By Steve Weinstein
By Rachel Kramer Bussel
By Tim Elfrink
By Sydney Brownstone
By Graham Rayman
By Graham Rayman
By Graham Rayman
By Nick Pinto
When his cell door abruptly opened just before 11 p.m. on April 16, Camillo Douglas knew he was in trouble.
Moments later, five Bloods gang members burst into the cell at the Robert N. Davoren Center on Rikers Island, beat him with broomsticks and fists, and stabbed him with a metal shank. He suffered a two-inch gash on his scalp, a badly bruised lower back, and other cuts. His T-shirt was soaked with his own blood.
Then the rest of the cell doors opened, a free-for-all quickly ensued, and another inmate was beaten by Douglas's attackers.
The Bloods were carrying broomsticks because they were members of a cleaning crewknown in Rikers lingo as a "house gang." Douglas's attackers somehow got the correction officers to open his cell door, even though all of the other inmates were already locked into their cells.
"What doesn't make sense to me is how they got into his cell at a time when all the inmates should have been locked in," says his lawyer, Julia Kuan.
In many ways, America's largest jail systemcustodian to some 13,900 inmates on an island in the East Riveris actually a distant place to most New Yorkers. Ten jails are located on Rikers, a dollop of land connected to the Steinway section of Queens by a bridge that is accessible only by special pass.
For most New Yorkers, Rikers carries deep associations with violent jail culture. But city Correction Department officials insist that such notions are out of date. They point out that since the early '90s, when violent-crime levels were at an all-time high, stabbings and slashings in particular have drastically declined.
"In New York City, the men and women of the Department of Correction have done a remarkable job making the jails safer," Horn told the BOC.
Horn is particularly sensitive to questions about violence at Rikers because he is in the middle of a push to rewrite the rules governing inmate care in the jails. Those rules, known as the Minimum Standards, have remained largely unchanged over the past 30 years. Through the Board of Correction, a tiny oversight agency, Horn has proposed some two dozen changes, including increasing the maximum number of inmates in dorm settings and eliminating a rule that requires him to obtain a warrant to read inmates' mail and listen to inmates' telephone calls.
On April 17, Horn told the board that the changes are necessary to "maintain safety and security."
The current rules "shackle us in our attempt to run safe jails in ways no other jail in the State of New York is restrained," he said.
Some two dozen inmate-advocacy groups and civil rights organizations oppose those changes. Critics argue that they are unfairly restrictive and do nothing to benefit inmates. (Last month, the Board of Correction agreed to put off a decision on the changes until the fall.)
At the center of Horn's appeal to change the way the jails work is his message that today, things are calmer and less violent on Rikers Island.
But the Douglas case and other incidents examined by the Voice seem to present a different reality than that sedate image.
Buried in court records are instances of near-fatal injuries, allegations of excessive force, claims of staff complicity in inmate beatings, and even the story of a correction officer fired after he reported corruption.
In the past few years, the city has been forced to pay millions to dozens of inmates who were seriously injured in the jails. The Correction Department has been obliged to rewrite its use-of-force policy, install video cameras, and create a whole new manual for investigating misconduct.
And at a time when the jail population is stable and well below capacity, and when the city is arguing that the environment at Rikers is placid enough that certain standards should be changed, a Voice review of jail statistics shows that violence actually rose in 2006 compared to the previous year.
Class A uses of forcedefined as encounters between correction officers and inmates that led to multiple contusions, lacerations, broken bones, or internal injuriesnearly doubled, from 66 to 113. The number of use-of-force injuries jumped by 50 percentfrom 1,079 to 1,565. The number of instances in which inmates alleged that correction officers caused their injuries also rosefrom 314 to 384. The number of inmates who were treated for injuries caused during encounters with staff also increasedfrom 1,437 to 2,033. The number of staffers treated following inmate encounters increased, from 861 to 948. The number of inmate weapons found in searches also rose, from 1,830 to 2,174. The number of violent incidents between inmates remained over 8,000 for the third year in a row. The number of stabbings and slashings showed a modest increase, from 35 to 44. The annual amount paid by the city to settle lawsuits rose in each of the past two years, from $8 million to $14.2 million, city comptroller records show.
And in May, for the first time in memory, two men died in the jails in one month following the use of force by correction officers. One victim, postal worker Oswald Livermore, died in the Manhattan Tombs, and the second, Jermele Kelly, died in the Bellevue prison ward (see "Deadly Restraint," May 30).
