Jailhouse Rocked

Federal Discrimination Lawsuit by Black Rikers Island Guard Goes to Trial

In the seven months since a Manhattan federal court judge found that officer Billy M. Jones's lawsuit, alleging that the New York City Department of Correction discriminated against him by subjecting him to a "hostile work environment," indeed had merit and should go to trial, the jailhouse guard has not been able to savor the ruling.

At Rikers Island—where his car and those of several other African American officers were shot up with a BB gun, and a dead fish was left on the desk of an officer who had complained about racist graffiti on a bathroom wall, four years ago—Jones allegedly has been repeatedly harassed by supervisors seeking to tarnish his credibility on the eve of the trial.

Jones's $7.5 million discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the Department of Correction is set for trial in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on September 17. But even the choice of an arbiter has been mired in judicial politics.

Preaching tolerance at Rikers: jailhouse guard Billy Jones
photo: Jay Muhlin
Preaching tolerance at Rikers: jailhouse guard Billy Jones

In a move Jones considers highly suspicious, John G. Koeltl—who on March 15 approved Jones's suit for trial— was reassigned only two weeks before the trial. The explosive case is now in the hands of Judge Samuel Conti. Speaking through his attorney, Jones blasted the judge's last-minute switch.

The alleged harassment of Jones, an ordained minister, continued in the face of the judge's landmark decision. On April 4, Jones was summoned to the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) at 60 Hudson Street in Manhattan for a department hearing on his controversial complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Because Jones had been stripped of his DOC-issued Smith and Wesson pistol, and feared it was unsafe to walk the streets in a uniform that clearly identified him as a corrections officer, he showed up in plainclothes. Administrative Law Judge Christopher D. Kerr recommended that Jones be suspended and docked three days' pay for not wearing his uniform to the hearing.

"There can be no doubt, Officer Jones's concern for safety was sincere," the guard's union-appointed attorney Steven Isaacs argued in an August 24 letter to DOC commissioner William Fraser, asking Fraser to reject Kerr's recommendation. "Both Captain Shehee and Captain Wright acknowledged the potential dangers faced by corrections officers while they are in uniform and traveling in public. Surely, as a former officer yourself, you must appreciate the legitimate concern Officer Jones had for his safety."

Isaacs detailed "many aspects of this case which are troubling," contending that Kerr gave short shrift to Jones's explanation. Among the factors Isaacs has asked the commissioner to consider before passing judgment are:

  • That the department's witness, Captain Shehee, had testified that Jones would not have been in violation of department rules and regulations if he had failed to appear for the scheduled interview. "To discipline him for appearing in civilian clothes, for an interview he was not required to attend, is illogical and unreasonable."
  • That Shehee was biased. "It would seem to me, at the very minimum, Captain Shehee should not have been the investigator seeking to question Officer Jones. Captain Shehee clearly had a bias against Officer Jones." Isaacs noted that Shehee admitted during testimony that "he was suspicious of Officer Jones and was uncomfortable dealing with CO Jones' adversative approach to matters and his possible ulterior motives." According to Isaacs, ". . . this incident would not have been handled in the same manner if a different investigator was involved."
  • That Kerr "did not adequately consider" the fact that prior to going to the hearing, a supervisor had denied Jones's request for transportation. "Clearly, Officer Jones attempted to resolve the safety issue before reporting to 60 Hudson Street," Isaacs wrote. "If proper transportation was provided, Officer Jones would not have been placed in a situation that caused him to fear for his safety. This fear was the sole reason he reported to 60 Hudson Street in civilian clothes."
  • That Captain Shehee never informed Jones that he could have changed into uniform at the site of the hearing. "Additionally, the suggestion that Officer Jones could have changed in the public bathroom is ridiculous," Isaacs declared. "Besides the obvious security concerns, I do not really think you want members of the Department in various stages of undress at 60 Hudson Street. Furthermore [department regulations do] not permit Officer Jones to cover his uniform with any other garment. Therefore, he could not, without violating the directive, put a jacket over his uniform."
  • That Kerr "improperly denied" Jones's request to call witnesses favorable to Jones. "The judge's ruling unfairly influenced his decision in this matter," Isaacs charged. "The judge should have let Mr. Jones call Commissioner Burgos, Deputy Warden Slattery, and Captain Carr."
  • That Shehee was "untruthful" when he testified he was not aware that Jones had filed numerous complaints of discrimination and retaliation against his supervisors. "As such, his complete testimony should be discounted."

Jones later appeared before the judge in uniform. But after the hearing, the DOC allegedly exposed him to danger. "Officer Jones was left in full uniform in the lobby of 40 Rector Street for approximately two hours waiting for transportation," Isaacs complained in his letter to the DOC commissioner. "Again, Officer Jones's safety was placed at risk due to the Department's failure to act in the best interest of its members." The attorney asserted that in the wake of Jones's complaint against the department, the brouhaha over the uniform appears to be retaliatory. "Commissioner," Isaacs concluded, "if the purpose of the disciplinary process is to ensure a productive workforce, the suspension of Officer Jones, under the circumstances, will serve no purpose at all."

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