What the Jail Guard Saw

Rikers officers encourage gang violence: surprising testimony and the stats to back it up

In fact, records reviewed by the Voice indicate that the substance of that letter was never investigated.

Months later, on May 28, 2004, Cullen sent another letter to Valerie Oliver, the warden at the Anna M. Kross Center. In that letter, he alleged in part that he was being harassed by another correction officer "because I would not be a partner in corruption and cover-ups."

It was only in June 2004, following Cullen's second letter, that the Investigation Division started a limited examination of his claims—but only after the DOC inspector general's office declined to look into them.

photo: Andrew Lichtenstein


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At the same time, after two years as a correction officer, Cullen was coming to the end of his probationary period. In his final evaluation on May 3, five supervisors recommended that he continue to be employed by the department, records show.

AMKC warden Valerie Oliver initially recommended that Cullen continue on the job, according to the records. But then she reversed her decision and recommended his firing based on excessive tardiness. The precise date that she reversed her decision is unknown.

Soon after that, the DOC personnel board voted to fire Cullen, and Commissioner Horn signed off on it. Cullen's last day of work was June 24, 2004—three weeks after his letter to Warden Oliver.

Cullen had been late 10 times in two years, records show. He had not missed a single day of work and had even earned a commendation for perfect attendance from—ironically enough—Warden Oliver. He also did not have a single use-of-force case against him.

Meanwhile, the internal investigation—such as it was—continued.

On January 11, 2005, Cullen wrote the investigator a third letter, this time specifically mentioning the Jackson case. He repeated the allegation that an officer had been away from his post talking to a female officer and had then tried to convince him to report that Jackson slipped and fell. Cullen also made misconduct claims against two DOC captains for the excessive use of force.

"I didnt even recognize my own son when I saw him in the hospital," says Leticia Cumberbatch.
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
The investigator noted in his final report that Cullen gave "creditable" testimony. He also wrote that it was "questionable that Mr. Cullen was terminated amidst an open, unresolved [investigation]."

Despite the detail in Cullen's letters and statements, however, the investigator did just three interviews in nine months before closing the case as "unsubstantiated" in February 2005.

Cullen filed legal papers to get his job back, but he lost in court, mainly because as a probationary officer, he had no job protection.

"I tried to do the right thing," he wrote in a letter to the judge. "And now I've lost medical care, I'm about to lose my house, I have no money. Every day is a struggle to eat."

In the January 2007 deposition, Cullen discussed his letters. "Nothing was done," he said.

"I made reports to the Department of Investigation against their corruption, and they fired me to keep me quiet and to punish me," Cullen testified.

In an interview Monday, Cullen told the Voice that his house is in foreclosure, and that he hasn't been able to find work in the three years since his termination by the Correction Department. He tried to go back to work as a school safety officer (a job he'd previously held for 18 years), but his application was rejected. He does odd jobs for friends to make ends meet.

"I had planned to retire in that job, and they took my rug out from under me," says Cullen, now 49. Despite his ordeal, he said he would do the same thing again today. "My mother raised me to be fair and honest, no matter what hardship. Who gives them the right to go to a cell and beat up an inmate? That could be my son or your son."

For his part, Commissioner Horn defended his handling of Cullen's case. He said Cullen's termination and the investigation took place on two separate tracks. "What came to me was excessive lateness," Horn said. "I categorically reject any inference his termination was related [to the letters]."

In February—long after he had been sent to prison, Fisher gave his own sworn account, in which he claimed that a correction officer told him to assault Jackson.

"[He] pulled me to the side and explained to me that Jackson was running around and thieving," Fisher said, adding that the correction officer told him: "Before you do anything, I'm going to go to the other side and [then] do what you got to do."

Fisher also testified that he had been deputized by correction officers to run the unit.

"I was the house captain, and it was my job to enforce certain rules," he said. "Anybody that acted up in the house, it was my job to put them in line."

Fisher testified that the stolen cookie explanation was false. "It was a lie to gas myself up to hit the dude," he said.

Explaining why he was feared by other inmates, the diminutive Fisher said, "I hit on impulse and ran around with a stick in my hands."

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