What the Jail Guard Saw

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

Another 18-year-old, Ricardo Marsden of Hempstead, Long Island, claims that he was assaulted on May 2 at the Robert N. Davoren Center by six inmates and suffered a "black eye, bruises all over body, leg, back, blood in my ears, busted lip. . . . Officer stood there watching," his complaint states.

The Department of Correction declined to comment, saying that both cases were currently under investigation.

In recent City Council testimony, DeAvery Irons of the Juvenile Justice Project said that one factor in the violence is the ratio of one officer per 50 inmates in the teenage dormitory areas—the same as in adult housing.

photo: Andrew Lichtenstein


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"Young people describe an atmosphere characterized by daily fights, power struggles, and intimidation," Irons testified, adding that one youth described the environment as "battle camp for kids."

Horn says he draws from a group of 158 newly budgeted correction officers to help maintain safety in the adolescent housing areas. "There's no indication that the adolescent areas are any rougher than the adult housing areas," he says.

Crushaun Campbell, meanwhile, claims that he suffered a broken jaw, fractured nose, and fractured cheekbone when two inmates assaulted him on February 6 at the Vernon C. Bain Center. The attack began in a bathroom and spilled into the dorm area. Campbell had been arrested just two days earlier on a parole violation.

Campbell, whose injuries required plastic surgery, claims that a correction officer assigned to watch the bathroom from the bubble was not at her post when the assault began, records show. In a report, DOC officials called the incident an inmate fistfight.

"My impression is, there's a high level of violence in the system," says Campbell's lawyer, Gavriel Ramson. "That's why I take these cases. It's hard to ignore them."

Violence at Rikers isn't limited only to the inmates, according to the May records. In his typewritten claim dated May 19, James Brown, an Otis Bantum Correctional Center detainee, writes that he was handcuffed when a correction captain smashed his head against the wall several times, while other officers looked on.

Brown claims that he suffered a concussion, broken teeth, blurry vision, and hearing loss as a result of the April 5 incident. "I received extensive surgery on my upper gums," he writes. "Several of my teeth had to be surgically removed."

The DOC declined to comment on both the Campbell and Brown cases.

The Brown claim is one of a number of lawsuits alleging excessive force by officers. Among them, 10 inmates are suing for $240 million, alleging that two dozen correction officers rampaged through their dorm in October 2005.

The incident was sparked when an inmate punched an officer. In the ensuing free-for-all, a number of inmates were allegedly beaten while officers shouted, "Whose house is this? Our house!"

A video camera captured about one minute of the chaos; then an officer turned off the camera for the next 30 minutes.

A couple of officers have been charged, but the vast majority were not disciplined.

Lamont Major, meanwhile, is suing for $1 million after he was allegedly punched by a correction officer in May 2006 at the George R. Vierno Center and wound up in the hospital.

In recent years, the city has settled six other excessive-force cases for a total of $1.8 million, for injuries such as a broken jaw ($195,000), a collapsed lung ($255,000), and brain damage ($590,000).

At the end of 2005, the city settled the Ingles v. Toro class-action lawsuit brought by the Prisoners' Rights Project.

The case, involving 22 inmates injured by officers, was the fourth class-action law- suit involving excessive force brought against the DOC.

Two experts hired by the Ingles plaintiffs reviewed thousands of use-of-force and injury reports and concluded that correction officers routinely used excessive force to inflict pain rather than to restrain and control inmates.

The experts also concluded that the DOC's internal investigation process was deeply flawed. Under the settlement, the city agreed—without admitting liability—to pay $3.6 million (of which $1.4 went to the lawyers representing the inmates), rewrite the use-of-force policy, and install video cameras throughout the jails.

Horn says the video cameras have been useful in determining what happened in encounters between officers and inmates. "They seem to verify the officer's account many times," he said. Horn is careful to stress that the settlement carried no admission of liability: "By settling, the plaintiffs acknowledged there was no 'pattern or practice' violation."

In addition, the city agreed to write a brand-new manual for internal investigations. Robert Silbering, a former Special Narcotics Prosecutor, was hired to lead that effort. Silbering says that a draft version of the manual is complete, and that the process may be finished within the next month.

In the Ingles case, over 100 correction officers and supervisors were named in the complaint, but just four faced disciplinary charges, and only two were actually fired—the other two got their jobs back.

"The vast majority of the officers were not disciplined, including one officer whose kick we believe ruptured an inmate's eyeball," says Jonathan Chasan, a lead lawyer in the case.

But Horn says that internal reviews found there was no wrongdoing in most cases. "We considered the use of force, and concluded that in the vast majority [of cases], it was appropriate and defensible," he says. "We made the cases that we could make."

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