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Whistleblower Lawsuit Exposes Violence, Cover-ups at Rikers Island Jail

by Dale Chappell

A former guard at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City has filed a lawsuit in state court exposing misconduct and cover-ups by staff. A subsequent report by the city’s Department of Investigation (DOI) confirmed evidence of cover-ups of over a thousand prisoner fights in just three months, while the latest Mayor’s Management Report (MMR) included statistics showing a surge in jail violence.

Manuel Carvalho Calvelos, the former guard, reported to his supervisors that three other jailers were smuggling contraband into the facility and planting it on prisoners. He also reported that a female captain “twerked” for a masturbating male prisoner in an attempt to get a razor away from him.

Jail officials promptly took action – against Calvelos. They fired him, and in May 2018 he filed a lawsuit alleging that he had been terminated in retaliation for exposing corruption at Rikers. See: Matter of Calvelos v. Brann, Supreme Court of New York County (NY), Docket No. 154110/2018.

“Manuel had a legal obligation to report the illegal activities and corruption he witnessed within the Department of Correction [DOC] and he took that duty seriously,” his attorney said. “Unfortunately, those at DOC that decided to terminate him do not.”

In April 2019, the court hearing Calvelos’ lawsuit denied the city’s motion to dismiss and ordered the defendants to respond to his claims.

Calvelos’ allegations appear to be only the tip of the iceberg in regard to problems at the Rikers jail complex. A March 2019 DOI report found systemic violence in New York City’s jail system, with officials failing to report prisoner fights, assaults on staff and excessive use of force by guards. According to the report, jail staff were “coached” by supervisors on how to classify fights to avoid unwanted scrutiny.

In addition to the DOI report, the September 2019 MMR revealed a sharp rise in violent incidents at all jails, though most of the city’s approximately 8,000 prisoners are held at Rikers. Mayor Bill de Blasio has championed a plan to close the aging island facility and reduce New York’s prisoner population, which would then be housed in new jails located in four of the city’s boroughs.

According to the MMR, incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner violence jumped to 69.5 per 1,000 prisoners, representing a nearly 25 percent increase from fiscal year 2018. Incidents of prisoner-on-staff violence also were up sharply, rising nearly 37 percent to a rate of 12.6 per 1,000 prisoners, as were uses of force by jail staff, which spiked nearly 30 percent to a total of 6,670 incidents – 571 of which involved juvenile offenders.

DOC spokesman Jason Kersten said the city’s efforts to reduce its overall prisoner population had left its jails full of “people charged with more serious offenses.” He added that incidents involving serious injuries had begun to fall for both staff and prisoners as the use of body cameras by guards increased.

“We have zero tolerance for unnecessary and excessive use of force,” Kersten promised.

However, the 11-page DOI report found the DOC had three separate ways of tracking jail violence, of which “none provided a complete and accurate record.” The investigation also reported the DOC only logged violence that resulted in serious injuries, such as stabbings, suffered by prisoners or staff members. Excluded were thousands of fights, injuries and uses of force by jailers, the report noted.

The DOI made 13 recommendations to fix the city’s jail problems. DOC officials fully adopted just two of them, while partially adopting five more. The agency argued it didn’t have court approval or enough money to implement the other six recommendations. The union representing the city’s jail guards said the DOC needs to do more.

“Without accurate tracking of violent assaults on correction officers, which occur all too frequently, policy makers and the public will be given a false impression that we don’t need better tools, resources, and equipment to drive jail violence down,” stated Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association president Elias Husamudeen.

A DOC spokesman noted that Calvelos’ allegations “do not in any way represent the hardworking New York City correction officers who come to work every day as part of a law-enforcement community dedicated to helping keep New Yorkers safe.”

Between the DOI report and the MMR, a third report was released in April 2019 by Steve Martin, who was appointed to oversee New York City jails in 2016 under a federal consent decree. According to his findings, uses of force by guards had reached its highest level since his monitoring began. DOC officials countered that the problems are concentrated in three of Rikers Island’s eight active facilities, but Martin called the entire complex deeply dysfunctional with an entrenched culture of violence.

“We’re replicating best practices across all of our facilities,” insisted DOC Commissioner Cynthia Brann, “and won’t be satisfied until we see success across the board.”

Because every use-of-force incident triggers an investigation, Martin said the increase has swamped investigators, who have 18 months to complete their work before the statute of limitations runs out on a complaint and staff cannot be disciplined. About 1,500 pending cases were older than 18 months at the end of fiscal year 2018.

As for the DOI report, a DOC spokesperson said, “Any claim that our numbers are manipulated is absolutely false,” adding, “[w]e have a rigorous process for capturing and reporting incidents.”

“It’s just another exclamation point on the urgency of closing Rikers Island,” countered City Council Member Rory Lancman after the MMR was released. “At some point, people have to accept that the Rikers Island model is broken and we need a new model.” 

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Sources: nypost.com, politico.com, wnyc.org, complex.com