More than a month later, the city medical examiner has yet to issue a cause of death in either case, but the deaths are the subject of separate investigations by the Manhattan District Attorney's office and the Correction Department's inspector general.
In his own written analysis of jail statistics, John Boston, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners' Rights Project, found that inmate fights and assaults, uses of force, and inmate injuries from uses of force have all increased. He also reported that stabbings and slashings are up in fiscal 2007.
"Stabbings and slashings are only a small slice of violence in the jails, and their relatively low frequency says more about the department's efforts to find and remove weapons than about the overall rate of violence and tension in the jails," Boston wrote.
"By reasonable measures, the jails are getting more violent despite efforts to control violence," he added.
Within the Correction Department, the talk often turns to the bad old days of the early 1990s, when the jails were bursting at the seams and crime was skyrocketing.
"What's going on now pales in comparison to the late 1980s and early 1990s in terms of violence," says Sidney Schwartzbaum, president of the Assistant Deputy Wardens/Deputy Wardens Association. "I remember periods where we had 50 to 60 slashings in one month in just one facility."
City Correction Commissioner Martin Horn denies that violence is increasing and says that he views inmate safety as the most important aspect of his job. "We believe that an inmate should be treated as if they were one of our own children."
But a veteran DOC supervisor says the 2006 increase is still troubling. "It's indicative of less control on the part of DOC staff," the supervisor says. "When inmates make more weapons, it means they don't feel safe. When officers use force more, it means they don't feel safe."
Last January, a former correction officer named Roger Cullen sat down and gave an astonishing sworn deposition in a lawsuit over a little-known May 2003 inmate assault at the Anna M. Kross Center on Rikers.
Cullen was the "bubble" officerworking in an enclosed security room overlooking the mental-observation wardwhen Kirk Fisher walked up to fellow inmate Donald Jackson and punched him once in the head.
Jackson dropped like a stone. His head struck a piece of metal sticking out of the floor. He developed a blood clot in his brain, and would have died had it not been for an operation he received at the Elmhurst Hospital Center. Fisher was sentenced to state prison for the assault. The Correction Department's investigation concluded at the time that the fight was over stolen cookies and found "no misconduct or wrongdoing" by staff.
But Cullen, whose deposition was obtained by the Voice, testified that Fisher had essentially been deputized as an enforcer by correction officers to control the other inmatesa violation of DOC rules. Fisher told them when to shower, when to lock in, and when to clean their cells.
"It was like he was in charge," Cullen said.
"Any officer knows you're not supposed to do thatit's wrong," he added.
Cullen also testified that another guard was off his post, talking with a female officer, when the assault took place. That officer made a false entry in a logbook and then asked Cullen to write a report that claimed Jackson had slipped and fallen in the shower, Cullen testified.
"I told him, 'I'm not going to do that,' " Cullen said.
Cullen testified that in the months after the Jackson incident, he made a series of corruption allegations to DOC officials and the Department of Investigation, but nothing was done. Among his claims, Cullen discussed a practice called "write with us," in which correction officers conspired to make false reports on incidents involving inmates.
"It's just lies, coordinated lies," he said.
Cullen also testified that correction officers felt it was easier to mistreat inmates in the mental-observation unit because no one would believe them.
"They will say, 'Oh, he's crazy' and dismiss it, and the officer gets away with abuse," he said.
Cullen said that he made the complaints because "I was in a state of shock. This is the Department of Correction. What is this stuff going on? Isn't somebody watching these people? Why are you letting them do this and still have a job?"
Records obtained by the Voice indicate that Cullen first made written allegations of corruption at the Anna M. Kross Center a few months after the Jackson incident. But no one investigated those allegations for more than a year, and by then Cullen had been fired.
In September 2003, records show, Cullen sent a letter to the DOC's Investigation Division laden with specific misconduct allegations against several officers, including the officers in the Jackson case.
Cullen's letter named five officers and alleged that they were involved in misconduct ranging from using excessive force to lying, to falsifying reports, to paying inmates with cigarettes to beat up other inmates. Cullen also named six inmates who had been beaten up by the officers. But the final DOC report on the Jackson incident contained no mention of his allegations.
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 claimsbut only after the DOC inspector general's office declined to look into them.
