by Douglas Ankney
On February 21, 2023, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York entered judgment in favor of a now-paroled prisoner against the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), after an assault by guards left him paralyzed. Based upon a jury’s verdict in his favor, Chad Stanbro, a former prisoner at Fishkill Correctional Facility (FCF), was awarded $2,060,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
Stanbro was serving a 10-year sentence for theft of a television and a probation violation in August 2018, when he awoke in the middle of dental surgery at Westchester Medical Center (WMC). In an agitated state due to an adverse reaction to the anesthesia, he knocked over a medical monitor. DOCCS guards Nadya Palou, Raymond Deal and Richard Landry then took him to the floor. Fellow guard Kristofer Leonardo entered the room and thrust his knee into Stanbro’s throat and neck.
After the assault, Stanbro was unable to walk, breathe or speak properly. Yet despite his obvious need for immediate medical treatment, the guards dragged him from WMC, against medical advice. They carried Stanbro to a transport van and lifted him inside. Leonardo, who had transported prisoners to WMC from Greene Correctional Facility, instructed Palou to “leave [his] name out of the report.”
Without any medical attention, Stanbro was transported back to the FCF by Palou, Deal and Landry. Upon arrival, the prisoner was met by DOCCS nurse Gary Pagliaro, who ridiculed and verbally harassed him, accusing him of faking his inability to ambulate. Pagliaro repeatedly and sadistically stabbed Stanbro with sharp instruments, attempting to demonstrate his injuries were faked. All the while, DOCCS Sgt. Enrique Torres urged Pagliaro to keep stabbing Stanbro, while also joining in the ridicule and verbal abuse. It was only after Pagliaro stabbed Stanbro in his feet and observed that the prisoner gave no reaction that an ambulance was called.
A helicopter transported Stanbro back to WMC, where doctors diagnosed quadriplegia and operated on his spine. Stanbro was confined at WMC for 12 days. Meanwhile, Nadya, Deal, and Landry fabricated a disciplinary report against Stanbro, claiming he had taken a swing at the dentist and kicked a guard in the stomach. They further reported that Stanbro had walked from WMC to the transport van. Torres wrote that Stanbro “reported no injuries” upon his return to FCF. As per Leonardo’s request, his name was omitted from the report. When Stanbro was returned to FCF following his spinal surgery, he was placed in solitary confinement for 40 days due to the disciplinary report against him.
But Stanbro’s grievances were corroborated by video footage from WMC, showing the guards carrying Stanbro to the transport van. That prompted an investigation, during which Palou resigned. Leonardo faced no discipline. One of the other guards was fined $3,000.
With the aid of New Yotk City attorneys Edward Sivin and Glenn D. Miller of Sivin & Miller, LLP, along with Andrew C. Weiss of Borrelli & Associates, PLLC in Garden City, Stanbro filed his complaint in the Court. When it went to trial, Palou admitted to the jury that she had left Leonardo out of the report. “He was an officer that I respected,” Palou said, attempting to explain her conduct. Two of the other guards also admitted lying about Stanbro’s condition after the assault, confessing to the jury that he did not walk to the van. The dentist testified that Stanbro never swung a fist at him. The jury initially awarded Stanbro an aggregate sum of $2.1 million. But the trial judge reduced it by $40,000. That left Stanbro with compensatory damages of $1.2 million from Leonardo, $400,000 from WMC, $200,000 from Deal and Palou, another $200,000 from Weber, WMC and Westchester County Health Care Corp., plus punitive damages of $50,000 from Leonardo and $5,000 each from Deal and Palou. See: Stanbro v. Westchester County Health Care Corporation, No. 7:19-cv-10857 (S.D. NY. 2023).
Guards Form a “Blue Wall”
Former DOCCS commissioner Brian Fischer called the guards who covered up one another’s misconduct a “blue wall,” a phenomenon he said is deeply rooted in the workplace. In March 2020, DOCCS guard Aaron Finn handcuffed prisoner Melvin Virgil and repeatedly smashed his head into a wall and steel bars. Finn’s body camera recorded the attack, showing Virgil left limp and unconscious after the assault. A sergeant appears on a different body camera’s footage, repeatedly demanding: “Who applied the handcuffs?” followed by “Nobody knows nothing now?” Finn filed six misconduct reports against Virgil and other guards backed him up – including the sergeant – all claiming that Virgil tried to kick them while he was on the ground. But the video shows Virgil had lost consciousness at the time the guards alleged he kicked them. DOCCS officials moved to fire Finn, but he resigned first. In a rare example of criminal consequences for errant state guards, Finn was arrested for his attack on Virgil, pled guilty in November 2022, and was sentenced to three months in federal prison. No other guard was disciplined, however. Still pending is a suit Virgil filed with the aid of attorneys from Prison Legal Services of New York and the Manhattan firm of Bloch & White LLP. See: Virgil v. Finn, USDC (S.D.N.Y.), Case No. 7:22-cv-03169.
Kevin Ryan, a former prison investigator in New York, said he quit because the “cover-up culture among guards and indifference from top managers” thwarted his investigations. Ryan cited the case of Roy Harringer, now 80, a disgraced pastor convicted of molesting his grandchildren. He was left paralyzed after a guard beat him in the head with a baton in 2015 at Attica Correctional Facility. During Ryan’s investigation, crucial records were missing, and the officers united in saying they knew nothing and that Harringer must have fallen in the shower. No one was ever disciplined, and no charges were ever filed.
With the aid of Sivin & Miller, Harringer sued, and a judge found the “falling in the shower” explanation a “fabrication,” holding the state 100% liable for Harringer’s injuries. [See: PLN, May 2019, p.42.] After a damages trial in September 2020, Harringer was awarded $2 million. The state appealed, arguing that it couldn’t be liable for the guard’s actions that fell outside what he was allowed to do. But the Court of Appeals disagreed, holding in July 2022 that “[s]uch conduct will not fall outside the scope of employment merely because it violates department rules or policies or crosses the line of sanctioned conduct.” See: Harriger v. State of N.Y., 207 A.D.3d 1045, (App. Div. 4th Dept.).
Additional source: The Marshall Project
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