later ordered to sweep up the dorm, he said. “We got to one room and there were two guards in there urinating on the floor, all over the guys’ stuff,” he said. One of the officers, Moore said, addressed him.
“He said, ‘Moore, you’re a veteran, right?’ I said yes. He said, ‘What do you do when someone tries to injure one of your buddies?’ I said my military responsibility would be to hurt him back. He said: ‘So you see why we are doing this. You guys tried to kill one of ours.’”
The prisoners said they were warned not to talk. Phone calls and mail would be monitored. “We’ll be back to do this all over again,” a prison lieutenant threatened, Moore said. Still, word got out.
Broccoli, who has since been moved to another prison, said that he was mocked by guards after the episode. They “snicker when I walk by,” he said. “I am so ashamed all the time. I’ve questioned my manhood.”
Nelson Friszell, 44, who is serving five years for selling drugs, asked his wife to relay to a reporter how he had also been beaten and sodomized with a metal object by the prison’s guards. “My husband is a big man,” his wife, Deirdre Velez, said. “I think they were trying to take his dignity.”
This article was originally published jointly by The Marshall Project (www.themarshallproject.org) and The New York Times (www.nytimes.com) on Nov. 15, 2016. It is reprinted with permission from The Marshall Project, with minor edits.
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