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New York Prison System Found Liable for Failure to Protect Prisoner from Assault

On July 19, 2022, the New York Court of Claims found the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) partially liable for failing to protect a prisoner from being assaulted by another prisoner.

Jeremy Sanchez was incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility (GMCF) when he was viciously attacked by another prisoner. He filed a complaint in New York’s Court of Claims, arguing that prison officials were negligent in failing to prevent the attack.

At the time of the attack, Sanchez, a reported gang member, was housed in E-5 Company at GMCF. The E-Block unit, unlike others at that facility, had only one Console guard or “CO” instead of the usual two. The Console CO was responsible for remotely opening cell doors, ensuring they were closed after being opened, as well as activating gates that provided access to each company.

Open cell doors were indicated on a panel in the “bubble,” where the Console CO worked and could travel between E-Block’s four floors using an internal stairway. The standard practice was that cell doors must be kept closed and locked.

But Sanchez testified that on January 25, 2016, his cell door was remotely opened multiple times by the Console CO on duty, Richard Hammond. The last time his door opened, Sanchez exited and was told by a porter to pack his property because he was being moved. He then returned to his cell and began packing, but the door did not close or lock.

Meanwhile, Hammond left the bubble to go to another floor, leaving Sanchez’s cell door open. At the same time, the gate was also open to E-5 Company because it was “go back” time, when prisoner movement was underway.

As Sanchez was packing, he was attacked by a fellow prisoner, Johann (or Anthony) Garcia, reportedly a member of a rival gang. Sanchez spent 12 days at a hospital recovering from his injuries, which included a broken arm, puncture wounds from a homemade knife and the loss of vision in one eye.

At the time there was a known “turf war” between the gangs to which Sanchez and Garcia allegedly belonged. Nevertheless, Sanchez refused to cooperate with investigators and declined to prosecute his attacker.

Taking up his claim, the Court found the state “owes a duty of care to safeguard [prisoners], even from attacks by fellow [prisoners].” But to show negligence, there had to be a risk that was reasonably foreseeable, either by actual or constructive notice. Not every prisoner-on-prisoner assault involves negligence by prison staff, the Court allowed. But in this case, it said Sanchez met his burden of proof.

The Court of Claims found Sanchez and most of the other witnesses gave credible testimony; however, Hammond, the Console CO, “was a poor witness.” He “professed to have little memory of the incident,” and portions of his testimony “amounted to little more than surmise and speculation, sometimes was inconsistent and equivocal, and, in other places, was evasive and unworthy of credit,” the Court declared.

DOCCS procedures required that Sanchez be locked into his cell at the time the attack occurred, the Court observed. Because “GMCF staff failed to comply with and deviated from its own proper procedures,” the Court continued, the state breached its duty of care.

Accordingly, the state was held liable – but only 70% liable. Sanchez “cannot escape some measure of culpability for this incident,” the Court wrote, because he failed to close his cell door and was inattentive while packing his property. Therefore, he was assigned 30% liability for his injury.

The Court of Claims rejected the state’s defense – that it was immune from prosecution because its employees were exercising a governmental function. Sanchez was attacked and injured not as a result of “discretionary determinations by DOCCS,” the Court noted, but rather because “the Defendant failed to adhere to its own procedures.”

Thus the Court ordered a trial on damages to be scheduled. PLN will update those developments as they are available. Sanchez was represented by New York City attorneys Edward Sivin with Sivin, Miller & Roche and Eylan Schulman of Schulman Trial, PLLC. See: Sanchez v. State, N.Y. Ct. of Claims, Claim No. 129610, UID 2016-015-176.