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New York State Struggles to Hold Prison Guards Accountable for Abuse

An investigation published by The Marshall Project on May 19, 2023, examined the struggle by the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) to hold its guards accountable for abusing state prisoners. Over a span of more than a decade, the agency recorded numerous physical attacks by guards that left prisoners with shattered teeth, punctured lungs, and broken bones. However, despite having solid evidence in many cases, DOCCS failed to successfully terminate offending guards 90% of the time.

The review of prison disciplinary records revealed over 290 instances in which the department attempted to fire guards and their supervisors for physically abusing prisoners or covering up their mistreatment. These cases ranged from group beatings to withholding food and were considered serious threats to prison safety and security. Shockingly, only 28 guards were ultimately fired. The majority remained on the job, including a guard who used excessive force in three separate incidents within three years.

The report highlights alarming incidents where guards were not held accountable for severe abuse. For example, a guard who struck a handcuffed prisoner 35 times with a baton was not fired, nor were the guards who brutally beat a mentally ill man from his face to his groin, leaving him to commit suicide the following day. Disturbingly, state records indicate that in many cases involving severe prisoner injuries and even deaths, the department did not even attempt to discipline the guards involved.

Between January 2010 and April 2022, DOCCS filed 5,642 disciplinary cases against prison staff. Of those, there were 3,953 cases in which the agency sought to terminate employees for misconduct. Of those, less than 10%—294 cases—related to prisoner abuse or its cover-up. And in less than 10% of those, only 28 guards in all were successfully fired. The vast majority of guards remained in their positions.

A significant barrier to dismissing abusive guards lies in the 1972 contract the state signed with the guards’ union, the Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association (COPBA). That agreement sends any effort to terminate a guard through binding arbitration, which in turn is most often decided in favor of the guards. In abuse cases, arbitrators ruled for them 75% of the time, often citing insufficient evidence or unconvincing prisoner testimony.

The consequences of this failure to hold guards accountable extend beyond the immediate harm inflicted on prisoners. The state has paid $18.5 million in settlements resulting from prisoner lawsuits alleging excessive force.

While some state officials have recognized the systemic problem within the department, past efforts to grant DOCCS more authority to discipline its employees have been unsuccessful. With a union contract that protects guards and undermines the disciplinary process, rogue guards continue to evade punishment, perpetuating a culture of excessive force and abuse within New York’s prisons.

The report highlights the uphill battle faced by prisoners seeking justice. Many fear retaliation or not being believed, leading to underreporting of abuse. Additionally, the lack of body cameras worn by guards in most prisons hinders evidence collection. As a result, prisoners often turn to courts for recourse, but there they face numerous obstacles, including difficulty in finding legal representation and dismissal of cases for procedural mistakes.

Efforts to improve the situation are underway, as the state negotiates a new contract with the COPBA. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) stressed her commitment to safety within DOCCS and condemned violence in all forms. However, the path to meaningful change remains uncertain.  

Source: The Marshall Project

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