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, 2004three 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 fromironically enoughWarden Oliver. He also did not have a single use-of-force case against him.
Meanwhile, the internal investigationsuch as it wascontinued.
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
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 Februarylong 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."
In their depositions, the officers named by Cullen and Fisher denied any wrongdoing. One of those officers had 13 previous use-of-force complaints, and the other had been arrested three times and was fired in 2006 for possession of a machine pistol whose serial number had been filed off, records show.
In March, shortly after the Cullen and Fisher depositions, the city agreed to pay $500,000 to settle the lawsuit, but not a single correction officer was disciplined.
The Jackson and Douglas cases only illustrate a broader problem in the jails. According to court records and a law enforcement source, gang members often find their way into unit cleaning crews, where they are able to obtain extra privileges and more authority over other inmates.
"It's a pretty big problem," the law enforcement official says.
"The inmates tell us it's a really common set-up," says Andrew Stoll, a Brooklyn lawyer who represented Jackson. "In a lot of the houses, the correction officers use the house gang as enforcers and pay them with cigarettes and extra commissary."
In a wide-ranging interview on Monday, Commissioner Horn acknowledged that there had been an increase in some indicators in 2006, but he attributed it to a crackdown on illegal drugs and an increase in the use of pepper spray to break up fights. He said that it was "grossly unfair" to suggest that violence is increasing.
"You can't make a judgment [based] on one period of time, which might be a blip or an aberration," Horn says. "Over the long term, the level of violence is coming down."
Horn provided the Voice with statistics showing that some of the indicators that rose in 2006 fell again in the first half of 2007. The DOC is on track, figures show, for just 22 stabbings and slashings this yearthe lowest number on record. There were also fewer inmate-on-inmate injury reports in fiscal 2007 than in fiscal 2006.
On the other hand, instances of the use of force remain up, and serious injuries to inmatesa statistical category Horn createdremain about the same as in 2006 and are up compared to 2005.
Horn showed page after page of statistics which he said demonstrate that his administration has made a priority of tracking violent incidents, identifying the causes, and preventing them from happening again.
Under Horn, a small group of the most dangerous inmates have been separated from the jail population and placed in a separate high-security area. He has also tried to control the number of state prisoners transferred to Rikers for court dates and other reasons. And he has improved a security-classification system that tries to protect the majority of the population from the more dangerous offenders. Horn eventually would like to transfer up to 4,000 inmates from Rikers to a renovated jail in Brooklyn and a new facility in the Bronx, because he says the island is the wrong place to house inmates.
Horn pointed out that there hasn't been a murder in the jails in two years (though, as mentioned earlier, two recent deaths are under investigation). There were just two suicides last year, and no escapes. "If it was so bad, they would be killing each other, they would be killing themselves, and there would be escapes," he says. "This is a safe jail system."
Even so, each year, inmates file about 1,300 claims against the city. Over the past five years, the city has paid out $61.7 million to settle Correction Department lawsuits, records show.
No doubt, New York is a litigious city, and inmates are a litigious bunch. Sometimes their allegations strain credulity, like the man who recently claimed that an officer put a gun to his head, even though officers don't carry guns in the jails.
Still, a Voice examination of the 121 claims filed in May alone yields a disturbing snapshot of jail life.
For example, one 18-year-old from Brooklyn, whose family asked that his name be withheld, claims that two correction officers failed to stop other youths from breaking his jaw in three places on April 13 at the Robert N. Davoren Center, where teenage offenders are held. The Brooklyn teen was being held on a drug charge.
Tyreece Abney, pictured at left with a family member.
photo: Courtesy of Abney Family
According to the youth's lawyer, Michael Hueston, a correction officer convinced the 18-year-old to say he'd been dancing on a table and had fallen, even though his injuries didn't match the story.
A responding captain challenged the table-dancing story, and the Brooklyn teenager acknowledged that it was a fabrication, Hueston says. He was eventually taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent surgery for his fractured jaw.
"I didn't even recognize my own son when I saw him in the hospital," Brooklyn social worker Leticia Cumberbatch, 53, tells the Voice. "He made a horrible mistake, but nobody should be treated like that."
Hueston says that such incidents are just part of the landscape. "Young people tell me when they go in there, the culture is such that the kids control the jail," he says. "The COs know this happens, and they look the other way."
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 areasthe same as in adult housing.
"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.
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 agreedwithout admitting liabilityto 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 firedthe 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."
Overall, he said, correction officers are much better at using limited force to restrain an inmate when necessary.
In the year since the Ingles settlement, 100 more inmates have complained about excessive force, many of them with serious injuries that have been documented, Chasan says. Reported injuries in the past year included broken eye orbitals, broken teeth, broken noses, and head trauma.
A newly emerging related trend, according to Chasan, involves correction officers allowing or encouraging the beating of one inmate by another. "We are seeing an increasing number of complaints of inmate-on-inmate violence with illegal staff complicity," he says.
Last fall, according to Manhattan lawyer Joel Berger, a correction officer in the George Motchan Detention Center allegedly encouraged one inmate to severely assault a second inmate. Berger is representing the victim of the assault.
"Annoyed that the inmate was on the phone too long, the guard opened a gate and handed a broomstick to the [second] inmate and essentially said, 'Go take care of business,' " Berger says. "It was a very deliberate act on part of the officer." The victim, whose name is being withheld by the Voice at Berger's request, sustained a broken nose, stitches over one eye, and blurred vision.
According to Berger, the Department of Investigation and the DOC are aware of the allegations, but eight months later have yet to interview two eyewitnesses. The Department of Investigation, Berger says, has passed the case back to the DOC.
"I've handled two or three of these kinds of cases, and in the past there has been a full investigation," Berger says. "In this case, I don't get that sense at all. It appears that there's a total lack of interest."
Both the Department of Investigation and the DOC declined to comment on the matter.
Last March, in another "house gang" case, a Bronx jury convicted a Bloods leader in the stomping death of 21-year-old Tyreece Abney at the George Motchan Detention Center in October 2004.
During the investigation into his death, authorities learned that one of Abney's assailants had been receiving extra phone and mail privileges from a correction officer, who was also mailing coded messages for him, a law enforcement source says.
Abney, 21, of the Bronx, was sent to Rikers on a minor drug charge. He was mentally retarded, on anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs, and had a record of poor behavior in the jails. Three weeks earlier, he had been moved out of a mental-observation ward and into the general population.
According to Susan Karten, a Manhattan lawyer representing the Abney family, Abney told his sister Yvonda that he had been moved abruptly after he said something to offend a guard. He was then moved a number of other times before he wound up in the unit where he was killed.
"No expert looked at him and said he was fit to move into general population," Karten says.
On the day he died, Abney had a loud argument with one of the correction officers. About a half-hour before the fatal attack, a correction officer told the inmates on his floor, "You men in the house, you need to speak to the new inmates, you need to get your house in order," trial testimony showed.
Shortly after that, three inmates cornered Abney, told him to "fly right," and started to pummel him.
One inmate, Charles Rosario, testified that he saw the fight but went back to listening to music in his cell. "Those fights occur on a daily basis, and when one sees yet one more fight, it's no big deal," he said.
After that, the correction officers decided to remove Abney from the floor, but they failed to lock in the other inmates following the first assault, trial testimony showed.
As he was being escorted out, Abney exchanged words with another inmate. Suddenly, Abney was surrounded by a swarm of inmates and fatally beaten.
The attack happened so quickly, the officers could not stop it. Even so, they never pushed the alarms that would have brought more help, trial testimony showed.
One correction officer did shout, "Stop, you're going to kill him!"
"It was inexcusable for the officers not to call for help," Karten says. "And they should have locked the other inmates in when they walked him out of the unit."
Abney died while waiting for a bed in a drug-treatment program, said his sister Yvonda.
Within hours of the fatal beating, inmates had alleged on videotape that correction officers were culpable in the attack.
And yet, more than two years later, not one correction employee has been charged or even disciplined. Nor has there been any explanation why Abney was moved into the general population when he exhibited serious psychiatric problems.
"They got the people responsible for the assault itself, but why not assign someone else to look at the conduct of the correction officers?" Karten says.
But according to Horn, Abney was evaluated by mental-health professionals and found fit to be transferred out of the observation unit. "The reason Tyreece Abney is dead is that Amir Douglas assaulted him," Horn says, referring to the gang leader convicted in Abney's death.
In his opening statement in the Abney case, prosecutor James Goward noted that Rikers Island is still connected to the rest of the city.
"When you cross that bridge, you don't lose your status as a human being," he said; "you don't lose your right to dignity, safety, and security."
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